The World’s Greatest [Business] Athletes

In the sports-world, as in the business world, team-work is vital to success of an organization. As important to success is the effort and determination of the individual who is part of that organization. In my short time on this planet, I have been privileged to meet a few professional athletes and a few who fell just shy of that level – these being known as Scholar-Athletes who an intercollegiate sport at a college or university. Each of them exhibited key characteristics that I believe also carry over to the the professional business realm and which can be honed or refined to give a Project Manager even more value to their team.

The Project Wizard suggests two keys to success that can be honed and refined regardless of your innate talents: a consistent work ethic and preparation for any circumstance. Notice that there are no genetic, cultural, social, or other inherent traits that might exclude some of us from exalted realms of achievement. Further, outside of some potential restricted mind-sets based on upbringing, there is very little advantage provided by the other factors.

All PMs strive to demonstrate that they are willing to do whatever it takes to get the project to its ultimate goal: done; on time; within budget. Witness our main archetype at various times taking on the following roles in his quest to protect the children of Middle Earth: Business Analyst – wherein he researches the history of the One Ring in order to determine the true threat that it poses. Later, he works on Sales and Development – by convincing the Elves and Dwarves and Rohirim (three nations who had not cooperated in generations) to participate in a “Wizard’s fool errand.” Finally, he’s a straight up Dev – battling evil legions of orcs and facing down a one of the Nine in order to save the last bastion of humanity. Oh, and lest we forget, he’s also the Chief party-animal who brings fireworks to Bilbo’s eleventy-first birthday.

– Work Ethic –

Few people are born with the intelligence or athleticism necessary to succeed on talent alone. In fact, the history of professional sports is riddled with athletes who relied too heavily on their talent to the detriment of perfecting their craft, and who later in life found themselves the victim of the age old villain – Father Time. Athletes who thwarted this trend through hard work and determination are able to overcome obstacles regardless of their perceived talent.

Gandalf once even attempted to beg out of a situation claiming that he wasn’t strong enough for the role. The response, it was for that reason (his reliance on wit and work instead of strength) that he was chosen. Project Managers need to exhibit the same work ethic and even out-work your teammates, colleagues, and bosses. Face it: in most cases, you are a sunk cost who provides a service with little tangible benefit which, even when attempted, is very difficult to do in most organizations. To that end, the frequency with which you are known to roll up your sleeves, get your hands dirty, and do the grunt work necessary to bring a project to fruition will go a long way towards helping you to make a name for yourself and providing visible value to an organization.

True Story: Many years ago, I met a young lady who, after graduating from St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, took a temporary position as a long-term substitute in the Philadelphia Suburbs. She arrived extra-early the first morning hoping to prepare and make a good first impression; so early, in fact that all the doors were locked save for a side door opened by the school janitor. While walking her through the school, they passed the gymnasium where a young student was shooting jump shots before school. After two more days of the same pattern, the young lady, a former Division I basketball player in her own right, inquired of the janitor if the Boys Basketball team was in the habit of 6AM practices. “No,” replied the Janitor. “That’s just some new kid who just moved into the area.” The new kid, as the janitor later informed her was, “some new kid named Kobe Bryant.”

The Lesson: Talent gets you noticed, hard work makes you a legend.

– Preparation –

Have you noticed that the number of PMI-certified Project Managers there are now? Over Nine-hundred Thousand as of the April, 2019 edition of PMI Today – a 6-fold increase in the last decade which does not count uncertified PMs who chose to obtain a Master’s Degree or certificate from an accredited University. It seems as if everyone is a PM now. In light of this, a key source of differentiation is preparation which I define as: the ability to anticipate and respond quickly to a new or unexpected situation. In the sporting world, our heroes on the field, pitch, rink, or court are never surprised by a situation, and often use those opportunities to provide us with sublime moments of magic.

You may recall that Gandalf faced numerous situations wherein the circumstances seemed dire and we worried about how he would respond or remedy the situation. In each instance – imprisoned by his boss; attacked by an ultra-powerful demon (the Balrog); dismissed by a mad Governor (Denethor), etc. – he was prepared to take on the challenge using a variety of tools and responses: direct confrontation, indirectly through use of allies, or surreptitiously by just claiming a mantle of authority when the owner abdicated.

To the modern project manager, these same examples apply. When your project sponsor is unavailable, how able are you to make the right decision? When your senior analyst takes vacation in the midst of the final sprint, how able are you to take up the pen and complete the technical documentation? When your developer takes a new job, have you maintained your coding skills to the point of being an effective substitute?

Wayne Rooney is a highly decorate striker for Manchester United, one of the most storied clubs in world football (soccer). He is, by his own estimation (and his famous manager’s opinion), not the most athletic or intelligent player to ever grace the game. His tactic for overcoming this fact was to practice and rehearse every facet of his game in order to be prepared for any situation. When is career in Europe ended, this “over the hill” player was the all-time leading scorer in England (where the sport was born), and for Man-U (one of the most storied clubs in the world). He then found a second career in the United States where he routinely exhibits the wisdom that he has gained through the years by dominating games through wit and savvy that few players native to this country possess. Witness, this play from 2018 wherein he out-runs a younger player, steals the ball, takes the opponent out of the play (without fouling), and then delivers an inch-perfect pass to a player 50 meters away for the game-winning goal.

The Lesson: talent will fade, class is permanent.

The Wizard’s Rule:

The best athletes in the world are not the tallest, fastest, or smartest. Similarly, Project Managers come from a wide variety of backgrounds and possess an equally impressive background and skill-set; the Project Wizard is uniquely positioned to succeed through dedication to her craft and her preparedness for any situation making her: the best Business Athlete in the world.