SBJ/June 25-July 1, 2012/Opinion

Building blocks of great organizations

A sports executive friend recently gave a guest lecture at a prominent business school. During the question-and-answer session, one of the MBA students asked him what they should expect when pursuing a career in the business world of sports.

“Subtract the one,” said my colleague.

The class looked back with a blank stare.

“What the heck does that mean?” said one of the young business brainiacs.

“Simple math. Most of you can command starting salaries of between $125,000 to $150,000 when you present your newly minted MBAs to a prospective employer, correct?

“If you want to work in sports, just subtract the one.”

“Who would be dumb enough to give up $100,000 just to say they work in sports?” said one of the bright lights.

“You will,” said my colleague.

Fortunately for sports businesses, there are thousands of aspiring front-office types who will give up the dough to work in the show. It reminded me of the classic line from the movie “North Dallas Forty,” where lineman O.W. Shaddock complains to his coach, “Every time I call it a game, you call it a business; and every time I call it a business, you call it a game.”

There is a growing trend in professional sports to look for the smartest person in the entire room. The skill sets of today’s sports business careerists are at an all-time high. These include sales strategy, analytics, media, marketing, finance, law, facility operations and technology. As important as these skills are, they have lost much of their impact because they have become so commoditized in this age of mega-information where everyone has instant access to everything.

Building a culture of internal cooperation is critical to the success of any business, especially in sports. Teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, sense of humor, balance between family and career, and doing what’s right for your fans and corporate partners should be among the foundational piers of any organization. If clients don’t trust you, they will eventually stop buying your product. If the smartest person in the room comes into your organization with this gene missing in his or her DNA, you will have a problem.

I recently heard Jerry Colangelo, one of sports’ most successful executives, lay out a simple guideline for organizational success: “Win and make a profit.” He told a group of sports business leaders that “if you constantly think you are the smartest person in the room, you are going to get your butt kicked.”

Healthy organizations minimize politics and confusion and raise morale and productivity to levels that their competitors could never imagine. They seem to attract, teach, nurture, mentor and retain the best people. They tap into all the combined intelligence they have and find ways to work smarter and increase productivity. More than complexity, intelligence or experience, great organizations require courage, common sense and persistence.

Being the smartest person in the room doesn’t guarantee that you will build a successful career in sports. As part of “management by walking around,” I would always introduce myself to our newest organization interns and ask them to tell me their story of how they came to work for the team and what they want to do when they grow up: “How did you get here?”

A newly minted Ivy League graduate aggressively shook my hand and told me, “By car!”

Andy Dolich (andy.dolich@gmail.com) has more than four decades of experience in professional sports, including executive positions in the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL.

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