Football season is wrapping up with bowl games and playoffs—both college and pro. The business year, on the other hand, is just beginning for most of you. A commonality in both ventures is that it’s critical to work hard for the full four quarters. As my home team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, used to say: be 60-minute men.

Sports are often used in metaphors for business and rightly so. Your annual business cycle is much like a football game.

In both football and business, you begin by studying the competition. You assess their strengths and weaknesses, compare them to your own, and develop a game plan (business plan). That plan is designed to help you win in the short term—the particular game or new customer—and achieve your objectives while pursuing longer-term goals like winning a national title or achieving the vision you have for where your business will be in seven to 10 years. With the plan in place, you focus on execution.

In sports, execution is tracked and measured by statistics: pass completion percentage, yards per carry, number of sacks, and points on the scoreboard. In business, you use metrics: revenue, gross profit, employee turnover, cash flow, customer satisfaction, and other KPIs. It’s important to decide before the game or the business year which metrics you will track and what your expectations are for the results.

In business, everyone on the team needs to know the objectives; the targets you’re trying to achieve. Rolling out the company’s business plan to your team provides this information. Each player or employee also needs to understand their role and the expectations for their performance.

Like a football game, there are four (calendar) quarters in a business year. Coaches and business leaders need to assess performance on a quarterly basis, at minimum, to determine how well the plan is being executed, whether the expected results are being achieved, and what changes, if any, are needed. This is done at the overall team level and for individual players / employees.

If individual performance shows that coaching—or training in the case of employees—is required, the appropriate actions are taken to change technique or behavior. This is what is taking place in football when you see players and coaches on the sidelines during a game, reviewing videos and photos on their tablets. They may be discussing individual performance or tendencies by the competition for which adjustments are needed.

In business, providing feedback to your employees on their performance, along with the team’s performance, is critical to making needed adjustments in a timely way. Waiting for an annual performance review to discuss improvements or changes needed is not practical for employees or the business. Discussions need to happen in real time, just like sideline coaching. If the metrics you track in your business tell you that your plan is being properly executed, but the expected results are not being realized, then adjustments to the plan are in order.

The halftime break in football is exactly that. How many times has a team been losing at the end of the second quarter, made a series of needed adjustments during halftime, and come back out to win the game? It happens. It works. And business is no different.

While we don’t have a halftime break in the middle of the business year, ongoing assessment of the action plans in place that are designed to achieve the objectives you set should lead to decisions as to whether changes are needed in the plan, the execution, or some of both. You are likely focused on achieving objectives involving different areas of your business at the same time. Maybe you are doing well in reaching your revenue objective, but employee turnover is still too high. Adjustments will be needed in some areas and not others.

Like the initial roll out of your business plan to those on your team, continued communication regarding the metrics and results keeps everyone focused on what is working and where improvement is needed. Employees, like players, will have ideas and input on the needed adjustments. Listening and incorporating valid suggestions leads to not just better results but increased buy-in from team members. 

football and business

Communication to the team is critical to keeping everyone properly focused and understanding their roles and priorities.

Throughout the four quarters, coaches will be presented with opportunities to consider and decisions to make. Do we punt or go for it on fourth down? Do we try the field goal or attempt the touchdown? Likewise, business leaders will deal with opportunities or issues that aren’t in the current plan yet require serious consideration. The result may be that the plan is modified due to a change in market, competitors, or other environmental factors.

Abandoning initiatives that have failed or are no longer appropriate is as important as achieving set objectives. Sometimes the coaches need to change the game plan when the original approach isn’t working!

Whether you are coaching football or leading your business, put a solid plan in place and let everyone on the team know what the objectives are, what role they have in helping the team, and your expectations for their performance. Track progress using appropriate metrics and provide feedback throughout all four quarters on what’s working and where adjustments are needed. By coaching individuals and departments along the way, you’re bound to come out on the winning side.