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Leadership Tips: 9 Ways Business Imitates Hockey

By June 20, 2016Article

I’m a hockey fan, so I live for the glorious stretch between mid-April and mid-June – that’s Stanley Cup playoff time, of course. Been that way most of my 38 years. I played in high school on a perennial championship contender in Michigan. When I proved too small to make the Michigan State hockey team as a defenseman, I co-founded a collegiate roller hockey league that expanded to 300 schools throughout the country. I still play competitive ice hockey in an adult league in the Bay Area. 

As I write this, the Pittsburgh Penguins lead the San Jose Sharks two games to one in the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup finals. The excitement around the series – it’s the Sharks’ first-ever appearance in the championship round – got me to thinking about similarities between hockey and business. 

Here, in honor of No. 9, Detroit Red Wings Hall of Famer Gordie Howe, are nine examples why the old saying, “sports imitates life,” seems especially true of the game I love and the competitive business environment where I live. 

1. All about the flow 

Hockey is a semi-structured sport. It’s not entirely ad lib, but each stride is not meticulously planned either. In hockey, each player must learn how to work with every player individually and with the team as a whole while applying a competitive streak in a healthy and productive way. It’s exactly the same in business. 

2. Leadership matters 

The job of the hockey coach is not to guide every player in the same manner in the same way but to think about each individual player – learn what motivates him or her, how to bring the most out of the player, etc. Then, the coach must think about how to bring those individuals together as a team. A company executive or manager must have the same mindset. 

3. You can’t cruise in hockey 

The game demands maximum effort by every player, every minute on the ice. With its constant motion and on-the-fly shift changes, there’s no standing around in hockey. Businesses, especially in the constantly changing tech sector, can never stop moving either. And just as each team in professional hockey is allowed one 30-second time-out per game, there are few breathers in business. 

4. A clean sheet of ice 

Every day in business is an opportunity to succeed, whether it’s closing a big sale, adding valuable new features to a product or hiring a talented employee. Whatever happened the day before, it’s as if a Zamboni has smoothed the playing surface clean. 

5. The beauty of checking 

Hockey has nearly a dozen types of legal defensive techniques called checks to separate an opponent from the puck. A well-administered hip check, for example, is a beautiful and powerful thing. In business, it’s also essential to outmuscle competitors. De-positioning market rivals must be a key part of any business strategy. 

6. Practice makes perfect 

Some of the hardest work a hockey player does is in practice. Working out game approaches, plays or moves in morning practice can be essential to success in the game that night. Similarly, in business, winging it is never a great idea. Whether it’s an important sales pitch, a conference speech or a presentation to an industry analyst, business people should always remember the importance of practice. 

7. Everyone is a contributor 

A sharp-shooting first-line center may score a lot of goals and dominate fan attention, but a skilled, hard-working third-line defenseman can be key to a team’s success as well. In business too, everyone has a job to do and if he or she does it effectively, the company tends to prosper. 

8. Innovation 

The NHL in recent years has made several moves to grow interest in the sport, such as the Winter Classic games held on New Year’s Day in a baseball or football stadium, expansion into non-traditional markets in the South, and shootouts to break ties at the end of overtime. Businesses, too, need to constantly try to break the mold to serve customers better. 

9. “He scorrrres!” 

A hockey announcer’s call after the team he works for puts the puck in the net is one of the most distinctive and exciting in sports. (Well, okay, next to soccer’s Andres Cantor.) Companies should be similarly ebullient in recognizing success. Wins, and the people who made them happen, should be celebrated loudly. 

So these are nine ways business imitates hockey – and that’s without even using the quotation that has been put into a million business presentations: Wayne Gretzky’s “Some people skate to the puck. I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been.” 

We hockey fans are a rabid bunch, but even if you don’t know the difference between a blocker and a blueliner, we can all take away some important lessons for business success from well-played hockey. 

Andy MacMillan, CEO, Act-On Software, oversees the company’s strategic direction. Prior to Act-On, Andy held several senior leadership positions at Salesforce, including COO of the products division and SVP and general manager of In both roles he helped significantly grow customer adoption of Salesforce. Prior to Salesforce, he was VP of product management at Oracle and VP of product marketing at Stellent (acquired by Oracle). Earlier he was a software developer at EDS.











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