Saturday, March 20, 2021

Three business and leadership lessons from cricket

There are three stories from my all-too-brief cricketing past that speak very directly to business and leadership principles I use even today as a CEO. 

The first principle is to compete vigorously and with passion in the face of uncertainty and intimidation. 

In my school cricketing days, we played a team one summer that had several Australian players. During the match, our PE teacher, who acted as a sort of general manager for the team, noticed that we were admiring the Aussies’ play. In fact, we were more than a little intimidated by them. We had never played against foreign players, and Australia of course loomed large in the national cricket psyche. 

I now recognize our teacher and general manager as very much like an American football coach—loud and very competitive. He was having none of our admiration and intimidation. He began by yelling at the captain to get more aggressive. I was a bowler and a terrible fielder but he positioned me at forward short leg, right beside the powerful Australian batsmen. I would have been happy standing far away, but he put me right next to the action. In time, with new energy and new focus, we transformed into a competitive team. 

It showed me that you must always have respect for your competitor, but don’t be in awe. Go and compete. 

On reflection, a second principle is simply the importance of putting your team first, ahead of your personal statistics and recognition. 

One of my teams had a brilliant fast bowler. He was one of the most promising young cricketers in the land. He became even greater after attending an Under 19 South Zone coaching clinic. His pace and accuracy were just brilliant. As a tail-end batsman myself, being in the nets (similar to baseball batting cages) against this guy was tough. But he had a self-destructive mindset. 

During one game our captain decided to replace him with another bowler. Soon, the new bowler coaxed the opposing batsman to mis-hit a ball skyward, an easy catch for our cantankerous teammate now at mid-off, a fielding position twenty-five to thirty yards from the batsman. 

Rather than take a simple catch, he plunged both hands deep into his pockets and watched passively as the ball fell right in front of him. He was a star player, and we looked on in complete disbelief. 

The lesson? One brilliant character who does not put team first can destroy the entire team. 

There are of course many lessons and principles one can take from cricket, but for me a third is the central importance of leadership

Looking back, I remember one particular match in which my off-spin bowling was getting hammered by the opponents. I was serving up very ordinary stuff. Our team captain in retrospect showed me what real leadership looks like. 

When my over had ended (that is, when I had thrown six balls), he replaced me with himself even though he was a better batsman than bowler. He quickly took the wicket—the batsman was out. Customarily taking a wicket that efficiently would argue for him remaining in as a bowler. But instead, he immediately handed the ball back to me and I took seven wickets of my own. 

Why did he do it? I surmised he wanted me to get my confidence back. It was early in the season and he needed me to be effective all year. He was an empathetic leader, and he knew that if I lost my confidence it would be hard to get it back. 

That is what leadership is about. It’s about bringing out the best in everyone. 

It was a subtle, important leadership lesson about when to intervene and when to build the confidence of an individual and a team. 

I think that is perhaps the number one thing that leaders have to do: to bolster the confidence of the people you’re leading. That team captain went on to play many years of prestigious Ranji Trophy competition, and he taught me a very valuable lesson. 

Those early lessons from cricket shaped my leadership style, as have my experiences as a husband, a father, a young Microsoft engineer thrilled to be part of our company’s visionary ascent, and later as an executive charged with building new businesses. 

My approach has never been to conduct business as usual. Instead it’s been to focus on culture and imagine what’s possible. 

The culmination of these experiences has provided the raw material for the transformation we are undergoing today—a set of principles based on the alchemy of purpose, innovation, and empathy.
Source: Hit Refresh by Satya Nadella

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