Last week I had the distinct pleasure of returning to my high school as a featured speaker to their newly formed debate team. After 3 years in collegiate debate and achieving top 5 national rankings, I could be considered to have some level of expertise on the activity. Instead of coaching the students on how to win, I chose to address some of the many skills that debate teaches which I’ve applied to my own business. Many of the lessons I learned through debate are applicable to the challenges we face as entrepreneurs.
Today I want to share the first of 5 lessons from a moderately successful debate student turned part time coach and full time entrepreneur.
1. As intelligent, insightful and brilliant as you may be, no team can succeed on the back of one debater.
If you’re unfamiliar with the ranking structure in debate here’s a brief breakdown. Each school forms teams of two individuals who must speak equal amounts of time in each debate round. Schools may have one team or fifty teams and the organizations that rank schools take into account the top two scoring teams in a given division from your top 6 or 8 tournaments.
In the case where one student is exceedingly talented, he or she must still work cooperatively with a partner in order to win. And, even one highly successful debate team cannot earn enough points throughout a season to win national championships if the remainder of the team is weak. So even if you have the best Varsity team in the country, another school with a good Varsity, great Junior Varsity and fantastic Novice program can still win on points.
(And that’s precisely how my university swept three National Championships, becoming the first school to do so in history and then the first school to do so in a single season.)
When it came to evidence research, for example, our coaches divided the assignments amongst the debaters and often had one person managing the same updates throughout the season, becoming the expert on politics or economics. Such a practice allowed the entire team (which was quite large) to benefit from the work of others, making the entire unit stronger.
It makes sense then to develop a team both in breadth (number of students) and depth (skill of students) to ensure championship rankings.
How did that experience inform you as an entrepreneur?
Quite simply, even if you are brilliant, if you work alone it will be harder to build a successful practice that serves hundreds of clients. An objectively less brilliant competitor, with a wisely chosen team, can provide more value to more people making more money with that support in place.
I often watched as new and stubborn debate students ran ragged, researching across hundreds of cases and arguments over the season, documenting, experimenting and testing what works in round trying to do it all themselves instead of working with the coaching staff and mentors for help. I see entrepreneurs who do the same thing, spending an hour here looking at Google + then 20 minutes over there looking up backlink builders. The next day it’s a seminar on graphics before a free call on closing the sale and reading an email about running teleseminars.
You know there are so many things to do and learn that it can feel like a treadmill you can’t get off. The strength of a team is in its breadth of experience and depth of knowledge, something that even the most energetic, intelligent individual can’t recreate alone.
If you’re a fan of Michael Gerber’s work you’ll understand that it is not advantageous to be the sole expert, the linchpin of the company, even if you’re the owner. Because, in that situation, you can never leave, never take a vacation or scale back your involvement or sell the business. You’ve effectively trapped yourself and limited your reach because everything rests on your shoulders.
Recently I’ve heard from several colleagues who say they never want a team. The stress, the details, the act of being a boss is just too intimidating. It can be a challenge to build a team that works individually to accomplish the goals of the collective but the alternative, to shoulder every responsibility yourself, will leave you burdened and tied to a business that cannot survive without you.
I shared so many lessons with the debate team that I will be writing more about soon including:
Why being real, real nice, and authentic is more important than the win.
How to work cooperatively when your partner is a pain in the ass.
The systems and techniques that guaranteed success.
And, how I found my passion and purpose lying dormant under the thrill of a tournament win, hiding in a supply closet.
One last thought on this point and that’s the issue of time. A university doesn’t make the decision to develop a debate program today and win the national championships tomorrow. It’s a process of developing talent, attracting students and building a solid team, doing the right things, executed well, week after week at tournaments.
Your business is no different. While you may have no team today it doesn’t mean that you cannot build the team you need in time – take the long view. Students are only allocated 4 years before they become ineligible and must relive the experience as a coach but you, your business, has time to mature.