What retired pro athletes can teach seasoned leaders about business

The transition from being a professional athlete to an entrepreneur is fraught with risk. Your physical gifts may carry you a long way on the field or the court, but in the business world there are many other factors that play into your ability to succeed.

“It’s a difficult psychological transition,” says Luke Fedlam, emerging business attorney and chair of the sports and entertainment practice at Kegler, Brown, Hill + Ritter. “The first step to managing that transition is to figure out what it is they are going to do with the rest of their lives.”

The challenges faced by retiring pro football players are not all that different from those faced by entrepreneurs feeling the itch to try something new. While the former often has very little business experience, those in the latter group often think they know more than they actually do about what they’re getting into.

Smart Business spoke with Fedlam about the challenge of expanding your business portfolio and how to make the transition easier.

What is one of the biggest mistakes an entrepreneur can make?

Whether you are a former athlete turned entrepreneur or an established business leader who wants to branch out into a new industry, you still need to assemble the right team around you to be a success. When you don’t have that support, it can lead to a lot of problems.

Many professional athletes have mentors that they look to for support. That also holds true for entrepreneurs who have been in the corporate world and built successful businesses. The same philosophy of being open to help must be an integral part of your transition. It’s not expected for you to know everything, so having someone on your team who you can rely on to ask the difficult questions and feel comfortable doing so is a critical component of success.

What lessons can an established entrepreneur take from a retired athlete turned entrepreneur?

The first is to have a game plan for success. What are you looking to get out of this experience? Retired professional athletes know very well the work that went into each step of achieving their dream of playing professional sports. The next step was always on their mind and it’s the same with business.

There is so much that goes into the development of a business that focusing on the success solely because you believe in the industry, service or product will not benefit you or your business in the long-term.

Protecting yourself is vitally important. It could be something simple, such as making sure the appropriate agreements among your business partners are established and you have the necessary corporate formalities in place.

Go beyond the expected return, beyond the opportunity itself and ensure that from a business perspective, you’re protected. Develop the tools in the beginning so when it’s time to take the field, you’re ready to perform.

How do you find the right people to build a strong team?

It’s a matter of establishing your expectations and then having a team at the top that can hold everyone accountable. Articulating both standards of performance and business goals are crucial in forming your plan. It is also important to have a ‘no’ person as part of your team. Oftentimes successful athletes and business leaders are surrounded by people who do not want to ‘upset the apple cart’ and always agree with the leader.

A successful leader ensures that their team understands the business strategy but is empowered to challenge ideas and drive innovation. An added benefit to this approach is when a business leader looks to start a new business, the ‘no’ person can help protect the leader from making decisions that don’t correspond with the direction of the business.

A ‘no’ person will insulate you from the emotional decisions that come with being an entrepreneur, especially those related to personnel decisions. This person has the ability to objectively say, ‘This person is or is not doing the things necessary to make this a successful company.’ The right team can make all the difference.

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