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The Best Football Analogy for Global Business Doesn't Involve Touchdowns

John G Rice GE
October 24, 2016

Life lessons from sports: to succeed in a rapidly changing world economy, companies needs players adept at broken-field running.  Trying to map out a long-term strategy through unpredictable global politics won't cut it, says John G. Rice, vice chairman of GE and president and CEO of GE Global Growth Organization.




My approach to business is not complicated. It comes down to teamwork and agility. Everything we do is team-based – our best products and solutions are done by teams, not by one individual. We need people who can work with others, but also have agility and adaptability in how they do that job. In U.S. football, we would say that you need people who are good at broken-field running, or changing direction frequently to avoid tacklers, and are able to adapt to uncertainty.

If everything always went to plan, 22 people only need to do exactly what was planned on paper, which is never going to happen. You design all these great plays, then the ball is snapped and no play happens exactly the way you planned it. The other side is all doing slightly different things, so you have to run to "daylight." You look at the field of play and think if I go here I am going to get tackled, but if I go over there I might not get tackled and can run straight through. Even if the pre-match plan says I should go to the first area, you need to have the confidence – and speed – to adjust by going to the second area.

Rapidly changing conditions in the world economy means that we have to adapt quickly to capture opportunities. It’s not like, for example, you can map out a three-year strategy for Argentina and get everything right – you can maybe try six months. This time last year, Argentina was unable to raise money in the international markets. The reforms put in place by President Mauricio Macri since December 2015 have changed the picture. In June this year, we signed a $170 million project finance investment project with Argentine energy company YPF to support a 760-megawatt (MW) combined-cycle power plant in Buenos Aires - the first investment of this type in Argentina for 20 years. Situations change, and you have to be nimble.

Argentinian President Mauricio Macri waves as he delivers a speech during the commemoration of the bicentenary of the Argentinian Independence in Tucuman, Argentina, on July 9, 2016. Photo credit: WALTER MONTEROS/AFP/Getty Images.

What we’ve concluded, certainly through 2016, is that we are all now broken-field running. We can’t rely on any one country, or any one policy or play to be the divining rod for us. We operate in 180 countries, and we have to flex and figure out how to get it right in each one of those countries. We have to do that no matter who is the President of the United States in January and regardless of whether Britain is in or out of the European Union. We run globally, but we navigate the field with our local expertise.

Being nimble though does not remove the need for direction or a broader plan – football teams still need a coach and to prepare competitive plays. We’ve aligned ourselves with what we see as the segments that address immediate and longer-term needs. You’ve got more than a billion people who lack basics when it comes to infrastructure: clean water, power, electricity, healthcare, and those are the businesses that we have invested in. In the current environment with some tough economies and low commodity prices, we are going to be challenged like everybody else. But over the longer run the needs of that billion plus have to be met and we are lined up to meet them.

In both football and business, you need a good team to take on tough times – and I have confidence in my team. The main lesson from dealing with uncertainty in 2016 is that teamwork and preparation is more essential than ever, and that you’ve got to move with agility and adaptability or you fail.

(Top image: Courtesy Getty Images.)

This piece first appeared in LinkedIn.

Digital and industrialJohn G. Rice is Vice Chairman of GE and President and CEO of GE Global Growth Organization.



All views expressed are those of the author.