Similar strategies can drive success in sports, business

By Helen Burnett-Nichols, Associate Editor

Acquiring the best players, making sure everyone works well together and implementing problem-solving strategies are the building blocks for a winning hockey season — but the same approaches can also be used to run a successful business, Vancouver corporate lawyer Jonathan Reilly tells

Although Reilly, founder of English Bay Law Corporation, practises primarily in the areas of corporate/commercial law, private equity and mergers and acquisitions as well as real estate for both personal and corporate clients, he also provides legal services to hockey players and their families through his website This can involve anything from buying real estate to setting up a company, depending on the stage of their career.

Via his experience coaching several minor hockey teams and his involvement with the B.C. hockey high-performance program and high-performance U-16 and U-15 tournaments over the last few years, Reilly has noticed that a number of interesting parallels can be drawn between business and the hockey world.

One quintessential area where hockey can provide important lessons for business is in the hiring process.

“Almost every employer out there talks about teamwork, building teams. In order to build the team, it requires a conscious effort and it also requires putting people in a place where they can work as a team. So when I'm hiring staff, one of the things I like to look for is whether or not they've ever played any team sports and then I ask them about their experience on the team,” says Reilly.

“When I'm putting the building blocks in place, I'm looking for people who can work as part of a team. In terms of building a team, from my end, there's a minimum skill, you have to have the capability to develop the skill. But what I'm also looking at is character. In terms of priority, character is a higher priority than skill. Skill can be taught. If I have someone who is capable but lacks a skill but they are intelligent, willing to work as part of a team and pleasant to be around then that's someone I can work with.”

Although most sports emphasize skill and competition, an inward focus can take away from the team’s overall success, he adds.

“You get in hockey what are called ‘cancers in the room,’ and that player is someone who plays for themselves; they always try to get the puck, they always try to be the first in the limelight. I'm not talking about competitive spirit — they're selfish, it's all about them,” explains Reilly.

However, he says, “The truly great players are competitive and they have the skill but they also make their teammates play better.”

Reilly points to an example of a particularly good hockey player who not only had the most goals, but also the most assists.

“He made the people he played with better than they were when they were without him. And people appreciate that. If you go on the ice and the guy who can score at will gives you the puck so you can score, first off, you're going to give him the puck anytime because you know there's a good chance you're going to get it back and be in a position to score. You're going to enjoy playing with that person as well. I think business can learn from that — people who help each other out, people who make each other better by working with them.”

For management, it is critical to encourage employees and lead by example.

“If you want people to do good work, you've got to do good work. If you want people to help each other out you have to willing to help them out and helping doesn't mean doing their job for them,” says Reilly.

“They have to have the confidence that you will listen to them and take what they say seriously and that you will act. Sometimes you have to do things that are not pleasant — you may have to let someone go or you may have to ask someone to work late or you may have to do something that people would prefer you didn't do. It's important, I think, that when most things happen that people understand, first of all, that you are doing something that needs to be done and that you're doing it the best way that you know how to minimize the negative impacts on the other people. And that you're doing it because it is best for everyone.”

As Reilly explains, problem-solving in business is not all that different from how things are done in the sports world.

“In hockey, we have a rule — and this is because we are in minor hockey with underage children — and the rule is never do anything alone. I think that's an important rule for business too. If you have to deliver bad news to someone that you're going to let them go or if you have to meet with a client who has maybe threatened you or something like that, don't do it alone,” he explains.

At the same time, Reilly says, if the conversation involves ‘bad news,’ it should come straight from the coach, or the boss.

“I think as a matter of respect, if I need to tell someone that I have to let them go or if I need to tell someone that their performance has to improve, the direct line supervisor needs to have that conversation with them. And if that's me then I don't delegate that.

As Reilly adds: “I am very fortunate that I have good people working with and for me, and because of that delivering bad news is something that I have not had to do much of.

“That's something hockey is very big about, they talk about respect all the time. I think in the office setting, you have to treat people with respect, you have to respect their time, you have to respect their dignity and you have to respect the fact that most people do the best they can on any given day,” explains Reilly.

As in the sports world, having a plan and knowing where you want to go in business is also instrumental to ensuring you have hired the right people to get you there, he says.

“Different teams have different identities; they're all aiming for the prize. But in order to get there, different coaches have different rules and some coaches want their team to be greedy. They go hard and pound it out. For other coaches, its finesse or somewhere in between. You can't know what style you want for your office unless you, first of all, know what style works for you and second, you know which road you want to take.

“You have to know what your own weaknesses are because if you hire people who have the same weaknesses as you, you're in for a lot of trouble. You need to hire people who can fill in the gaps. If you're really good at this but not so good at that you need someone who's good at that. You have to look at the strength across the team as well and sometimes someone who may be a little weaker in a skill area is strong in terms of bringing people together,” adds Reilly.

Confidence in one’s skills with the ability to have a constructive discussion with the ‘coach’ about how processes can improve is also an important asset for team members, he says.

“I think that as the leader in the office, as the coach in the office, it's important to have people around you for whom respect just doesn’t mean being polite, it means that they have the confidence to disagree with you in a respectful way when you need it — and we all need it. That's how you end up improving things.”

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