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Business is like basketball: necessary knowledge not a slam-dunk

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Until Dave Holmes stepped onto the basketball court, I was unconsciously incompetent. I knew how to yell from the stands and I knew how to tell my kids how to play better. But this year when I took the step to coach my daughter’s school basketball team, I realized how incompetent I really was.

I actually didn’t mean to coach a team, I just wanted to be the coach’s helper. But when 29 girls showed up to try out for a 12-person team, I had to step up and be a coach, since it ended up being two teams.

I’d helped coach some elementary school teams to championships before but Donncha O’Callaghan had done most of the work.

This time, I was going to be on my own.

My first practice was scribbled on some paper and I was fumbling around when Dave Holmes came into the gym and took over. He knew how to run a practice, what drills to teach the girls so they would develop their skills. I watched, breathed in and made notes.

I didn’t realize until then how much I didn’t know.

This often happens in business. We’re thrown into the fray with a bunch of staff or customers looking at us. If we’re lucky, someone steps in and helps us.

But it doesn’t always end that way.

In 1986, I was running a startup business for my employer. I was given charge of several employees. I had bookkeeping to do. I had to manage sales and marketing. In other words, I was charged with making the business work.

The problem was that I was 21 years old and my staff members were much older. I didn’t know how to manage people or run a business. I made lots of mistakes. Luckily for me, my staff and my employer were forgiving.

But how do we learn what we don’t know?

When we’re young, we think we can do anything. Think back to when you saw your first standard-shift car. Perhaps remembering how easy it was to sit on your dad’s knee and turn the steering wheel made you think driving was going to be that easy. You were unconsciously incompetent. You didn’t even know what you didn’t know. But when you sat in the driver’s seat, started the engine and tried to drive off, you immediately realized you didn’t know something crucial about driving this car. You immediately became consciously incompetent.

This happens in business when you try to do your bookkeeping for the first time, use some new software or try to sell a new product to a customer. You understand quickly that you don’t know what you’re doing.

Some people try to fake it but this just ends up getting them into trouble. Think about the last time you went into a business and the salesperson tried to fabricate information about the product they were trying to sell you? Or how many times have we heard of business owners who are in trouble because they haven’t done their taxes on time because their books are a mess?

When we’re consciously incompetent, we can start asking for help. Once someone shows us how to do that bookkeeping, sales or marketing, or how to manage cashflow or deal with people, we start to learn and eventually we’re consciously competent. All of a sudden, we realize that we know how to do that job that seemed so difficult before.

Soon enough, we can do it without thinking and we are unconsciously competent.

The problem for most of us is we think we know it all or we believe if we try hard enough we can make ourselves learn it.

But in business – just as in learning to drive a car or coaching a basketball team – if we don’t get proper instructions, we’re going to crash.

Sure, we might eventually figure it out. But it’s probably going to cost us time and money. We might end up with some damage to our business, our reputation and our car.

It’s so much easier to hire the staff or outside experts to teach us the skills we need to get up to speed faster.

Feeling incompetent is uncomfortable. But when we can overcome our ego and ask for help, things get better.

Dave Holmes made me realize how much is involved in becoming a great coach. I’ve made a point of inviting Dave back to the gym regularly to help teach my team the fundamentals they need to be successful – and to teach me.

Dave Fuller, MBA, is an award winning business coach and a partner in the firm Pivotleader Inc. Comments on business at this time? Email

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