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Management Lessons – From Playing Poker?

Like millions of people, I enjoy playing poker. It’s become incredibly popular lately; but I’m someone who’s been playing it with friends since almost childhood. So after years of playing poker, and years of being a manager, I’ve learned quite a bit about both subjects and – believe it or not – there are several things that both have in common. What are they? Here are some answers:

You must play the cards you’re dealt. Unless you are lucky enough to be able to hire everyone on your team from scratch, managers are almost always going to inherit existing employees. That means you’re going to have to work with them, and make decisions on whether you can work with them (ante up), counsel them out (fold), or simply bide your time until a better candidate comes along (wait for the next hand). You can’t just walk away because you don’t like your cards, or your employees. You have to work with what you have.

Be aware of the people around you. It’s not enough that you have good cards; you have to pay attention to the people around you. In poker – it’s watching the reckless player; the player who’s ‘tight’; the player who tries to push everyone around – and then adjust your game to those players. It’s the same in management. You learn just as much by watching and listening as you do from speaking. Find out what each employee is like, then adjust your style to fit. Not every employee responds to the same type of management style. Some want lots of attention; others want to do their job and be left alone. Do you know what your employees need from you? (Notice that it’s not beware of others; it’s be aware of others.

It’s about timing. Life, management, and poker are all about timing. When is the right time to back off, to be aggressive, or to gamble? The key to success is to know when the timing is right, and then to make the right decision. That takes wisdom, experience (and yes, a little bit of luck). Have you ever watched a big poker tournament on television? The great players seem to have a sixth sense of when to make their move, or when to fold. Great managers have the same sense.

Are We Having Fun Yet? Unless you’re a professional poker player, most people play poker for the same reasons they work: to make money, to make an impact, and to have fun. Many people go into management for the first two reasons, and forget the third. Whatever it is you do, make sure to have fun. Otherwise, why do it? Don’t spend your life (or the lives of your employees) not having a good time; life is too short.

You Are Not Always Going To Win. Just as the greatest poker players don’t win every tournament or every hand, have no illusion: managers aren’t always going to make the right decision. The key to success in management is to be able to both make a decision, and then be flexible enough to change is the decision isn’t working. Give me anyday a manager who’s willing to make a decision. Indecisiveness is a disease that cripples many people who are indeed paid just to make those decisions. Of course, like anything, we need to learn from those decisions (both good and bad) – in both management, and when playing poker.


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