Never Give Up and Never Let Up

I am not a fan of sports as a metaphor for business, but the end of a football game I watched last Sunday was so compelling (actually, it was pretty unbelievable), I can’t resist using a sports theme just this one time.

The game was the New Orleans Saints against the New England Patriots and featured two of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, Drew Brees with the Saints and Tom Brady with the Patriots.  I tuned in after the Saints kicked a field goal giving them a four-point lead, which meant that the Patriots had to score a touchdown.  With over three minutes on the clock, it was not an impossible situation.

But on the first play after the kick-off Brady threw an uncharacteristic interception and it looked like the game was over.  The Patriots had no timeouts left so the Saints just had to get a first down and they could run out the clock.  But two running plays netted nothing and then Brees was sacked on a third down pass attempt.  They punted to the Patriots and, with 1:13 remaining in the game, Brady marched his team 70 yards in 8 plays for a touchdown with 5 seconds to spare.  Patriots win 30 – 27.

Business/marketing lesson: You have to keep up the pressure when you’re in front.  The Saints played it a bit too conservative and were so predictable that the Patriots stopped them on the last two series. There is a natural tendency to play it safe when you are in the lead, but that is the last thing you want to do. Marketers sometimes fall into this trap by just continuing what has worked in the past, not noticing the changes going on in the market or they see what is happening and think their company is immune to the market forces at work.  Like the Saints, they play it safe by trying not to make a mistake.  Even sometimes abandoning the ability to innovation that made them a leader in the first place.  Rod Laver, the legendary Australian tennis player said it best: “The time your game is most vulnerable is when you’re ahead.  Never let up.”

This is especially true when you face formidable competitors that have proven they can come through in the clutch.  Bill Belichick, the coach of the Patriots, understood this well in 2009 when his team faced the Indianapolis Colts, quarterbacked by Peyton Manning.  On a fourth down and holding a 6-point lead, Belichick went for first down at the Patriots 28-yard line, rather than punt to the Colts.  He determined his defense could not prevent Manning from leading the Cols to a touchdown that would win the game.  The play came up short and Manning led the Colts to the game-winning touchdown.

This also shows the difference between giving up and letting up.  In giving up, you walk away from the game, you leave the field, you quit.  Very few companies do this (unless forced to financially).  But many let up by not pushing hard when they have the advantage.  When they’re the underdog or in second they compete tough.  When I was with AIG earlier in my career, there was always the sense we were the underdog competing with larger, more-established companies.  Even as the company grew larger than some competitors or those companies disappeared, the chip-on-the-shoulder mentality was still there.  It never let up and pushed us all to compete harder and harder, even when we were winning.  Yes, it was a tough environment, but it kept the company growing and winning.

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