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Strategy’s nice, but operators and salespeople drive sports business

A CEO of an NBA team recently told me he asks every candidate the same question: “Are you more of a strategist, operator, or salesperson?”

If someone answers “strategist,” he typically moves on to the next candidate (unless he is hiring one of the select strategy roles within the company).

Why? Most companies don’t need more strategists. They need people who act, get things done and deliver results. High performers are typically driven, efficient and bring a sense of urgency.

Good salespersons love the hustle almost as much as they love the close. Top operators enjoy getting involved, implementing plans and managing results.

Obviously, strategy is critically important. Many of the greatest companies and careers are navigated by strategists. But you can see the point we are making: The world is full of very intelligent and very lazy people who are slow to act. They and their companies lose market share to those who are moving and doing.

When I’m hiring, I like to look for strategic hustlers. For a salesperson, this is still caring about getting more meetings than all the others in the sales department. But it’s also placing your effort strategically—perfecting your prospecting, pitching and people skills. For an operator, you immediately identify the path forward and take action on day one.

When I think about all the successful entrepreneurs I’ve met, the majority of them are operators or salespeople. They are people who get things done. Strategy still matters to them greatly, but they are always advancing down the field or selling their vision simultaneously.

There are far too many strategists who waste precious hours, days and weeks considering the best approach forward. It’s better to maximize time by immediately wading into the task while simultaneously considering strategic options. How is that done? I can cite a couple of examples from the sports business world.

Mat Ishbia purchased the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury in late 2022 following the IPO of United Wholesale Mortgage in 2021. His entrepreneurial prowess helped build what had been a family business into one of the most successful companies in its sector. In his short tenure since acquiring the teams, he hired a new CEO, signed iconic players, locked in key talent and challenged the status quo of their media deal. In Ishbia’s case, he’s done all of this amid a wildly disrupted real estate market, the industry upon which he’s built his empire. It would’ve been understandable had he sat quietly for a while. But entrepreneurs don’t wait on the sidelines while they figure things out. They get things done. He’s an operator.

Wrexham is another example. Owners Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney were already multiple episodes into their award-winning and Emmy-nominated docuseries before they even made a trip to Wrexham to meet the staff and see a match. COVID likely deterred earlier travel plans, for Reynolds and McElhenney closed on the acquisition in the heart of lockdowns. That didn’t stop them from immediate progress, though. Where many would’ve sat by, saved budgets, and waited till the storm waters settled, these two salespeople and operators sailed through the waves. It paid off. They’ve captured the hearts and attention of millions of fans around the world and have already seen the club promoted.

Executives and rising executives: Absolutely build your strategic mindset by reading and studying high-performing careers and companies. Being strategic is critically important despite my dramatic language to make a point in this post. Build your intelligence every day. But do not let that slow you down from taking actual steps and making real progress.

What have you been putting off for the last several days or weeks? Act on it. Take a step forward. Right now.

Biagini brings more than 15 years of experience in executive search, representing a wide range of sports clients across French Ligue One, English Premier League, Italy’s Serie A and the five major North American sports leagues. He has recruited more than 400 senior executives across the industries of media and entertainment, sports management, PE and consumer products.

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