4 things small business owners can learn from NCAA basketball referees

The plights of 64 of the nation’s best NCAA men’s basketball teams will be decided over the next three weeks. And at each game, three referees must guard against violations of the rules, making split-second decisions that can make or break the teams’ fates. It occurred to me, a small business owner, that there’s much to learn from referees. Like small business owners, referees are on the line each time they make a decision. Every decision can have huge implications, especially when millions of people are watching on TV.

Since the Rutgers-St. John’s game in the Big East tournament last week, more attention has been focused on referees. In the game’s closing seconds, three referees, inexplicably, made a big mistake. After St. John’s scored two points to go ahead, Rutgers center Gilvydas Biruta caught the inbounds pass at center court, but two St. John’s players knocked him over. A St. John’s player, Justin Brownlee, scooped up the loose ball, bounced it a few times, took a few steps without dribbling and threw the ball into the stands in celebration – even though 1.7 seconds remained. The referees left the court without calling the foul or giving the ball to Rutgers with 1.7 seconds left to attempt to tie or go ahead in the game. Whoops!

Despite the obvious gaffe, referees offer great lessons for small business owners. Here are five big ones.

  1. Maintain control. Good referees have command of all situations on the court, and if they sense they are losing it, they restore it quickly. Small business owners must maintain the same control of their business, no matter how out of control things may seem.
  2. Analyze and act. Referees are quick and decisive, even when they are wrong. They don’t have the luxury of time or replays. They act.
  3. When in doubt, get a second, trusted opinion. If referees are unsure, they ask for the opinion of the other referees, who because they are looking at the play from a different perspective might have a clearer understanding of the situation. Small business owners often may benefit from gathering different perspectives.
  4. Get over it. Referees can’t blow a call, then fix it by manufacturing a foul against the other team to even things out. Nor can business owner afford to fix one mistake with another one.

Like referees, every business owner is going to make mistakes. There’s no way around it. So when the teams in my brackets all disappear in the first weekend, I am going to focus on the referees.

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