Management Success Series Tip #10: Manage Like Bobby Fischer

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In 1972, American Bobby Fischer won the World Chess Championship by beating Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union. It was a match publicized worldwide as the battle between two superpowers. Though both nations had massive nuclear arsenals, this particular battle was fought with figurines on a game board.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I know who Bobby Fischer was, but I barely know how to play chess. What little I do know about the game, though, mirrors my experience as a manager in a large corporation.

1. Have A Strategy – In chess, one must have a strategy with which he or she goes about the match. The strategy, of course, is to win the game and outdo the opponent who continues to provide pressure and resistance. The game is played and each player sticks with their strategy when they are winning, but may need to adjust their strategy when they are behind.

This is like the experience of business leaders. We as managers have goals and objectives that we need to meet over a given period of time. These goals may be set by our manager, by our investors or in some cases, by ourselves. Good management requires that we establish a strategy and plan that enables us to deliver against these objectives. After all, why bother setting goals if we are not going to try to meet them? As in chess, or any game that requires strategy, sticking with our strategy when it is working helps us maintain an advantage. When things are not going our way, we have to adapt and adjust.

This is a common mistake I often see managers make. When things are going well, we continue to press on and stick with our plan. But when the business climate changes and our organization begins to struggle, we forget to adapt. Learning is an essential element of running a strong organization and we, too, must remember to change and adapt to maintain a competitive edge. As managers and leaders, we are at the forefront of our organization and are responsible for establishing a strategy that will win the match.

2. Play Your Move in Controlled Fashion – In chess, we have a series of pieces on the board. Each piece serves a purpose and has various limitations and abilities. We deliberately examine the board and where the pieces are and make small moves to meet our overall objective. The strategy, of course, is a long-term measure, but the moves are short-term. Every small move supports the bigger strategy.

In managing and leading people, we are very much playing chess. We are moving people around, assigning different work and tasks to be done. We are trying to develop our people and give them experiences that will help them be more effective at some point in the future. As with chess pieces, every employee has a strength and capability that is unique. As managers, we try to best position our employees to maximize these skills. Good leaders don’t just delegate an assignment to the nearest person; they look at their players and assign work that best aligns with the higher level strategy.

And of course as managers, we all have opponents: the global economy, corporate restructuring, customers and business limitations. All of these can impact our strategy and our moves within our organizations and departments. We as managers sometimes have to redirect and rethink our strategy so that we can still meet our higher level goals.

3. Always Be Two Moves Ahead – In chess, they say good players have to be two moves ahead. Good players anticipate the moves of their opponent and think about how to counter. This is a form of patience. Chess players actively plan ahead in support of the strategy but have to wait before they are able to or willing to make a given move. They time it just right.

Good leaders often do things that are somewhat unnoticed or hidden because they are two steps ahead. From my managerial career, I have found myself doing this more often. I may have an employee to whom I assign certain work because in a 6 month time I will need that employee to take over a new project where a new skill is required. Similarly, when I submit my budget proposal each year, I know to expect a little cutting of some projects. For this reason, I deliberately include certain projects that I can sacrifice if budget pressures require that I remove some expenditure. The point is, as leaders we do things deliberately in anticipation of the next move. Good managers are forward thinking.

This is what management is really about at its most basic level. It’s about strategy and moving people around to help your team succeed at meeting its goals. So while few of us may really compare to Bobby Fischer, we can learn from his skills as a chess champion and employ them to make us better managers and business leaders.

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