Clutch Helps Business Owners Perform in Tough Times

Want to be the one that makes the big play in business?

Don’t just imagine a single monumental act like a scene from a movie.  Instead, plan on a series of well-executed plays.

At least that’s my takeaway from the new book Clutch: Why Some People Excel Under Pressure But Others Don’t by Paul Sullivan, a New York Times columnist who writes the “Wealth Matters” column for the paper.  I received a review copy of this book, and was intrigued enough to read and see how it stacks up from a business owner’s perspective.   I think Clutch gives good advice for readers looking to understand why some people come through in tough moments — and why others choke.

Clutch by Paul SullivanIn Sports and Life, “Clutch” Moments Are All Around Us

Clutch starts with the anticipated sports references, but it inspects sports moments differently from most books. Author Paul Sullivan’s interesting take is that being “clutch” is not just a “triumphant sports moment: the home run that wins the game or the basket or stolen pass at the buzzer…. It’s the precisely executed series of plays in football, not the Hail Mary.”

It’s this approach that makes the book Clutch an appealing aid for developing business leaders.  A successful, established business is the result of many acts of growth and development, not just the big sale that saves the business from failure or propels it to new heights.  Using this approach can help business owners and employees realize that marketing is a series of plays, that working toward profitability is a series of plays, that social media success is a series of plays, and so forth.

Sullivan sets out to show readers how to learn clutch ability. He describes why people are “clutch” using five main personal traits:

  1. Focus
  2. Adaptability
  3. Discipline
  4. Presence of mind
  5. The combined motivation of fear and drive

Sullivan does a splendid job of tying examples to his points.  Clutch is not necessarily a how-to book like Find Your Zebra. So it may fail those who really need step-by-step instruction in a business setting.  But it succeeds in providing good introspection for those who can then figure out how to apply the points raised.

Overcoming the Obstacles to Being Clutch

The most intriguing chapters regard the many hurdles that stand in the way of making clutch plays, such as “pride … an emotion that inhibits many people’s ability to make all kinds of necessary decisions.  In financial matters it acts like a smokescreen.”  Overthinking and overconfidence are other potential hazards to great leaders.

As one example of overthinking, Sullivan examines why the batting performance of New York Yankee Alexander “A-Rod” Rodriguez declines in the post season despite a great regular season performance.  (The performance examined is up to the 2008 season, prior to the 2009 championship … sorry, Yankee fans!).  A study of batting averages proves that Yankee Derek Jeter and even Boston’s David “Big Papi” Ortiz  comes through in key playoff situations (again, sorry, Yankee fans!).  The author goes on about Rodriguez:

“He was great but his problem was what he was thinking when he stood at the plate with the game on the line. Jeter is so great under pressure because he is focused on hitting the ball [and] making the play, and he is completely in the present. A-Rod has often looked like Ken Lewis at a congressional hearing: taut, stiff, not himself …. Could A-Rod ever stop comparing himself to great players and actually be great under pressure?”

The author then considers the challenges overconfidence can bring to decision-making and execution of plans:

Overconfidence is the bigger, more destructive cousin of overthinking …. When someone like A-Rod overthinks the situation, he fails personally, but other teammates can make up for the shortcomings. When a leader becomes overconfident, his choking can be systematic.

How Clutch Applies in Business Life

Sullivan reviews the management of the GM-Toyota NUMMI plant through the eyes of John Shook, Toyota’s first American manager. Shook sees how the “clutch” difference plays out in the management style of the Toyota executive:

The pressure to succeed with NUMMI was immense, but what struck him was how Toyota executives handled it. They used it to focus on their work and did not allow it to cause stress. “Most of our quintessential American leaders – like a Lee Iacocca or a Jack Welch – have this image of deciding from your gut … The Japanese don’t play that game.”

Sullivan also surveys stage fright and the career of actor Larry Clarke (who had a recurring role as Detective Morris LaMotte on “Law & Order”) on how to gain presence of mind needed to perform and to keep the past at bay.  Imagine this as an aid in making major pitches before clients and large audiences.  The world of finance provides examples of accountability as Clutch examines the decisions of Bank of America’s Ken Lewis and Chase’s Jamie Dimon during the Merrill Lynch and Bear Stearns deals, respectively.

Dimon was the technocratic leader, the man sifting through the numbers and demanding accountability from everyone and himself.  Lewis was the throwback to the imperial CEO, demanding respect by dint of his office and the standing of B of A….  In the moment when [Lewis] should have accepted responsibility [for Merrill Lynch] … he punted …. Without taking personal responsibility, a leader can never be clutch.

Most small business owners will want to read the segments focusing on clutch situations with money for lessons in the inner courage to face tough choices.

One aside: The last chapter is the author’s interview with Tiger Woods shortly before Woods’ personal scandal. I did not feel it added a new insight to the examples given, but it did provide a good closer.

What Could Work Differently for a Business Reader

I did wish that Clutch had more specific examples related to small business, such as the experiences that solopreneurs and small startups undergo.  Given the high risk of failure in a small business, these examples would have provided a more direct example to readers in such positions.  But the diversity of business examples enables readers to understand the points raised.

Also, I felt the segment on women being “double clutch” — due to success in industries that have historically discriminated against them — required more elaboration, since success in diversity often requires a cultural commitment within an organization, one step beyond the personal traits of the leaders involved.  Addressing the nuances in business would have been a nice addition — cultural change in an institution may take several “plays” to achieve  —  but perhaps would have required another book to do justice to the topic.

Read to Know How to Succeed

Clutch is a terrific reinforcement for determining one’s strengths and weaknesses.  It shows that performance is the sum of one’s actions over time. It does not have the full psychology and the imaginative elephant-and-driver metaphor of Chip and Dan Heath’s Switch.

But within its format Clutch works well enough in showing what it takes to be successful in tight spots and truly shine in business and in life.

Pierre DeBois Pierre Debois is Associate Book Editor for Small Business Trends. He is the Founder of Zimana, a consultancy providing strategic analysis to small and medium sized businesses that rely on web analytics data. A Gary, Indiana native, Pierre is currently based in Brooklyn. He blogs about marketing, finance, social media, and analytics at Zimana blog.