Manage Like a Poker Star…

You don’t have to play much poker before you eventually hear someone around the table say, “Oh, poker is all luck anyway!”, often just after they have lost all their chips to a better player.  The same is often claimed about successful managers: “She was just in the right place at the right time” or “Oh, he knew the boss”, or “Well you know, you need money to make money”.

So why is it then that so many of the same players on the World Series of Poker Tour often end up at the final table?  Are they just luckier? Similarly, why is it that so many successful managers share many of the same key characteristics?

To succeed in professional poker or in management, one of the most important elements is passion.  You must have the hunger to play, or to manage, and to constantly improve your craft.  Like a poker player may choose a table based on the calibre of the players, the size of the blinds or buy-in, or whether it is a cash game or a tournament, a good manager should choose a sector, company, or position that best suits their interests, abilities, and limitations – recognizing that their ideal management role may change as they gain experience over time.

Confidence is equally important.  Do you have the guts to call your boss’ “bluff” when he says there is no funding for your project, or employee training, or do you “raise him” by building a better business case or identifying where costs could be cut elsewhere, and then revisit the topic.

To aspire to poker or management greatness, one must start by knowing the rules – both written and unwritten. Watching a friend “take back their raise” or “unfold” around a kitchen poker table can be amusing (the first few times), but such a lack of poker etiquette would not go over nearly as well at a professional poker table in a Las Vegas casino.

It also helps to have a few key skills that distinguish you from the crowd.  The best Texas Hold’em poker players, for example, particularly those that first cut their teeth playing poker on-line, are often math wizards, able to continuously re-calculate their odds and “pot odds” from the “pre-flop” to the “river”, and adjust their play on the fly.  They are constantly reading the cards, the other players, and the dynamic of the table, but also have a healthy dose of intuition and creativity so as to not become too predictable.  They are patient and disciplined, usually aiming to show emotion only when it helps their hand, even in “high stakes” situations. 

Strong managers also constantly adjust their leadership style, approach, and decisions to the specific structure, culture, policies, priorities, and pressures of their organization, as well as the strengths, weaknesses, and personalities of their superiors, peers, and subordinates. They are constantly evaluating the “value of their hand” within the organization, which “pots” they are prepared to play, their “position” at the table, and actively scanning for the “big stacks” that hold most influence within the organization, either to ensure the success of one of their key projects, or to look out for their longer term career progression.

Managers too tackle issues based on their best assessment of the risks, the number of “outs”, and the potential payback.  Like a good poker player is better judged by the hands they fold then the hands they play, a manager must also show discipline and self-control, and even sometimes fold “pocket aces” to an individual issue or employee, to win the game for the team or the company.  They are willing to check their emotions at the door and put on their “poker face” as required.

And if this all just seems a little too prescriptive, it is important to note that good managers, like good poker players, can come in all shapes and sizes, and there are always exceptions to the rule. Some “loose” poker stars play more starting hands than their “tighter” opponents, but neither of these approaches has proven better than the other, as long as one adjusts it well to their situation. It is really up to each individual to decide their own player or management style.  Are you the flamboyant hoodie and sunglass wearing type or more the person that likes to blend in with the crowd?  Once armed with this keen self-awareness of who you are and who you want to be, don’t “sit out” the next interesting management opportunity, go "all-in".

Author: Lenny Wall, P.Eng, MBA