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What can chess teach us about running a business?

I love chess. In my youth I’d spend hours reading about chess strategies to discover the best ways to beat future opponents. During games I’d observe players and map out a way to win. Chess brings out my competitive side and I enjoy playing online with friends and family.

As you can imagine, I was excited when Netflix released The Queen’s Gambit in October 2020 and it became one of the most popular streamed series worldwide. I’m a big believer chess can teach us so much about life and business. Playing chess can increase creativity, improve problem solving skills and develop future focus. Of course, it can also be a lot of fun.  

Being an entrepreneur is like playing a game of chess.  

The fundamental aim in chess is to get your opponent in checkmate. This requires having a clear strategy and vision for the future, planning many steps ahead – just like in business. 

As a Master Practitioner of the Entrepreneurial Mindset Profile® (EMP) I have profiled over 1,000+ entrepreneurs. Our company VLM Training and Coaching Specialists continue to gather a dataset of responses from the Entrepreneurial Mindset tool, measuring 14 skills and attributes including future focus.

Not everyone has a clear vision of where they want to be, or is currently able to think beyond their immediate situation and plan for the future. Some entrepreneurs are living in the here and now, firefighting to ensure their business continues to operate.

In the last two years many entrepreneurs had to change their business models to survive and adapt to changes in the external environment.   

Here are my top tips on how to do this successfully (and how to win at chess):

1.Play to win and know the rules

I would prefer to be successful in business by focusing on my value proposition, rather than how to outwit my opponent, but sometimes it’s necessary to go toe-to-toe.

To win in chess you may have to be seven or so moves ahead of your opponent while being prepared to adapt if necessary. Well-prepared players have beaten me in six moves, and I’ve done the same. The key is to anticipate the next moves using skill and intuition. You need to outthink your opponent and play out the future scenarios in your mind. Some players may try to manipulate the game and trick you into thinking they are going to do a certain move, then do a complete U-turn that catches you by surprise.

This may seem ruthless, but it’s just good, clean, competition and all part of the game.  

Generally, we prefer to work with people we know, like and trust, and who are competent at what they do. Even if you’re in competition, mutual respect can bring out the best in everyone.

Conversely, how many people have you worked with who break the rules and don’t play ethically? I bet you haven’t wanted to work with them again. Bad behaviour might work in the short term, but not for long.

2. Know when to quit

In life and business we win and lose. You can’t win every single time. Don’t be a sore loser. Learn fast and move on.

It’s important to recognise if you are out of your depth before it’s too late. Sometimes we keep going, through misguided optimism. Have an exit strategy and know when it is time to go to plan B (or C or D…), or quit. 

3.Timing is everything

The world of business is littered with tales of right product, wrong time. Either the world wasn’t ready for it yet, or it launched too late. Make sure you get the timing right and play the winning move at the perfect time. 

4. Know the value of your pieces and team

Key pieces such as the king and queen are precious, however others get sacrificed to win the game. I would never recommend literally sacrificing your colleagues or employees, but it is important to recognise their skills and abilities in order to deploy them most effectively – just like the pieces in a game of chess.

If you’re struggling to recognise which of your teammates are pawns, knights or bishops, get in touch and we’ll work together on how to get the best out of everyone according to their expertise and abilities.

5. Have patience, persistence and play the long game

There are very few true overnight success stories. Most have done the hard yards and taken years to reach a position of success. To do so takes patience, persistence and pacing.

Don’t expect to beat grandmasters straight away and don’t expect to win by rushing your moves. Take your time to learn, bounce back quickly from disappointment, and keep showing up. That’s the way to success.

6. Accept risk

Business, chess, and life would be easy if playing it safe was a guaranteed route to success. Unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in. Sometimes, taking a calculated risk is the key to making a breakthrough.

A healthy relationship with risk, and a willingness to pursue an idea when there’s a chance it could all go wrong, is a common trait among successful entrepreneurs we’ve profiled.

We can identify where you currently score on risk acceptance and provide guidance on how to optimise your approach to risk.

7. Enjoy the game

During my academic career teaching corporate strategy, I loved gaining theoretical knowledge about strategy, but nothing beats putting it into practical application. Likewise, you can memorise every chess tactic there is, but you’ll never get anywhere unless you sit down and play the game.

To get stuck in, and progress, you’re going to need to enjoy what you’re doing – whether that’s in chess or business. If none of it feels much like fun at the moment, a coach can help you reset your relationship with your work and thrive.

If you would like to learn more about the benefits of an Entrepreneurial Mindset Profile, or wish to explore how a coach can help you in your journey, please contact me on vickilouisemain@gmail.com or send a direct message. And if you fancy a game of chess, just ask!

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