Get a Little Chalk on Your Shoes / Entrepreneurship / Last Modified: February 22, 2018
Photo credit: cunaplus/Shutterstock

When trying to expand your business, you may need to try creative approaches that aren't plays right down the middle of the field. Like a good running back on the football field, you may need to "get a little chalk on your shoes."

In the mid-1990's I was general manager of a large transportation operation in Central Maryland with numerous contracts throughout the area. We operated buses, vans, motor coaches, even limousines. My job was to oversee it all, and ensure we operated safely, efficiently and profitably. But I also enjoyed business development and bid on new contracts throughout the region to grow operations.

One such bid was in the Washington, D.C., area for a contract on a new service called the Georgetown Shuttle. Some of the businesses in this area of D.C. wanted their own shuttle service for employees and customers for the transportation needs they felt were not being met by the public or private transportation options in that area.

Our operations were based in an industrial-type facility, so we had fueling, vehicle maintenance and parking in an out-of-the-way area but close enough to minimize "deadhead" miles/hours to keep costs low. However, in this area for the Georgetown Shuttle, they wanted a facility close by, and our operations were in Central Maryland (too far away). We began looking for a bus garage or industrial facility near Rosslyn, Virginia, or Georgetown, D.C., from which to operate. 

There was nothing available in that area for a reasonable price. In order to win this contract for operations, maintenance, and fueling, we needed to be the low responsive and responsible bidder. We had to be creative. We asked the Rosslyn Marriott Hotel (which was right in the service area) if we could long-term rent two rooms and park some small mini-buses in their back parking lot. Then the big request: Could we knock down the wall between two rooms and make one larger room for an office and check-in area for drivers?

Surprisingly, the hotel agreed, and we had our facility. We provided credit cards to the drivers to fuel at a local gas station that gave us wholesale pricing, and vehicle maintenance could still be performed back at our Savage, Maryland, facility. With an extra bus, we could rotate one out every day for preventive or repair maintenance.

Thus, we had our facility, and we won the bid. Our facilities worked, and we enjoyed great success both financially and operationally with our Georgetown Shuttle contract.

The point of this story is that "where there is a will, there is a way," as the saying goes. We did what had to be done to make the contract a reality. It became another bedrock experience upon which I built my approach to management and leadership.

What I learned is that if you want something bad enough, you can usually figure out a way to make it happen. It may take unorthodox approaches – still, if you are a strong leader with a willing team and "upline," you can most likely make it happen.

Great leaders allow their motivated supervisors and team members to think outside the box to solve problems. That is usually where the most amazing and elegant solutions to the biggest challenges lie. If the answers were easy, others would have already tested their solution. As the football team's coach told his running backs and wide receivers, "If you don't get a little chalk on your shoes, you aren't doing your job" – meaning you've got to get close to boundaries in order to get further down the field and score in the game. 

I'm not advocating breaking regulations. I am only proposing that you not be afraid to go somewhere other than right down the middle of the field, where its safest but also where you're most likely to not make great yardage. 

To expand on the analogy, a football playing field is 160 feet wide, but you wouldn't know it if you took the advice of attorneys or risk management. Many times others want you to play between the hash marks – the 18 1/2 feet in the dead center of the field. But you quickly learn that there is not enough room there for creative and big plays to get your players spread out over the playing field, giving you more options. 

In business, others (attorneys, HR, risk management) will counsel you to take the safest route where the least risk lies. (That's where you battle it out over a few yards at a time.)  After listening to their advice, as the leader, you have to make a business decision. As one of my bosses reminds me often, "The attorneys don't get to make the final decision. We are the client, and they advise us."

I’ll never forget the day one company I worked for in the early 1990s was purchased by a competitor. The first thing the new company did was fire the lawyers. New management informed those of us in the business development department that we needed to make our own business decisions. They believed that between us and the project management team, we were smart enough to avoid unnecessary risks.

As the boss, you need to know all of the options. Use your whole field of play, and you may find that more creative options sometimes yield better results.

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