What Horse Racing Taught Me About Careers

Horse Racing

Horse Racing

The best executive recruiters approach their job similarly to horse racing handicappers; they pore over information and select the contender they believe will be a winner for their client.

The big difference is that handicappers, unlike recruiters, bet their own money on their judgment.

One of the reasons I enjoy going to the Saratoga Race Course is talking with handicappers, including the editor of Down the Stretch, Canada’s newspaper of horse racing. Their approach can be applied broadly because they love their area of expertise, are students of history, spend hours studying data, conduct pricing and risk analysis, and prepare multiple scenarios daily.

Since Saratoga is the premiere racecourse in the country (follow the link to the New York Times if you doubt me), our area papers publish more than a dozen handicappers’ forecasts daily. Although the most successful handicappers are only able to predict about 30 percent of the winners, this is a lot better than the casual bettor such as myself. Here are 11 horse-racing lessons that apply to our careers:

It’s Gambling

Gambling is an attempt to gain something desired by risking something of value with an unsure outcome.

  • Since you’re risking your career every time you take on a new project, let alone a new job, managing a career is by definition a gamble.

The House Takes 16-25% of Every Bet

Don’t ever believe that career advancement is fair, or that all of the “competitors” for the next promotion are on a level playing field. It’s best to assume that you’re starting in a hole… that you have to overcome something or someone that’s working against you.

  • Over a career, it’s practically impossible to come out on top all the time. But if you keep running, you can win often enough to have a great career.

No Such Thing as a Sure Thing

While favorites win more often than long shots, they also lose more often than they win. Losers include those that handicappers have selected as their “best bet” of the day – as close to a guarantee as they give – including one from my new friend, the editor of Down the Stretch.

  • Never get complacent. You can’t count on being promoted until after it’s been announced.

The Worst Bet Is One You Don’t Make

I don’t bet often. And while I certainly lose more often than I win, what upsets me most is when I figure out the winner but decide not to bet. I keep counting the money I could have won.

  • Once you make a decision, act on it.

Complex Bets Pay Off Less Often, But Pay More Money When They Do

At the track, you may have to predict the winners of six races sequentially or the exact order of the top four finishers. While this is very difficult, so is making a series of decisions on major projects involving many departments and options.

  • Understand the likelihood of success when you’re aiming for the moon on a new job or project, and don’t become overly confident if your first decision works. It’s just the start.

You Can Make Money Even if You Don’t Bet to Win

Sometimes, it’s smart to work for an improvement rather than a major win. Bet to place or show and you’re more likely to “cash a ticket,” admittedly for less money.

  • Think about working for a raise rather than a promotion. It may be more likely as well as safer.

For a Horse to Win, It Needs a Team

There’s an owner, trainer, exercise rider, jockey and many others in addition to the horse who each must make the right decisions and do their job well.

  • Do you have a mentor, coach, and confidant to help you? If not, you need to build a team for yourself.

There’s Always Another Race

Just like a horse, one of the key measurements of career success is lifetime earnings.

  • Aim for the total result rather than the quick hit. The highest paying job may not prepare you for the best career.

All You Need to Do Is Finish in the Money Consistently

There are a lot of C-suite executives who often came in second… not quite the winner, but always valuable enough to have their employer groom them for future races.

  • As long as you’re making your boss money, you’re likely to be kept in the company and prepared for better roles.

Some Days a Horse Just Doesn’t Run Well

The trainer placed the horse in the race he thought it could win, the horse prepared well and the jockey had an outstanding record… yet the horse ran last. Surprising: Yes. Shocking: No. This happens regularly on the race track.

  • Sometimes you find you’re in the wrong job or at the wrong company and it just isn’t working no matter how hard you work. When this happens, as it did to me, the best advice is to move on to the next position.

Planning Is Critical

Two of the trainer’s jobs are to put the horse in the right race against the right competition and have a plan for two or three more races depending on how the next race unfolds.

  • You also should have a career plan that reflects changing conditions, results, and competition and be ready and willing to make changes quickly.

While history is a great indicator, nothing is predictable… including careers. Therefore, it’s necessary to concurrently work to win the current race while preparing to adjust according to conditions.

About Richard Sellers

Richard is Chairman Emeritus of the Marketing Executives Networking Group, founder of Demand Marketing consulting firm, and former Sr. VP of Marketing for three multi-billion dollar companies: CEC, WLP, and Service Merchandise. His early career was at GE, P&G, Playtex, and Marketing Corporation of America. He’s also a volunteer counselor for SCORE assisting small businesses in upstate New York. You can follow his communications about marketing, job search and careers here and at mengonlineENTREPRENEURS QUESTIONS, and on Twitter at @Sellers_Richard.



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