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Posted on Sun, Oct 4, 2009 : 5:33 a.m.

Business lessons learned from the University of Michigan Marching Band

By Debra Power

The path to becoming a business owner takes many twists and turns.

For some, the journey begins by attending business school or mentoring with people they admire. Others have the entrepreneurial bug from the start - just take a look at the lemonade stands popping up in your neighborhood.

More unconventional experiences can also help prepare you for the business world. For me, spending four years as a member of the Michigan Marching Band was actually a proving ground for some of the business challenges I would face in later years. The lessons learned on the practice field, and in front of sell-out crowds in Michigan Stadium, still apply to the business world.

Competition and Discipline

One of the hallmarks of any business is the ability to effectively compete in your market space. That means understanding your strengths and weaknesses and working on process improvements on a daily basis.

As a band members, we competed for a place in the coveted “block,” the group of performers that was on the field during pre-game, halftime, and post-game. Once you were in the block, you could also be challenged at any time. This forced you to be highly disciplined and be in top form at all times.

If you want a position in the block, you should:

  • Be better than the competition. Understand what it takes to be the best in your industry and strive for it daily. That means having the best customer service, the best staff, and the best business strategies in place that you can.

  • Practice, improve, and practice again. Whatever business you are in, you have processes - processes to qualify prospects, processes to complete projects and many more. Document these processes in detail using a system that fits your workflow. This means everything that happens from the moment a customer contacts your business through to the final project invoice. Look at potential improvements you can make and document them diligently. Continue to refine your processes on an ongoing basis.

Hurry Up and Wait

In business, timing is everything. Being first to market with an exciting new product that captures the attention of the world is everyone’s dream. In the marching band, we quickly learned the value of the saying, “Hurry up and wait.” We would rush to the stadium, only to wait in the tunnel for a commercial break. Then (and this was the ultimate thrill) the announcement would come: “Band, take the field.”

If you want to be ready to take the field, you should:

  • Know when you need to hurry, and know when you need to wait. It’s important to react quickly to a business opportunity when it arises. Begin now to cultivate the partnerships you know you’ll need when the time is right. Then wait until circumstances are right and determine if that opportunity really is a good fit.

  • Consider this an opportune time for launching a new product or service. Local resources abound for helping you innovate and succeed. But be sure to follow these three steps—plan, engage, proceed. Plan for what you want to do, engage with your customers (internal and external), and then proceed.

Show Everyone You Are a Success

Being in business takes hard work and dedication, and, when you are a success, be sure to shout about it. And it’s OK to do this if it is a way that reflects the style of your business. When the football team wins, we in the marching band would turn our hats backward. It was a subtle break from the discipline of the uniform, but it wasn’t too showy or outrageous. It matched the overall professionalism of the organization.

If you want to wear your hat backwards:

  • Develop strong relationships with the media. Keep them apprised of potential stories about your business as it relates to their readers. Remember that not every success translates well into a media story.

  • Use your website and social media to announce new clients, new projects, and your latest product or service. This allows people to opt-in to your success.

Whether you’re auditioning for the band (trying to start a business) or feeling challenged by another player, remember to be disciplined and plan for your success. Then—Let’s Go Blue!

And Let’s Go Business!

Debra Power is president of Power Marketing and Research and the co-founder of the Women's Exchange of Washtenaw. She writes regular columns for Business Review with WXW co-founder Carrie Hensel.