Don’t Cut the Cake! (aka No Dancing Before you Get in the End Zone)

For those of you old enough to remember Super Bowl XXVII, you’ll remember one of the biggest bone-headed plays in the history of the big game. Leon Lett started celebrating what would have been a defensive touchdown on the 5 yard line, and Don Beebe from the Bills knocked the ball out right before he crossed into the end zone.

That play was talked about for weeks after the game. My colleagues and I picked it up as a sales motivational tool that I’ve never stopped using. Whenever I speak with somebody who feels very confident about a deal closing, I say “Just don’t do a Leon Lett on the 5 yard line!”

You see this all the time – not just in sales, but in overall management! The company I was working for around that time had a tremendous Leon Lett moment. We were at a holiday party and people were in a particularly good mood. We had won our largest deal (to date) in November, and we had a few other large deals cooking in the pipeline. We were in the middle of a very exciting market, with probably 15 competitors.

At the end of the dinner, a large cake was brought out. On the icing of the cake were the names of pretty much all our competitors. Our VP Sales got up and talked about what a great year we had, and the prospects for an even better year to come. Then he talked about how all our competitors were “cake” and we were going to sweep the floor of all of them. So he started cutting the cake wildly, listing the names of the companies that we were going to bury. Everybody was cheering, but a few of us looked at each other a little warily – some of those competitors were bigger than us and also had some big wins – it seemed very premature to call ourselves the winner.

We didn’t totally realize it at the time, but we had just done a Leon Lett. That dinner allowed us to take our eyes off the ball – not only the larger competitors, but a few of the smaller ones too. The bigger ones kept doing well and extended their lead over us. The smaller ones caught us from behind and knocked the ball out of our hands! We wound up winning a few more big deals, but by the next December our pipeline was pretty dry and the industry consolidation had started. We were one of the last people at the dance. What could have been an amazing outcome for the whole team turned into a decent outcome but not great – and the main reason was we took our eye off the ball, and got too arrogant about our position.

I have always agreed with Andy Grove that it is the paranoid that survives. It is critical to be humble, look all around and take all your inputs in before making big decisions, and don’t let an unknown force knock the ball out of your hands before you cross the end zone!

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