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Former NFL Player and Serial Entrepreneur Rafe Wilkinson Shares His Game Plan for Building a Winning Business

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Guest: Rafe Wilkinson, who played in the NFL for the Denver Broncos and then transitioned into a successful serial entrepreneur. Rafe’s 30 years of experience leading and growing organizations recently culminated in his sale of ODS Security Solutions, a security services firm specializing in the hospital marketplace, to a $2 billion strategic buyer — for a 23X multiple above his investment! Rafe is also a coach at CEO Coaching International. (View Rafe’s Bio)

Episode in a Tweet: Our new CEO coach Rafe Wilkinson draws on his NFL experience to craft a winning game plan for businesses.

Quick Background: Business leaders and thinkers love using sports analogies to motivate their teams, “win the day,” and craft a game plan to beat the competition. Rafe Wilkinson’s career proves just how applicable lessons from professional sports really can be to growing your company and making BIG happen.

On today’s show Rafe Wilkinson discusses what his NFL career taught him about playing to his strengths, the importance of team-building, and how he hurdled a common CEO stumbling block while growing his company from 30 employees to over 1,000.

Key Insights From Rafe Wilkinson

1. Know the major players.

Rafe Wilkinson: Nothing is more important to a winning game plan than having the right team in place.

After retiring from the NFL, Rafe moved to Richmond, VA, where he hoped friends and alumni connections from his college football days would ease his entry into the business world.

“When I first got back, I recognized that I needed to understand what the circles of influence were within the city,” Rafe says. “Any city has a number of groups, from the legal community to the accounting community, the business world, as well as high-net-worth individuals that all have a finger on the pulse.”

Rafe wasn’t a CEO yet, but he was already thinking like one. Identifying officials, influencers, and potential big customers who will be critical to the success of your business is one of those top-level activities that the boss has to own. Not only will you be creating key relationships that will help execute your game plan and grow your business, you’ll also be creating opportunities to learn from other people who, like you, sit in the big office.

2. Maximize your skillset.

Even with the cachet of NFL experience and strong local ties, Rafe heard “No” quite a bit as he tried to move from the gridiron to a board room.

“I didn’t have the classical background that attracted HR directors, square peg for a square hole,” Rafe remembers. “After about six months, I recognized that I needed to craft my own destiny and not rely on an HR manager willing to take a risk, which is generally out of their character.”

If someone wasn’t going to give him a job, Rafe knew that he could use the discipline, leadership, and team-building he’d honed as an athlete to be his own boss. He purchased a convenience store, then another. As he grew his business to half a dozen stores, Rafe put a quality team in place that allowed him to focus on CEO-level activities, like keeping an eye on what was coming. As a result, Rafe was ahead of the curve when some big players began to enter his market, and he was able to make a successful strategic sale, for his first venture.

3. Assemble strong team players, not just all-stars.

At least one Saturday every college football season, some tiny David comes out of nowhere and knocks off a Goliath. How is this possible, even once, when the big Division I schools have the resources to recruit superstars and train them to perform even better?

“It’s because that small school has a group of players that are well-defined, they know their strengths, and they play well together,” Rafe says.

That’s why, when we at CEO Coaching advise our clients to hire the best, we also advise them to dig into a sterling resume a little deeper. We encourage them to use the Talent Insights tool to analyze how and why candidates work the way that they do. We stress that they should prioritize culture fit along with personal accomplishment. And we don’t recommend pulling the trigger on a key hire until the CEO has met with a finalist face-to-face and gauged whether or not this person is really sold on achieving the CEO’s vision of success the way the CEO wants to achieve it.

“A group of team members who understand how to work well with one another almost instinctively, without question, that’s the ingredients of a working team,” Rafe says.

Optimize your cash flow cycle

Rafe says that mastering cash flow was his biggest challenge as ODS Security Solutions scaled up to a thousand employees. “Growth is a wonderful thing, but it eats cash,” he says. “Growth also hides a significant amount of operational inefficiencies in my view.”

Rafe and his team identified and tackled those inefficiencies. They fine-tuned their pricing strategy. They studied how long it took to onboard a new client, how much onboarding cost, and how long it took to turn that new client into revenue. They cracked down on older accounts receivable. They moved from billing 30 days in arrears to billing 30 days in advance.

And Rafe got serious about knowing how much cash he had on hand, and how it would affect his business operations. “Day by day we had a cash model set up with various scenarios,” he says. “If certain things were to happen that we either expected or didn’t expect, we could implement those and see how they affected our cash.”

Small goals build to a BIG win.

“Whether you’re a cornerback, a linebacker, defensive line, or a specialty player, each one of those groups had their own coaches and their own unique strategy to approach each game,” Rafe says. “But all of those strategies from those unique groups all funneled up to one overarching strategy for that week. And then those weekly strategies formed up to the annual strategy, which is, ‘How can we get to the Super Bowl?’”

Your own march to the top of the mountain isn’t going to happen all at once either. Once you have your vision in place, you have to set smaller targets, and put actionable steps into place to hit them. The best way to organize your team around those targets and actions is through an annual planning session, facilitated by an outside expert like a coach who can see your goals, your game plan, and your organization with a fresh set of eyes.

Top Takeaways

1. Play your position. Know your strengths and figure out how to leverage them to help your business succeed.

2. Winning the Super Bowl begins in the pre-season. Break down your big goals into the annual, quarterly, monthly, weekly, and daily targets you need to hit to build towards BIG.

3. There’s no I in Team. Employees who work well together and get the best out of each other are more valuable than superstars who play by their own rules.

About CEO Coaching International

CEO Coaching International works with CEOs and their leadership teams to achieve extraordinary results quarter after quarter, year after year. Known globally for its success in coaching growth-focused entrepreneurs to meaningful exits, CEO Coaching International has coached more than 1,000 CEOs and entrepreneurs in more than 60 countries and 45 industries. The coaches at CEO Coaching International are former CEOs, presidents, or executives who have made BIG happen. The firm’s coaches have led double-digit sales and profit growth in businesses ranging in size from startups to over $10 billion, and many are founders that have led their companies through successful eight, nine, and ten-figure exits. Companies working with CEO Coaching International for two years or more have experienced an average revenue CAGR of 31% (2.6X the U.S. average) and an average EBITDA CAGR of 52.3% (more than 5X the U.S. average).

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