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Lessons in Leadership, from the Ping Pong Table to the Business World

You know you're a convert to the game when your fish are named Ping, Pong, and Ball.

Jan 3 2019 Our Perspective 6 minutes, 23 seconds
Lessons in Leadership, from the Ping Pong Table to the Business World

One of the best lessons I've learned came from my ping pong coach, a 4x world champion who is wise in all areas of life.

"Don't question your shots and trust your instincts that each shot you make is a quality shot." he said. "Mentally prepare for the next move. Always try to stay ahead of your opponent and prepare for the next strategic move in the bigger picture, instead of playing shot by shot."

Not only is that sound advice in ping pong, it's also a great way to think about life and the business world. In helping me to become a better player, my ping pong coach taught me to be a better leader for the Dishcraft family, something entirely unforeseen when we first acquired a ping pong table.

My story of ping pong appreciation began two years ago when Dishcraft moved into new facilities, a wide-open warehouse space that begged to be more than just an office and lab. Each Dishcraft employee receives a $250 gift certificate to spend on something to help foster community within the company, so my co-founder Paul and I combined our coupons and bought a ping pong table (Paul is a stellar player who honed his skills during graduate school). That table became a centerpiece of our Dishcraft community, and since its November 2016 inception, I've learned many unexpected lessons that translate directly from the ping pong table to the business world.

Ping pong reinforced how beneficial learning new techniques from a coach can be (just as startups benefit from a mentor). I wasn't much of a player when that table first arrived, and wanted to become better. I'm a naturally curious person with a competitive personality, and being around the game at Dishcraft headquarters, I wanted to know: could someone born without talent in ping pong put in enough practice hours to become as good as someone who's a natural ace?

To answer this question, I took lessons at the World Champion Table Tennis Academy in Santa Clara. The results thus far are encouraging…and upping my game has made it a more enjoyable experience when we play at work, for I now play at a somewhat even level with others. Today I'm a significantly better player, though I still lose to my co-founder, and I have total optimism that one day I'll win (another helpful trait for any entrepreneur).

I've found that ping pong is a great way to break the ice, to observe people, and to provide better leadership to the team. There's every ounce of truth in the platitude that it helps you get to know someone better, for their personality is drawn out over the course of a game.

That's why at Dishcraft, I regularly play my colleagues. Personalities come out during play, revealing strengths and weaknesses. If they win, how do they celebrate? If they lose, how do they behave? You can learn a lot about people's ambition when they are in a competitive situation displaying their skills (or lack thereof).

You can observe how player personalities often translate into the workforce. A player who is super creative—likely an early R&D startup enthusiast—may play with offbeat, whacky moves like hitting the paddle behind their back. A consistent, even player tends to have a very even, steady work ethic. A player who has more skill than their opponent and tempers their play to the other player and/or teaches them to improve their game will likely be a patient manager.

These matches provide me with notes for how to better support and integrate my team. Is a player a beginner who is afraid to learn for fear they be seen as incompetent? Then I need to spend more time coaching them on confidence. Is the pursuit of the trophy more important to the player, or the pursuit of upping their personal game level? This reveals who are the determined self-learners dedicated to self-improvement versus those who are only in it for a win. Is a player non-competitive but still enjoys the social back-and-forth of the game? These are the supporters on our team and totally necessary to our success.

Ping pong has also made me a better leader and player because I'm now training others. I've become more observant since I've started to give lessons to some of my colleagues who wish to improve their skills. When you train someone, you learn to watch them, to help them, and provide constructive feedback. You think of your mentee, whereas when you're only in the game as a competitor, you're thinking only of yourself.

This translates directly to the business world. Learning to observe someone else and how to help them improve, thrive, and succeed is immeasurably valuable. In meetings I now find myself thinking, 'what does this person need and want?' not only 'what do I want out of the conversation?' Plus, it's enjoyable to help them up their own games!

Ping pong has taught me about fairness, essential for any leader. Take the smash. When you smash the ball, it is such a satisfying feeling where you can hear the sound of the ball striking the sweet spot on the paddle and the vibration of the paddle feels dynamic in your hand. But it's not fun for the other player if you always smash at them. That's why real players don't smash all the time: it's not fair, nor is it fun when it’s one sided and other people aren't in the game.

Crucially, ping pong has helped make the Dishcraft family a stronger team. It's allowed us to cross beyond the C-Suite-employee divide, to better understand and enjoy who we are as people. I've learned so much playing my colleagues in short two-minute spurts and longer sets. It's a way for all of us within the Dishcraft family, myself included, to get to know each other and this helps make us a better company.

But it's also taught us about solidarity and unity. When one player had a sprained wrist and could only play with their left hand, the entire company played only with their left hand to even the playing field. This helped us bond and appreciate walking in the shoes of others, which in turn benefited the company in countless ways.

Watching how competitive and creative my entire team has become from playing the game gives me confidence we will succeed as a company. We have three trophies, one for different player levels, that make their way through our office. They’re reminders that it's as much the way you achieve small milestones en route to a major win as it is about the end result.

These unexpected lessons have imparted much about leadership and building a team, something I'd never have connected with ping pong when I first set out to become a better player for the Dishcraft family.

As we start a new year, I continue to put into practice my coach's advice of trusting acquired skills and focus on onwards strategy.

That's why I'd like to challenge Serena Williams, a fellow ping pong enthusiast, to a game.

Serena, I greatly respect everything you've done and represent as an ambassador, role model, investor in female entrepreneurs, and so much more, including serving as the epitome of excellence. I'd love to exchange stories on how we can become better leaders for our communities (and what you've learned from the game) over a ping pong match.

And maybe, just maybe, I can survive your loop longer than Steph Curry!

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