Leadership Lessons from the Shark Tank

shark-tank-logoWhether you’re an aspiring entrepreneur or just an avid reality TV fan, I would argue there’s no better show on TV for “edutainment” value than the Shark Tank. Each week, entrepreneurs enter the tank in hopes of securing an investment from one or more of the Sharks (Mark Cuban, Daymond John, Barbara Corcoran, Kevin O’Leary, Lori Greiner, and Robert Herjavec). The entrepreneurs start with their well-rehearsed (and often entertaining) pitch and then quickly launch into answering rapid fire questions from the investors. Whether you’re an aspiring entrepreneur or a leader in the corporate world, there is so much to learn about leadership from this question and answer period.

  • Have a vision. Investors receive product pitches all day, every day. Sometimes they invest in a product, but more often than not, they invest in a vision. They’re not interested in the short-term win of selling a million widgets, they’re looking for the opportunity to dominate a new market, revolutionize a process, and change the world. They want to see the vision beyond the immediate strategy. Vision has to come first. Your organization is no different. Yes, a new product or service might help you hit your numbers in 2016, but what’s the vision for where the organization is headed by 2020? When the right vision is in place, the strategy will follow.
  • Know your numbers. No matter how cute, flashy, or funny your pitch is, if you don’t know your numbers, you won’t get a deal. At least once per Shark Tank episode, someone enters the tank with a decent idea but with no financial acumen to turn that idea into a profit. How did you arrive at your valuation? What does it sell for? What is the cost to produce? How big is the market? What is your customer acquisition cost? These would seem like basic questions any entrepreneur seeking investments would have prepped, but they don’t. Even if you’ve piqued the interest of your audience, you will turn everyone off if you’re not prepared for their questions. Do your homework and be ready to offer answers that inspire confidence.
  • Read body language. Some people can naturally read a room. My own mentor can walk into a board room and immediately tell who the key players are, who is skeptical, and who will be their advocates. It’s an amazing talent. If that gift doesn’t come naturally to you, watching a show like Shark Tank can be incredibly informative. Keeping an eye on who’s leaning forward, who just crossed their legs, who is taking notes, and who is nodding or tilted their head to the side can make all the difference. In the game of boardroom poker, these are “tells” that you need to not only pay attention to, but use to adjust your presentation.
  • Be All-In. The Sharks rarely invest in part-time entrepreneurs. Aside from expecting their entrepreneurs to drop everything for business meetings they arrange, the Sharks always say that if you don’t believe in the product enough to take a full-time leap of faith, then they shouldn’t either. No one wants a part-time leader either. Perception is reality, so if your employees don’t think you believe enough in the vision of the organization to devote yourself to it fully, then they won’t either.
  • Show your passion. Get excited! Excitement is contagious. While numbers, data, and a proven track record will always be important, they aren’t the only influencing factors. Time after time, Sharks invest in a person rather than a product. They invest in that person because they can tell that with their passion and drive, even if the product itself fails, the individual is worth the investment. They’re willing to take a risk just to see where that individual takes them in the future. A truly inspiring leader can do the same thing. When you show your passion and energy, people will join you for the ride because they believe in the future you’ll be able to create.
  • Appeal to the right resources. No matter how strong your pitch (or vision) is, it will fall flat if you’re appealing to the wrong person. Fans of Shark Tank know that if the product is tech-related, the best investors are Mark Cuban or Robert Herjavec. If it’s a piece of apparel, no one is a better fit than Daymond John. And if you want the product on QVC, you need to direct your energy toward Lori Greiner. The investors have knowledge, history, and connections in certain industries that make them an easy partner. People naturally want to add value. When they feel like they have nothing to add and no expertise in a certain area, they’re less likely to join your cause. You either need to make the clear connection between what you need and what they can offer, or find someone else who is a better fit for your plans.
  • Have an audacious plan. After you lay out the vision and strategy for achieving success, go BIG! Have a plan for what happens next after you achieve your wildest dreams. Big thinking inspires others to think and innovate beyond the limitations they encounter. Having an audacious plan shows others that you not only hope for success, but you’re planning on it.

Next time you watch Shark Tank, see if you could answer the Sharks’ questions for your big plans. Would the Sharks invest in you?