May 4th is the first Saturday in May. That means it’s time for the Kentucky Derby (aka The Run for Roses or The Fastest Two Minutes in Sports).
The Derby rarely disappoints. That was certainly true last year when Justify began a three-win stretch to win the Triple Crown. He is only the 13th horse in history to achieve this feat.
Forbes consistently ranks the Run for the Roses as one of the top 10 sporting events in the world. True, the NFL’s Super Bowl, the Summer & Winter Olympic Games, and the MLB’s World Series rank above the Kentucky Derby, but no other event generates a whopping $123 million in economic impact per minute of actual ‘game time’.
The Kentucky Derby is much more than a two minute competition. It’s several days of races, weeks of events, and years of preparation.
If you follow my LinkedIn articles, you know that I believe that we can learn lessons from a wide range of sources (e.g., food trucks and mountain climbers). The Derby is another such source. I offer 6 Kentucky Derby business lessons that you can apply to improve your financial performance and build a top-notch organizational culture.
Imagine walking into Churchill Downs on Derby Day. It’s crowded – very crowded. Everywhere you look, people are wearing their best. Women in beautiful dresses and stunning hats. Men decked out in suits and bow ties. Mint juleps in hand, people are singing My Old Kentucky Home.
At the same time, millions of viewers are watching the event on television. Many of them donning Derby attire, enjoying a good meal, and singing along.
The bugler plays The Call to the Post and horses are loaded into the starting gates. Everything is set. That’s pageantry!
- Does your product or service create a bit of anticipation or excitement?
- Do you and your people deliver a bit of a show?
- If not, is there a chance to create something special for your customers and employees?
Every year, Churchill Downs and the city of Louisville add to the Kentucky Derby Festival. They host concerts, parades, road races, gala events, and fashion shows. Celebrities trek to the city to watch the horses run. Heck, in 2013 the Queen of England made the trip.
The annual improvements make the race interesting, but much of the appeal comes from the Derby’s long history. The first Kentucky Derby took place in 1875, making this year’s Run for the Roses the 145th of its kind. In fact, the Kentucky Derby is the longest continuously held sporting event in the United States. It isn’t just a race; it’s legendary.
- Do you have an organizational culture that knows its history and puts historic lessons to work?
- How does your business stay fresh and relevant?
- Is your product or service both timely and timeless?
The twin spires of Churchill Downs are iconic. If you think you don’t know what they look like, do a quick internet search and you will likely recognize them. If you do find them unfamiliar, register the image in your mind, because you will see it again and again.
Over the years, many additions have been made to Churchill Downs. However, the spires remain, the backside stables remain, and the infield remains. They are icons of this fabled place.
- What is iconic about your business?
- Does your organization stay true to certain images, names, and descriptions that create a ‘special’ place in your customers’ minds?
- Does your workspace reflect the culture you desire?
4. Product (thoroughbreds and others)
When 20 horses leave the starting gate, you can’t help but get a rush of adrenaline. It is intense, frightening, and powerful all at once.
As post time approaches, we become familiar with where the horses were bred, their lineage, and their unusual names. We also learn about the trainers, jockeys, and owners. These are all products of the Kentucky Derby.
- Do your products or service generate excitement, loyalty, or any other positive emotion?
- What could your organization do to create something that deserves attention?
Yes, the Kentucky Derby only lasts two minutes, but the event is not coordinated at a moment’s notice. It takes planning, coordination, and collaboration to make two minutes come together. Think about the level of preparation required by the media, the facility, the trainers and owners, the police, and the list goes on and on?
What’s make the event go so well every year is that much of the preparation appears seamless to the attendees.
- Do you put Kentucky Derby like preparation into your organization’s most important events, projects, or initiatives?
- What can you do to better coordinate future activities?
- How often do you explicitly think through the experience you are trying to create for your employees and customers?
The annual Run for the Roses allows for a unique level of participation. Few passively watch the Kentucky Derby – most participate. People aren’t watching a scripted movie or a long-running play.
The outcome is not predetermined. Even if you are not a gambler, you can’t help but pick a horse and attempt to cheer your steed to the Winner’s Circle.
- Do your customers and employees have a vested interest in seeing your business win?
- Is winning part of your organization’s culture?
- What can you do to get more stakeholders cheering for your organization?
To Help You Prepare for the Derby
ESPN provides a handy website with all of the information you need to know (e.g., start times, where to watch, horses, jockeys, and much more). Visit it to get all of the event details.
Patrick Leddin, PhD is a speaker, global leadership consultant, and The Wall Street Journal bestselling author of The Five-Week Leadership Challenge. Patrick is an Associate Professor at Vanderbilt University with a thriving leadership blog and podcast, and 25-years of leadership experience. He offers an unparalleled mix of academic rigor and real-world experience.