Women in business can benefit from a competitive streak at the poker table

15 July, 2019

Jen Mantini
Partner, PwC US

Poker has long been a metaphor for business, as some of today’s top CEOs and entrepreneurs have been known to hone their skills at the poker table. Like business, the game centers on strategy and the ability to read others’ personalities and motivations. It’s also about playing to win as opposed to avoid losing. While the game continues to be male-dominated, business leaders have much to learn at the poker table.

Recently, Ellen Leikind – who teaches professional women and men how poker strategy enhances their business and life skills – stopped by to show guests at PwC’s Women in Deals event in New York City how the game is played. And more importantly, how strategies behind a poker game can be applied to business. Here are some key takeaways:

Understand what motivates others

To gain a competitive advantage in poker, it’s important to not only pay attention to competitors’ personalities, but to also understand what motivates them. Most players play to win, but not everyone has the same objectives. Some play to pass time and may not mind losing a few dollars, while others may really need the money, and so it makes sense to expect them to play more aggressively.

Understanding what motivates people is also key to succeeding in business. Ellen, a former corporate marketer turned entrepreneur, says if you’re working for someone who wants to be the CEO, it’s very different from working for someone who wants job security. The former will likely have a stronger appetite for risk and innovation. The latter may work better with someone who is more of an executor.

Switch up your game

In poker, the best players will often play the same hand differently based on who they’re playing. If you’re playing with a bully for instance, they’re likely to bluff to throw you off your game. Which is why it’s important to recognize their tactics early on and shift strategies, since most bullies aren’t likely to respond to bluffs and back down.

Similarly in business, switching up your game based on the circumstances can lead to more favorable outcomes. In developing a pitch, what might resonate with a Fortune 500 company is likely far different than a nimble startup.

Negotiate to win

Often in poker, players know the price they’re willing to pay to play. For instance, if you bluff and your opponent raises her bet, you might stay in the game. If this happens again, it’s likely that your opponent has you beat and a sign that it’s time to fold.

The same can be said when negotiating a business deal. Before spending an extraordinary amount of time, resources and capital to close a deal, it’s wise to determine a walk-away point early on instead of during the heat of the negotiation so that both sides have a clearer understanding of what each needs to come up with an agreement that benefits all.

Get competitive

Studies show that men are more competitive than women. More than that, one study showed that women are more willing to compete with themselves and not others largely due to confidence. They are less sure about whether they can actually win, even if their ability demonstrates otherwise.

The number of female CEOs within the S&P 500 is 26 as of June 2019 — slightly up from 24 the previous year. While the increase shouldn’t go uncelebrated, it’s important to remember that progress is not linear and women still earn significantly less money than men. Women are also underrepresented in powerful positions, and one of the reasons for these disparities is a gender difference in the willingness to compete.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Gender disparities can certainly change more quickly if more women are willing to get in the game and compete for the next promotion or prime projects. This means networking with the right people, taking a seat at the table and being confident with the skills that most women already have to compete with today’s top executives.