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5 Powerful Poker Tips That Shaped an Engineer Turned Executive

A tech professional was not picking up on essential people cues. Playing cards cured him.
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Scott Welch is an tech guy turned executive. He took up poker to become better at the people side of business. Now he believes that playing poker has given him a big executive edge. Since March Welch has served  executive vice president of cloud solutions at Five9, a San Ramon, Calif., a provider of contact-center services. 

In 2007, while working as a chief operating officer at another cloud company, inContact, he recognized he lacked a certain expertise in reading people. As he watched poker matches on TV, Welch realized that if he learned the game, he would get better at reading "tells," the subtle behavioral ticks that signal someone's true feelings. So his life took an unexpected turn. He started playing poker competitively.

As Welch explained to me by phone recently, poker has made him a better executive in the following five ways. Perhaps some of these will ring true for others:

Related: The 10 Unique Soft Skills Employers Desire in New Hires

1. Watch for clues.

The skills Welch developed observing his poker opponents have helped him hire better teams. 

"When I interview candidates, I observe closely their nonverbal cues -- such as their body language, tone of voice, and eye contact -- to determine whether they are being honest," he says. "We interview key hires many times and watch closely for discrepancies among their answers to the same questions to determine whether they have a basic level of integrity."

Related: What Successful Poker Players and Entrepreneurs Have in Common

2. Match the strategy to the stage.

When Welch first started playing poker, he quickly learned he would lose fast if he lacked a strategy. He discovered as well that during a long tournament, the strategy for winning iss different at various stages of the game.

Now after having worked at startups and more mature companies, he applies this idea to his business dealings, especially when ushering in a change, such as taking a new service from concept to delivery. "I use different change-management approaches that are tailored to the stage of the organization," he says.

Small companies can operate with less documentation and fewer formal procedures than large organizations, he says. "For smaller companies, it is more important to be nimble and quick. At later-stage companies, being reliable and dependable is more important."

Related: How to Win the Game of Life

3. Know when to give up on a losing bet.

When playing poker, some people might make the mistake of betting more chips on a losing hand when it's time to cut their losses and move on to the next hand.

Welch sees a corollary in the business world. "People who are closest to customers know quickly whether a project is failing," he explains. "That realization quickly spreads to everyone in the company except the executive who sponsored the project."

Getting a project canceled "requires a delicate conversation with that sponsor to present the evidence that the project is not going to succeed" and for that executive to "accept that the company should cut its losses," Welch says.

4. Pick the right time to go all in.

In poker, going all in means betting all the chips -- or at least as many as the next most chip-heavy rival -- on a particular hand. It's something that a poker player should do rarely and only with compelling evidence that a bet will pay off.

Welch has made some critical all-in bets in the work world. "There are times in business when we see an opportunity to grab a big-market opportunity and we place the maximum amount of pressure on competitors to make sure we get there first," he says. "If you can get a new service to market ahead of the competition, you can lock in customers that become increasingly profitable over time."

5. Be a grinder.

In poker, a grinder is someone who is fully engaged in the game at all times and who ends up winning most of the chips. But nobody at the table can figure out the single big score that's leading to the winner's success.

Being a grinder, Welch says, is key to his career success. "Since early in my career I have been someone who comes in early and leaves late," he says, adding, "I am always looking for ways to gain the maximum possible value and that accumulates gradually."  

But aside from "grinding it out in the business" he says he also steps "outside of the day-to-day to think about how to modify the strategy."

Aspiring to reach the C-suite and can't do these five things? Perhaps take up poker.

Related: What Bluffing, Folding and Betting Can Teach You About Entrepreneurship