Lessons FOR sport FROM business

A huge amount is written about what business people can learn from great sports people. In fact, entire post sporting careers have been built on speaking engagements that pass on the insights from sporting success to the workplace - much of which makes good sense. However, being a champion of good business practice and a self-confessed sports nut, I wonder if we can invert this and look at the lessons managers in sport can potentially learn from managers in business.

Here are 3 that spring to mind:                                   

  • Adapting to change is a critical capability. The 21st century workplace is evolving so quickly and in previously unheard of ways - especially through the use of technology - that adaptability and openness to change is an absolutely critical core competence of the modern day business leader. The football world trumpets the importance of the longevity of managers - in fact, it was widely publicised this weekend that in the 18 years Arsene Wenger has been manager at Arsenal, Spurs have burned their way through 12 managers and are now on their 13th. Whilst I agree that loyalty and consistency can be highly valuable, longevity can be counter productive if accompanied by a failure to adapt and modernise as the game evolves. Football is a very different game than it was 20 years ago and so longevity as a measure of success may not always be everything it is cracked up to be. 
  • Being a great performer does not necessarily mean that an individual will make a great manager or coach.  Great managers in the workplace are sophisticated communicators - not just in the way they talk in front of the camera (which few do) but primarily in the way they interact with their teams. They get specific and in-depth training in communication skills and specifically in how to individually tailor their communication and feedback to motivate an individual. The often seen sporting ra-ra/gee them up 'motivational' team talk may have a place but is very primitive in comparison. Great business leaders know that intention is everything when looking to improve performance and you do not criticise in public. All difficult conversations should be conducted in private with the intention of helping that person learn and improve. Any manager who criticises individual ‘errors’ in public is making a rod for their own back although watch Match of the Day and you will see it happening in spades!
  • Being a great team is more than simply putting a collection of great individuals together. Yes, the riches on offer for leading sports people are huge and yes, the ability some of them possess is staggering however, the business world has long since learned that team success requires more than great individual skill and talent. As Katzenback and Smith point out in their work on high performing teams: “A high performing team is one whose members recognise each other’s strengths…and are also deeply committed to one another’s personal growth and success”. This transcends ego. Were the European Ryder Cup team better players than their US counterparts? Possibly. However what did come across was that the European team were able to mix and match pairings without any impact on results, they seemed like a group of mates who had each other’s backs and, unless they were master actors, they were all genuinely pleased to see and contribute to each other’s success.