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Lessons from Business to sports teams 

There are many books, motivational videos and leadership talks that share lessons business could take from sports. Often the rousing nature of a winning team is more inspiring than that of the business arena and there is no doubt that celebrity and glamour dog the footsteps of athletes far more than corporate citizens. 

As I have followed the Rugby World Cup 2019, it struck me that despite the disciplines being different, Sports could well take some learnings from Business.

1. Strategy, not Game plan

Business gives strategy the attention it deserves, not just for short-term moves, but also long-term objectives. Generally, strategy encompasses the entire organisation and offers guidance on how each part fits into the whole. Many Sporting organisations focus on the field (i.e. the game plan) but neglect to think about the overarching strategy of the organisation as a whole. While short-term game plans might win matches (and move businesses), these must form part of a greater strategy that drives the entire organisation forward.

2. Regular reporting and scrutiny

The adage goes that a sports team is only as good as their last match. This is not entirely true, with the success of a particular team often being measured over a lengthy tournament or a full season. Business often holds itself to results far more rigorously. Quarterly earnings reports can lift or drop the share price in a manner directly correlated to the performance in that period and an organisations “fans” are far less forgiving. 

Similarly, businesses often subject themselves to intense scrutiny. If results are poor, the entire organisation is reviewed, often harshly, as a way of fostering growth and change. While there is by no means a lack of scrutiny on the field, such analysis tends to focus on the latest play or how a particular player performed. In-depth reporting is seldom applied to other aspects of a sports organisation.

3. Leadership and Talent

When a sports team wins, players are lauded as heroes. When they lose, the coach is fired. This topsy-turvy take on talent is in distinct contrast to the corporate world. Business places much emphasis on management and leadership, understanding that these are the long-term determinants of success. 

Sports teams tend to value ‘superstar’ players, who in turn attract resources, attention and respect far beyond those given to Sports Administrators. This can create a sense of disconnect between the people empowering the team, and the team themselves, often resulting in woeful underperformance of the organisation as a whole.  

In some sports disciplines, players have surprisingly little say over their own destinies, often being traded between clubs like playing-cards. Business has a far more efficient talent market when it comes to the individual’s ability and right to go where they chose. There are, however, still vast gaps in the opportunities and sponsorships available for male teams when compared to female teams and, while Business certainly still grapples with gender inequality, conversation and progress has been far more effective in the boardroom than in the locker room. 

4. Customer Experience 

A paraphrased quote “Build it, and they will come” (Field of Dreams, 1989) seems to have been taken to heart by many sports team. There is often an expectation that paying fans are a given. That as long as the team wins, nothing else matters. This is nowhere more evident than in the fan experience within some stadiums, plagued with inadequate amenities and general disorganisation. 

This is in sharp contrast to Business, who holds the customer experience sacrosanct. Business is painfully aware that customer experience is often more important than the product they sell and that without the customer, the business would not exist. 

Sports teams would be well advised to ponder where they would be if at match after match the stadium was empty. Overall fan experience matters, not just the result delivered on the field. 

5. Collaboration

For the most part, a sports teams secret sauce is just that – secret. There is very little collaboration and knowledge sharing between teams, or even across disciplines. While retaining a competitive edge is important, many corporate leaders have discovered the value of learning from others in similar positions, with similar challenges.

Business shares knowledge and works in the community far more freely. Take the Young Presidents Organisation or Entrepreneurs Organisation, for example, both global community-based organisations that bring leaders together to discuss best practices. Such initiatives bring together leaders from diverse backgrounds to share their experience and to discuss common challenges. This melding of ideas and sense of community creates great learning for all.

 While it may be popular to look to sports teams for business lessons, to my mind, there is a lot that can be learnt the other way around.

As many may be able to attest, sports teams often still operate in the shadow of their own amateur past while Business has always been commercially driven. This drive has led Business to view themselves as ‘professional’ by nature. This view has shaped excellence in many ways, and this excellence creates lessons for anyone seeking to learn – whether on the field or off it.

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Jonathan-Rowan Belchers

Jonathan-Rowan Belchers

“I’m driven by the truth that one remarkable leader can change the fortunes of many. And I’m committed to championing those leaders across all continents.”

With an enduring passion for high performance and exceptional leadership, Jonathan-Rowan has advanced the footprint of Lockstep since founding it in 2006. A graduate of both Harvard and Berkeley and a certified business coach, he has 20+ years in the leadership advisory sector and lectures at a number of foremost business schools. He is an artist at heart – an avid reader, musician and painter.

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