With a number of Olympic trials starting this month, it seemed
pertinent to examine the correlation between business and sport
in an attempt to help you identify strategies used by coaches
that could be deployed in your organisation.
Before we delve into specifics, it is important we appreciate why
an organisation may want to investigate the sporting analogy. In
essence, the reason a business (or any organisation for that
matter) would be inclined to consider the subject is to try and
identify how it can improve the performance capability of its
staff to enable them to deliver better outcomes for the business
- which tends to be more visible in the world of sport where the
results are more easily recognised - hence the value of the
Are there lessons learned in sport that could be leveraged by a
business to help it drive positive changes and improvements?
Having studied performance for over 20 years, I believe there are
many similarities - namely because a business, just like a
sports team, is made up of people and it is the performance of
those people that will ultimately determine the success of the
business. At the end of the day, the principles of human
performance are the same irrespective of the endeavour. What I
mean by this is the principles that determine the success of say
a rugby player are no different than the principles that will
determine the success of a sales manager - even though the
technical capabilities required for each to excel in their
respective fields are entirely different. In other words, while
our technical competencies may be specific to our career, it is
the quality of our mind-set and capacity that will ultimately
determine our success.
While many companies will use sporting analogies to help them
tell a story in an effort to encourage their people to adopt a
winning mind-set and/or become more performance focussed in
their work - as evidenced by their athletic counterparts - it is
often used as a substitute for poor or ineffective leadership.
That doesn't mean all companies who talk about sport are poor
performers (far from it), but unfortunately many fail to take
the next step and 'enable' their people to achieve it.
Although the analogy (and similarities) may be obvious, I have
found the quality and extent of such thinking taking place at an
executive level is markedly absent. This is of concern,
especially when we consider the need for businesses to perform
in a modern economy (in order to remain solvent) and yet it
would appear the majority of managers today are so completely
consumed by the complexity of their business, they are
struggling to find the time to think about how to improve it.
Strategies & Similarities
Apart from the obvious things such as setting goals and working
as a team to achieve them, very few companies ever manage to
leverage the type of performance focussed interventions prized
in sport - simply because their behaviours are so heavily
influenced by cultural traditions and operational constraints
that inadvertently impede people's ability to obtain the mandate
they need to operate as required i.e. to deliver the results
they need to. The reason for this is because there is usually a
greater requirement for people to operate within given
parameters or 'accepted' practice not because it is assumed it
will help them excel, but to prevent the majority from going off
If companies want to out-perform the market, they need to rethink
their approach to ensure their systems are viewed as
'performance enablers' rather than bureaucratic impediments.
While it is true most executives want their people to be
'empowered', they need to question whether their processes
'compel' their people to excel. If peoples experience of working
within an organisation requires them to work against the system
in order to get things done, they will not only be inhibited,
they will ultimately feel insulted (due to the fact the
organisation will appear to them to be more interested in making
sure they follow procedures than deliver meaningful results -
thereby suggesting they cannot be trusted).
Having worked in both sectors for over a decade I have come to
believe the most highly prized characteristics or traits
companies aspire to leverage from sport are focus, commitment,
motivation (passion) and team work. The reason for this is not
surprising for sport is one of the only domains where we the
public have the opportunity to view these attributes in action
and therefore bear witness to the extraordinary power and
potential of a human being.
There is no doubt observing the spectacle of elite athletes has
an impact on the masses (as can many other highly competent
performers such as singers and dancers). It can encourage people
to reassess how they are operating and indeed how they are
living. It can stir emotions and precipitate motivation - both
of which can make a profound difference to the performance of an
organisation, but only if our leaders do more than pay it lip
service; which of course begs the question, why, when these
attributes are so crucial to performance, do managers give it
such little attention?
Why are our managers spending more time and energy trying to make
their people do the right thing rather than 'enabling' them to
deliver the right outcome? In other words, why do companies
appear to place more emphasis on the importance of 'painting by
numbers' than 'liberating' their people to excel?
One of the greatest regrets I see in business, which is far less
prevalent in sport, is how reluctant people appear to be to try
and improve their performance and contribution. The reason I
believe this occurs is because most employees today believe they
are 'giving' enough of themselves based on their perception of
the contractual obligation - which is of course determined by
the quality of their manager's interaction and engagement.
If you are serious about performance, and believe there is an
opportunity to leverage the sporting analogy, you must educate
your people about the organisation's purpose to ensure they
understand the reason for your existence. If they realise 'their
' company is there for the same reason they are, you will be in a
much better position to build a performance culture. What I mean
by this is the premise of 'win-win' or 'lose-lose' is understood
by every sporting team on the planet and yet so many in business
today seem to believe it is not only possible but preferable to
have winners and loses on the same team. If on the other hand
all employees knew the only way they could benefit more was if
they contributed more, they would be more likely to enable their
employer to reward them more handsomely.
Assuming you believe there are strategies from the world of sport
that you could apply to your business, you would need to
consider whether you have a forum to enable you to implement
them or whether you need to commit to a regular 'performance
improvement' meeting where you can focus solely on performance
development and improvement.
Should you get to this stage, you would then need to pre-empt a
meaningful conversation amongst those in your team who are in a
position to drive change by ensuring the connection between
people and performance and performance and outcomes are clear.
While it may appear easy to make such a connection, it is
interesting to note how many people assume performance
improvement in business simply requires an 'increase in outputs'
rather than an 'improvement in outcomes' - and although the
concept 'working smarter not harder' might capture the sentiment
, it doesn't necessarily provide people with an obvious solution.
In other words, it is all very well for a company to say we want
to win, but what are they going to do to enable their people to
do that? Thinking it is simply a matter of having the right game
plan (strategy) and then employing people with the right skills
sets to deliver it is like selecting the best team you can find
and then assuming that will assure you of a victory. No, what
you have to do is monitor every relevant result you get from
each and every intervention in order to identify the ones that
deliver better outcomes. If there is one thing athletes tend to
do better than businesses it is gauging the outcomes (results)
they deliver against their preparation (activities). As many
competent business analysts have said, we need to measure our
results in everything we do if we want to improve our outcomes.
Achieving this not only requires a more in-depth discussion to
take place amongst those responsible for the execution, it
requires a different mind-set to ensure we are focussed on
learning from our experiences, rather than justifying our
If managers understood their purpose was to 'set and enable' i.e.
provide their people with both the context and direction (to
pursue) and the tools to deliver, not only would employees be
empowered to perform, they would motivated to learn in order to
continue advancing. If however our managers continue to operate
as most do - with 'manage' being the operative word - our
employees will continue to do as little as they can comfortably
justify, in order to remain employed.
If you would like to equip your people with the tools to perform
like a champion, call us on 09 522 9409, we will show them how.
We have opened registration for Sales Manager starting on 11th June - if
you would like to know more about this programme,
please call Jo or refer to our website.
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