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Added by Craig Steel
Similarities between business and sport

With a number of Olympic trials starting this month, it seemed pertinent to examine the correlation between business and sport.

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 analogy.

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 and 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 the rails.

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.


Next steps

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 focused on learning from our experiences, rather than justifying our activities.


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.



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