Sporting lessons for business talent

There are many easy parallels to draw between the worlds of sport and business. The manager as coach, the culture of ‘wins’ and ‘losses’, results-driven remuneration and the emphasis on performance and deliverables mean ‘sports as business’ can slip into cliché. However, business leaders should take the opportunity to learn from the coaches and managers of elite sporting professionals. These leaders are charged with delivering success, and how they identify, develop and motivate their charges offers insights and lessons that can be acted upon.

Identifying Talent

The identification of talent – both established, experienced leaders and promising youngsters – is critical to both sport and business. This skill was one of the pillars of Sir Alex Ferguson’s – the most successful British football manager in history – longevity at Manchester United. Ferguson was committed to scouting and signing young, capable players, while simultaneously moving on those individuals he felt could no longer compete. It was a policy that bore dividends. From 2003 to 2013, Manchester United signed a far higher share of under- 25-year-olds than their immediate competitors, a period during which the club won the English league championship five times. 

In a business setting, it is essential to have pipelines in place – be that internships or developmental programmes – to acquire new talent consistently. No organisation should become overly reliant on one source for its talent; instead it should ensure that it has a diversified pool from which to draw on, in order to pre-empt future market needs or shocks. 

This talent should not be made an offer on the basis of the standard ‘two interviews and a reference check’. Speaking in Leading Teams by Paolo Guenzi and Dino Ruta, Arrgio Sacchi, the last coach to win back to- back European championships, explains he would make an initial judgment call on a prospective player by speaking to them, and then turning to respective experts like scouts and psychologists. “We attempted to come up with a profile of their personalities. We also took into consideration their interpersonal relationships with coaches, teammates and opponents.” 

It is an approach that was echoed in basketball by Pat Williams, co-founder of Orlando Magic. Aside from the prerequisite skills, Williams looks for three main aspects in a talent. “I put great weight in the character of the talent,” he said. “Is he honest, trustworthy, humble, have a strong work ethic? I look for people who are consistent, who have a high level of integrity, and who I can count on when the times are tough.” Williams also looks for at what kind of a teammate he will be: “If the talent cannot fit into the structure of the team then, regardless of how skilled he is, it will not work out.” Finally, he considers how the talent will relate to other aspects of the job, such as the media, the community and wider world. 

Aside from the customary interview process, organisations should consider researching potential hires
online and ensuring that any probationary or trial period has set KPIs to benchmark against. Although many managerial leads – in both business and sport – would argue that finding talent is more art than science, there is a depth of empirical literature that suggests that an analytical, data-driven approach
outperforms intuition.

Developing Future Leaders

Raw ability is rarely enough to deliver success by itself. Talent must be developed to ensure that they deliver for the company and build up their own capacity and capabilities. Senior vice-president of the Orlando Magic basketball team and former general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers, Williams
has seen 19 of his players go on to become NBA coaches. In developing these players, he says that he believes outstanding leaders possess seven key qualities: vision; communication; people skills; character; competence; boldness; and a serving heart. “I’ve tried to impart those leadership lessons to our players. It has been extremely rewarding to me to see many of them step up and become outstanding coaches,” he said.

However, an effective leader cannot be spread too thinly. In a sporting context, a coach generally has to focus on around two dozen sportspersons who make up the primary squad. Beyond this, there are assistant or reserve team coaches who head the day-to-day administration. This is a lesson
that can be applied to the business world too: identify those talents with the most potential and focus on bringing them through. Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch initially built a reputation for culling employees from the bottom 10% of performers and focusing on developing his top executives.

When it comes to how to offer criticisms and positive reinforcement, some of the world’s best coaches have very different opinions. Marcello Lippi, who won the World Cup with Italy in 2006, advocates starting with the positive aspects and then moving onto the negative ones, while Sacchi, voted
by the Times newspaper as the best Italian coach of all time, starts his analysis with what went wrong and concludes with what went well. Ultimately, both coaches argue that the leader must offer the same level of attention to all members of their team.

Motivating the Elite

Unlike in sports, where motivating athletes means helping them focus on the relatively straightforward zerosum game of victory or defeat, motivating talent in the business arena is more complex. Results in business are primarily absolute, but can be interpreted using various subjective parameters. In this context, identifying and successfully leveraging motivational drivers is critical.

Mike Krzyzewski was head coach of the US men’s basketball team when they won Olympic gold in the 2008 and 2012 Summer Olympics. He argues that team motivation comes from reducing uncertainties so that every member knows exactly what is expected of them to deliver success. “In my experience, the best teams have standards everyone owns,” said Krzyzewski in Leading Teams. He asked players to set a system of rules that they would abide by at the Olympics. His team contained some of basketball’s most talented players, including LeBron James, Jason Kidd and Kobe Bryant.
Although each of them was the focal point of their league teams, Krzyzewski took measures to ensure that all were treated equally.

A shared perception of justice across the team – such that individual members feel they have equal opportunity to play a role in the team processes – builds team cohesion and unity. While fostering friendship amongst team members is an optimal goal, this may not be feasible. Instead, aim to ensure that team members are collaborating and are committed to delivering collective goals.

Leading Talent and Teams

Building a successful team means forging a cohesive identity that incorporates all the talent at your disposal. In Leading Teams, Guenzi and Ruta argue that building collective efficacy enables both individuals and the group to feel that by “working together, the group can be successful,” they wrote. “A successful leader will show and instil confidence in their team’s individual and group capabilities. To enable this, the leader should offer well-defined strategies, plan work meticulously, monitor team processes, provide detailed feedback, and recalibrate actions and roles when need be.”

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