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Business is a team sport

Article by Jane Maher

Neck and neck, across the line, teed up, dropped a ball, take a punt – all sound familiar? It’s not new or unusual to use sports terminology in business when there are so many similarities.

Whilst physical fitness is fundamental when it comes to succeeding in sport, mental fitness at top level sport is as important, if not more so, and both are certainly necessary to succeed in professional sport. My experience at the highest level has taught me the value of inspiring leadership, trust, a growth mindset, and most of all the value of every team member, none of which related to my physical fitness.

Leaders have a fundamental role in business; to provide vision, establish operational practices, inspire, delegate, motivate, and empower. All to one end – business success.

Success in professional team sport is achieved through dedicated and extensive training, practicing repeatedly until you get it right. It’s 90% training, 10% performing. In other words, efficiency and effectiveness, or doing the right things, right. There is always a common understanding that no player is bigger than the game. Egos are levelled out and there is no room for those who don’t put in the work.

Good leadership in sport is not one thing. It comes in many shapes such as formal management structures as well as informal role modelling. Leadership in sport is also about seeing the field of play from different perspectives, especially for a captain. The ability to read the overall game as well as seeing the small opportunities, is vital. One thing is for sure, it starts with two-way communication; a message given, and a message received. Imagine a set-play in rugby where the receiver of a throw in didn’t signal they understood the play – it’s unthinkable.

Whether it’s technical skills, motivation, growth, or psychological support, it’s difficult to think of any top sports man or woman who doesn’t have a team or personal coach. You never see Lewis Hamilton for example, without his personal coach, who shoulders the responsibility of keeping him in good shape physically and mentally. The relationship of coach and coachee is one of ultimate trust and respect, to know that you are both aiming for the same goal.

Trust in team sport is crucial, whether it’s trust in leadership, trust in your team or trust in yourself. It starts with relationships, which isn’t just about team camaraderie and having a laugh together, it’s much deeper, it’s a sense of mutual respect and regard. This is not easily achieved. As a team we need to understand individually and collectively what is always expected of us. That comes back to everyone taking responsibility for their own role and having faith in leadership to steer us in the right direction.

A successful team is also one that appreciates collective and individual value. Value and the appreciation of it cannot be underestimated. You see top sports men and women at the top of their game celebrating every try, every goal, every point. Why? They value the effort and process that has gone into the achievement, and those who celebrate with them do the same.

People who feel valued have confidence, resilience, and the belief that they can do more, and better. A growth mindset can be the difference between good and great. Those who truly believe they can achieve more each time they walk onto the pitch, the court, the course, or track will have lower stress levels and will simply be more capable of achieving their goals, professionally and personally.

Part of achieving a growth mindset is being able to acknowledge your imperfections and see them as opportunities to learn rather than failures. They believe that good outcomes are borne from effort and exertion of energy. The word ‘try’ does not register, they do not try they ‘do’ and learn each time. In professional sport, you can’t comprehend the impact of a fixed mindset – those who think it’s someone else’s job to do the difficult stuff or those who can’t take criticism as constructive. This would irreparably damage the team’s ability to perform at the highest level.

Translating these recounts to the business world is not a difficult leap. Inspiring leadership, trust, a growth mindset, and valued teamwork are all necessary components of a successful business.

In business and in sport, results don’t just happen by themselves but rely on three key elements: performance, opportunity, and engagement.

If in the sporting world 90% of time is spent preparing and training, how does this translate? Ability is essential in sport and is no less so in business. We assume expertise, education, and experience in our leadership but it’s not always the case. Many climb the proverbial ladder with little more than being able to talk the talk. By impressing the right people at the right time, increasing exposure and perceived capability. They haven’t necessarily put in the work, undervaluing those who have. When staff feel undervalued, they are unlikely to perform at their best and their mental health is certainly likely to decline. Managers and leaders who have not put in the work are less likely to be capable of leading an organisation to success. Developing and honing skills in the business world is therefore as important as ‘business as usual’.

Communication in a business environment is no less important. All too often business leaders focus on delivering messages but no time ensuring the message has been received and understood. Effective leaders understand that communication is not just about talking (Abraham Mehrabian’s studies showed that over 50% of communication is non-verbal) and that different methods are appropriate for different situations. They listen more, talk less, are aware of their environment and its context; they read the mood. In others words they constantly meet the expectations of the recipient. Honesty goes far as does dialogue instead of monologue. “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” ( so leave your ego at the door, it’s not about you, it’s about meeting others’ needs. Leaders who tell employees what their values are or what their culture is are much less likely to engender trust.

It is said that only 6% of what is happening in an organisation is known by leaders. Steering the metaphorical ship is not an easy task and knowing what is happening at every level is nigh on impossible, why therefore do leadership not trust those who do know what is happening to support them and add value to the decision-making process. Employee mental health is improved when they are empowered to make decisions and control their own work patterns or load. If more trust is shown, more trust is returned.

Why does Christiano Ronaldo still, after a long successful career, celebrate every goal and get praise from team-mates, even when he gets paid a lot of money to do this for a job? The answer is simple, he is valued. Remuneration is compensation not appreciation. Valuing effort collectively and individually, is something few corporate organisations are known for. If it’s your job and you get paid for it then why do you deserve additional praise? Staff costs are arguably the largest spend for an organisation, something we instinctively want to minimise, but we are talking about people not stationery. Treating people well, valuing their contribution above the concept of payment for services rendered will engender trust, loyalty, boost morale and productivity. In fact, happy workers are 13% more productive, claims research by Oxford University’s Said Business School

These key characteristics can and do translate well into business, fostering positive relationships, collaboration, innovation, and ultimately individual performance leading to overall business success.

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