Article: From potential to performance - Lessons from sports management

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From potential to performance - Lessons from sports management

Sports do not build character. They reveal it
 

Characterised by large upfront investments of time, energy, money and commitment, significant risks and deferred rewards, sports is the ultimate test for an entrepreneur

 

It is with good reason that much thought and money goes into the selection of managers, coaches and captains in high performance sports environments

 

"Sports do not build character. They reveal it."

This is one of the seminal quotes of modern day sports management. It is meaningful in its simplicity and reveals the inherent truth of the many lessons that sports has for our lives.

A professional career in sports is the ultimate entrepreneurial quest. It is characterised by large upfront investments of time, energy, money and commitment, significant risks and deferred rewards. Many a sportsperson will attest to the journey making them dig deep and readying them for challenges of all sorts. While every sportsperson's quest is intrinsically an individual one, few sportspersons have succeeded (as have few entrepreneurs) without learning to work in teams, trusting others, forging strong partnerships and earning public goodwill.

Just as a seasoned entrepreneur will always have some wisdom to share with even the most established corporate star, the management of sports talent and teams has some simple yet revealing lessons for the management of human resources in any environment.

Leadership and management are key

The role of inspirational leaders in the sports world is more than merely the stuff of legends. It is with good reason that much thought and money goes into the selection of managers, coaches and captains in high performance sports environments. The challenge they face is to get the most out of the various assets that comprise their teams. Being human, these assets need to be understood, monitored and inspired to perform at their very best. Achieving this is as much an art as a science.

Leadership and management pave the way for cooperation and cooperation, in turn, leads to synergy. An inspirational leader can demand more from his or her team as people work best when they are feeling engaged and inspired. Shane Warne's leadership of the Rajasthan Royals in the first season of the Indian Premier League comes to mind. On the other end of the spectrum, Greg Chappell’s stint as India coach possibly proved detrimental because the team was not entirely happy under his leadership, leading to infighting and poor form.

Research shows that employees doing ‘uninteresting’ work for a boss they like show better performance and report much higher job satisfaction than those doing ‘interesting’ work for a boss they don't! Leadership also plays a significant role in image building for and self-selecting recruitment. As the saying goes, A-class leaders attract A-class team members, while B-class leaders attract C's and D's.

In all human resource environments, a leader who can understand the pulse of his or her team and get the best out of the collective is more likely to achieve desired results. That said, there are different leadership styles and some leaders from the sports world inspire by their own personal deeds and achievements, others more proactively through involvement with their team-mates' careers and lives.

A winning team is a happy team and a happy team is a healthy team

In sporting environments, like most others, nothing succeeds like success. A team that is winning is able to overlook petty inter-personal issues and other issues – the very things that become the crutches of losing teams. Once again, human resources research suggests that the two most important contributors to perceived job satisfaction are the wonderful feeling of winning as a team and the enjoyment of the people one works with. A satisfied workforce is more likely to achieve desired results and this is the virtuous cycle that winning can put into play. For this very reason, “Winning isn't everything; it is the only thing.”

Again, the Rajasthan Royals started the first season of the IPL as self-confessed underdogs with unheralded names in their line up. However, the palpable team camaraderie, general buoyancy and sheer momentum generated from their early wins saw them take home the trophy. Conversely, teams with star-studded line ups like the Bengaluru Royal Challengers and Deccan Chargers were unable, after losing their initial matches, to find their rhythm and gel as a team – which led to their unceremonious exits from the tournament.
Set transparent and achievable goals

The beauty of sport is that each person's performance is out there for the world to examine. There are no policies or procedures to hide incompetence behind and each team player is answerable to himself, his team-mates and other stakeholders. While competition is no doubt stiff at the top, it is difficult for a sportsperson to get ahead by putting down a team mate. With sport it is possible to see the end goal (winning a tournament, scoring a certain number of goals, topping a league, etc.), to do what is in one's control to get there and to transparently evaluate each person's contribution and role in getting there.

The clear takeaway here is that achievable and transparent goal-setting helps focus interests, align goals and provides a common end point, allowing even the most unlikely of team mates to work productively together.

Grow organically, recruit in context and fill key positions

The world's most successful sports teams are strong and strategic talent managers and recruiters. Many will try and home-grow local talent as it is often cheaper to ‘build’ than it is to ‘buy’ and, through this method, the team gets personnel that are hardwired with team culture and can ease into assigned roles.

Real Madrid's management will attest to the fact that merely hiring some of the best footballers in the world doesn't make a world class team. If one fails to understand social dynamics and to fill key positions, a room full of superstars will not help you achieve your goals. It is critical that the key positions are filled – you aren't going to win many football matches with a set of world class defenders but no striker!

Find the stars, but manage them carefully

ll great sports teams have one or more superstars that are likely to have disproportionate impact on results. Sustained success will depend on managing the sporting and social impact of these superstars on team mates, and ensuring that their contributions are understood in context. There are many positive, inspirational and marketable effects of being around superstars. While their sheer brilliance often brings out the best in team mates, these stars could make others feel inadequate and insecure and can have personalities that ride roughshod over others' feelings. If the star isn't managed the team's harmony could well be in jeopardy.

Incentives and Performance

Most often, sport is a zero-sum game - one team or person wins at another's expense and that means there is no scope for compromises. Also, the rewards for success are usually clearly designated before the activity is commenced, leaving little room for ambiguity. Nadal and Federer are clearly aware of the prestige, the prize money and endorsements associated with winning at Wimbledon.

In many corporate environments though, goals are not well-communicated and there is a lack of clarity on incentives. There is strong evidence to suggest that regular and effective reinforcement of goals and associated rewards leads to improved performance and greater job satisfaction, rather than deferred feedback and rewards.
While the fans’ adulation, sense of achievement, national pride and general elation is hard to replicate in a corporate environment – individuals may be effectively incentivized by having clear goals and tangible rewards associated with their completion on a regular basis.

Self-motivated Learning, Re-invention and Feedback

The beauty of careers in sport is that there is little time to rest on laurels. These careers are most often short and there is an urgent need to stay on top of one's game to avoid being replaced by younger blood and new faces. Seniority is not itself a virtue, although experience is. This constant infusion of freshness and the need for constant re-invention by every sportsperson are hallmarks of sporting environments that corporate environments should appreciate and absorb into their processes and procedures. In many cases, the more senior executives get in a corporate environment, the less feedback and genuine criticism they receive - they either hire people who think much like them or worse, hire people who are afraid to provide feedback. Sport offers no such luxuries. Rahul Dravid will testify that he faces as much criticism today as he did at the beginning of his career.

Additionally, because there is a clear external manifestation of performance and calculable metrics, all criticism can be directed at achievement of these goals rather than at the individual. This helps the feedback remain objective and result-oriented rather than hurtful.


In summary, there are some useful parallels that can be drawn between sporting environments and corporate ones. Without belabouring the point, observation of successful sportspersons and teams lead to useful insights that can be successfully applied to non-sporting situations.

Topics: Performance Management, Learning & Development, Sports, Books & Movies

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