There are many commonly used phrases in business that draw on the analogy of competitive sport:

  • He dropped the ball on that project.
  • Let’s go for the knock-out punch.
  • We need to have a better game plan.
  • Our firm needs to skate to where the puck will be, not to where it is
  • There is no I in team

Some suggest that these phrases lose their impact because they are so overused, while others say there are better analogies (like rock bands) for business.

That said, there are several deeper and more instructive sport comparisons that can be useful for business leaders looking to improve performance.

  1. Talent matters and requires development – Many professional sports leagues use a draft system and salary caps that allow lower performing teams to improve their talent base.  This is driven by the principle that talent matters, and has proven to create significant parity in many professional leagues as talent is more evenly distributed between teams.  

    In business, talent also matters and successful organizations are those who consistently attract and retain ‘A Players’.  The good news is that in business we don’t have drafts and salary caps which provides more flexibility and creativity for leaders in their attraction and retention strategies.
  2. Investment in development – In both business and sport, talent takes time and investment to develop.  All professional sports teams have development programs or farm systems to hone their athletes to a level suitable for the ‘big leagues’.  Business is the same and smart leaders realize they have to invest time and money to develop their players.
  3. Common goals and individual roles – in team sports there are shared common goals; to win a championship or to get back into the playoffs for example.  And while team members share these goals, they recognize that they each have different roles to play – quarterbacks throw passes, punters kick punts, and defensive backs make tackles.  Clarity of both the goals and the roles is critical for success.  

    The same is true for companies, and those that are successful are those that have unmistakable clarity around their goals (in all timeframes – this quarter, year and decade) and the individual roles each person plays.
  4. The margin of victory – in most sports the margin of victory is very small.  Many PGA golf tournaments are won by a stroke or two (over four rounds) while the rewards between first and second place can be very large.  In racing (running, cycling, horses, cars) the difference is seconds or fractions of seconds.  

    The good news is that the same is true in business.  As business leaders, we just need to be a little better than our next best competitor to win significantly more market share or generate far greater returns.
  5. Coaching is crucial – outstanding athletes often credit their success to the great coaches they’ve had.  These coaches have a deep understanding of the game, and work with their players by helping them set goals, improve their play and provide their athletes with regular feedback in a constructive way.

    In business one of the most important roles a manager plays is that of coach to their people.  Research shows that a combination of clear goals and ongoing feedback will maximize employee productivity and engagement which, in turn, drives overall organizational performance.
  6. Disciplined execution – in sport, rarely does success come from a single, far-reaching decision.  Rather, it is the accumulation of thousands of small actions, decisions and adjustments that separates winners from losers.  Take a cycling team for instance – every rotation of the petals, every adjustment of angle, every shift in weight, every change of drafting position contributes to the outcome, and the accumulation of thousands of these seemingly small decisions and actions come together to generate a winning race.

    Business execution is the same.  Rarely does one major milestone or decision separate the winning teams from the losers.  Instead it is the repeated and aligned actions, behaviors, decisions and ‘moments of truth’ executed by all employees that combine to create a winning outcome.  This is the essence of discipline.

We can dismiss sport comparisons as overused or trivial, but as leaders if we take a closer look at high performance in sport there is a lot to learn and apply as we strive for more “winning seasons” for our organizations.

Do you know someone who could benefit from this article….

Article by Tim O’Connor