Leadership

Five business lessons from elite sport

Steve Stanley /

mission statement

The CEO Institute director Steve Stanley. Source: Supplied.

We love our sport.

But many business leaders feel the world of sport doesn’t flow naturally to that of business. So, while interesting to listen to, it’s in an ‘artificial’ world.

However, it’s not. It’s real. And measurement in sport is at a level well beyond any business.

How many businesses are judged every week by their results and subject to the type of media scrutiny our elite athletes undergo, daily? Is the media attention on the collapse of WA’s sandalwood company Quintis, similar to the Australian cricket team’s ball-tampering? Do we have the same feeling about Frank Wilson as we do about David Warner?

My experience involves time with the West Coast Eagles, the WA Institute of Sport, WAFL football teams and elite golf. I would like to share five lessons from sport that translate readily into the business environment and make an impact. I attest to this as I have worked in and with businesses for many years alongside the sporting bodies.

1. Vision drives performance

Vision is a powerful tool when used effectively and correctly. West Coast finished eighth two years in succession and then seventh. At the end of that year, they established a strong vision that made it very clear how they saw themselves as a team. They set core values that directed the behaviour required to reach that vision.

In the next two years, they played in two grand finals, winning one. Then, the vision was re-developed to incorporate off-field behaviour and on-field performance dropped. When balance was struck, the club performed well in both arenas.

Without a vision that creates a very clear, powerful picture, alignment is difficult. When combined with values that drive a changed behaviour, the power is real.

2. Lead, not manage

Daniel Kim is the brains behind the approach to leadership Levels of Perspective.

Kim says that businesses are over-managed and under-led.

In the case of the Eagles, shifting the focus from events to vision and values moved the conduct of the leadership group from management to leadership.

Leaders should move away from dealing with issues as one-off events, and instead, create systems and structures to deal with these events, and focus on the vision and aligning everyone to achieve that. Leaders should lead, and delegate the management issues to those employed to deal with it.

3. The right data is power

Knowing what data to collect, and using it effectively, leads to better results.

Collecting data because you can is not positive if that data is not what impacts important decisions.

In working with a back-line coach, I found it strange that he was happy with the results of his group, and yet the team’s performance was down. I asked what he based this on, and he said that he was measuring the number of times the defence sent the ball out of the defensive 50-metre arc. The more they did this, the better their performance. When we stopped and looked, that meant the more often the ball came into the 50, the better if they repelled it. Instead, what we needed to measure was how often the ball left the zone, and found a friendly player, therefore, not coming straight back. This increased the mid-field performance and overall performance too.

Make sure you measure that which drives performance in the right direction.

4. Making sound decisions

As in elite military units, where they gather the thinking of all team members and coalesce that into a decision and a plan, so too this is required in sport and business. 

In teaching the discipline of examining the relevant factors, creating courses of action, testing them, then condensing this into a decision and action plan, the results are solid. Everyone understands they have input to the outcome and there are factors they were unaware existed, or, had not considered. It leads to buy-in.

At the WA Institute of Sport, this method was used to come to a consensus on the allocation of support time to each sport, and the coaches involved. A better outcome resulted from the use of everyone’s knowledge than ever could have come from a management allocated plan, which would have resulted in resentment and complaint all round.

5. Use systems thinking and solve the real issue

Peter Senge promotes the use of the question ‘why?’ until you arrive at the real problem. It is too easy to jump at what we think is the problem, but it may not be the real cause.

Don’t paper the cracks, repair the wall.

At one time at West Coast, there was a ‘belief’, by those in the know, that the team was not fit enough. The answer could have been to train harder, or with more intensity. The real problem turned out to be their experience with a changed game plan led to poorer execution, meaning they were running further than other teams to compensate for mistakes. The answer was to improve the team’s knowledge of the game plan.

The following year, those in the know, proclaimed them the fittest team in the competition! 

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Steve Stanley

Steve is the director of The CEO Institute.

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