Why business leaders should take inspiration from sport

by L&D04 Aug 2016
If your business was a sports team that was looking to win the gold medal at the Olympic Games, what would you need to change?

“Before we can fill the gaps, we need to see who we have on our team,” said Rowdy McLean, leadership consultant and author of Play a Bigger Game.

“Having come from a professional sporting background, I always look at the teams of my clients through the lens of a sporting team, which is a great way to find gaps.”

McLean identified the following groups of players in typical teams:  

Utility players

These people are more valuable than any other group. They can do a variety of roles, jobs and tasks, and are happy to do so. They don’t build empires so that they own a job.

They build skills so they are more valuable to the team and business. The key here is they are “happy” to take on different challenges and opportunities.

Therefore, they adapt and smooth out the problems that arise when other staff are away or a position is waiting to be filled.

Mr and Mrs reliable

In any sporting team you will find players whose contribution is not really noticed. Businesses are no different. They are not the standouts or the headline makers. They are the ones who create the backbone of your team.

They do the right things right. When the going gets a bit tough they keep making their way forward, doing what they have always done. These people steady the ship.

Star players

These are employees who make the big plays. They are the people you build the rest of the team around. Every team needs some shining stars to model behaviours and set the standards. They become the lighthouse for the desired culture.

In companies with poor performance, poor culture and poor morale, you find the star players are more interested in themselves than the company. They undermine initiatives and progress and drag other employees into a negative space. You wouldn’t tolerate that in a sporting team and you should not in your business.

Dead wood

Unfortunately, in any team there are people who just don’t make the grade or can no longer do the job you want them to do. This is the biggest problem I see in business.

Very few businesses actively mange these people really well. Ultimately you have three options: train them, relocate them, or release them. Every sporting team is doing this on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. You should too. The annual review just doesn’t cut it any more.

Fill the gaps

Take some time to assess your team. Who are the stars, the reliables, the utility players and the dead wood? Now, if your business was a sporting franchise and you needed to recruit to win the competition, what players would you need on your team? Where are the gaps? More stars, reliables or utilities?

The key is to not let anybody on your team that doesn’t help you win. Don’t let anybody in the door that doesn’t improve your culture. Recruiting is about getting better, not staying where you are. When you do let someone on the team, keep a very very close eye on them. Too many businesses keep people beyond their probation date only to find they don’t fit and they won’t leave.

Tips to play well

McLean offers the following advice to get your team to play well:
  1. Give them a reason to play well. Connect their performance to something they desire. A benefit or reward. An opportunity to grow. An experience. Added responsibility.
  2. Give them a buddy. Find a reliable to buddy them up with. The reliables are so connected to consistent performance that they will not allow employees to drop the ball
  3. Keep score. Give them targets. People play better if they know the score. Find a measure that relates directly to their role and let them know how they are going (daily if possible, weekly at worst). This is particularly important for Gen Y and Z. They live in the world of instant information so the quicker and more often the better.
  4. Onboard carefully. Make sure they know the rules from day one. Make sure they understand how you play the game and exactly what you expect of them. Then coach them and keep them accountable to that.
Winning in business is a lot easier if the team you put together understands the game, plays well together and gets better all the time.