Idea in brief
High-performance sporting and business teams are built on trust, communication, data analysis, sharing success, and recovery from failure. We talk with some of Australia’s preeminent former athletes and business leaders about what business can learn from elite sports management.
In the 1990s, the Oarsome Foursome brought rowing into Australia’s popular consciousness. After winning gold at the 1990 World Rowing Championships, they went on to win Olympic gold at Barcelona in 1992 and Atlanta in 1996. For more than a decade they won a slew of elite-level awards in a highly competitive team sport.
So what does it take to compete at an elite level for so long? And do the skills, attributes and talents that underpin success on the sporting field have any relevance to business?
Clear communication for success
Having recently been appointed chief executive of Cycling Australia, former Oarsome Foursome member Nick Green believes there are certain parallels between sport and business, especially when it comes to communication and leadership.
“The connection between the coaches and their teams is all built along a clear, honest dialogue that crosses the divide between ‘this is what I’m seeing’, and ‘this is what you’re feeling’,” Green says. “Single-handedly, neither the coach nor the athlete can get the best performance, and without talking to and trusting each other, you cannot achieve anything at all.”
According to Green, this capacity to share ideas and communicate clearly from different perspectives underpins any successful team, whether on the sporting field or in a city office tower.
Measuring performance management
“Data is king, the ability to track performance and provide direction based on this analysis is gold – so long as you know what you’re measuring, and you’re sure it’s having an impact,” Green says. “The biggest mistake is tracking the wrong data, or the wrong key performance indicators in business.”
In addition to tracking the right KPIs, Green says it’s crucial that great managers, like great coaches, create an honest dialogue to really understand how data has an impact on performance.
“From a coach’s perspective, it’s crucial to be able to say ‘this is what I’m seeing’ and to be able to ask the rowers what they’re feeling and understand their answer,” Green says. “Because without knowing what they’re feeling, they’ll come at it from the wrong point of view.”
Giving business a sporting chance
The deputy dean of the University of Sydney Business School, Professor John Shields, has spent a lot of time researching successful management techniques, and agrees that there several powerful parallels between the sporting and business community.
“It’s more than just a metaphor – a lot of contemporary management techniques borrow heavily from sports management,” Shields says. “Game strategy, iteration, and the ability to recognise and build on your strengths while you target the weaknesses of your competitors, this all comes from the sporting field.”
Like Green, Shields emphasises the importance of quality data collection to measure and track this process of continual improvement.
“The old adage of ‘you get what you measure’ is dead true in both business and sport,” Shields says. “But in this case it’s often easier in sport to identify what is a valid performance indicator and what isn’t.”
While the main focus of elite sports appears to be on winning, Shields believes one of the most powerful lessons business people can learn from elite athletes is the ability to lose. “There’s a lot to be learned from the resilience of sports teams and their capacity to recover from a setback, learn from failure and get back on the field,” he says.
Shields believes sports management can have the greatest impact on business in the area of team dynamics. He points out that businesses tend to struggle to manage their “internal losers”, while sports teams are adept at ensuring the star players share their skills and help to motivate other team members.
“The idea is to ensure that everyone works together to ensure the high performers achieve those results,” Shields says. “It’s important to inspire the whole team to cooperate in that process.”
Trust, data, strong communication, capacity to share success and recover from failure are as important to highly functioning teams of elite athletes as they are to a ballet company or orchestra.
Single-handedly, neither the coach nor the athlete can get the best performance, and without talking to and trusting each other, you cannot achieve anything at all.
As the executive director of the Australian Ballet, Libby Christie is acutely aware of parallels between managing high-performing athletes and high-performing business people, as she is simultaneously responsible for both.
“The Australian Ballet is a large team of many different professional experts, including dancers, medical, wardrobe, production, marketing and many other teams,” Christie says. “We all work together and strive for excellence on and off the stage. We share a common goal and measure of success – that extraordinarily successful performance.”
Having come from a corporate background prior to becoming involved in arts management in 1998, Christie has a dual focus on commercial success and artistic integrity, and says healthy, engaged employees underpin both.
“We take great care of each individual so the team can work at optimal level,” she says. “Supporting our people to reach their potential in the workplace means greater success for the company by every measure. Equally important is the need to provide opportunities and keep the team engaged.”
Christie says the Australian Ballet adopts a number of measures to ensure there is a sense of equality between the principal dancers and ballet corps. Dancers train together daily, rehearse, perform and tour together in an effort to create what Christie describes as a “rich and collaborative learning experience for all dancers”, regardless of career stage.
This process of ensuring entire teams contribute to and share in the success of the lead performers is among the most important lessons business can learn from sports management, according to Green.
“Good sporting teams have a healthy competition where they push each other to reach their full potential,” he says. “This is only possible where the leadership is based on a strong moral compass which is focused on positive outcomes rather than just winning.”
- Great managers, like great coaches, need to conduct honest dialogues with their team
- Sport management techniques may not only help business teams to win, they can also help business teams learn to lose
- The capacity to share success and recover from failure is fundamental to the success of both elite sporting and business teams
- Data analysis is fundamental to the success of sporting and business teams, as long as the data capture is well designed