Much is always made of what business can pick up from sport. Teamwork, leadership and culture are areas of rich pickings where lessons can be learnt by highlighting the similarities or approaches taken by coaches, leaders and teams on their pathway to success. And yes, undoubtedly there is much that business can take from sport – but where do things diverge? When does sport become less relevant and the nature of the business world mean that actually, parallels with sport are irrelevant?

A few weeks ago, this was a question posed to Dame Katherine Grainger and I at a breakfast, hosted by the Lords Taverners. We identified three areas for our audience to consider where perhaps the differences need to be considered:

  1. The outcomes are binary in sport. OK – from time to time you get a draw or a ‘dead heat’ but most of the time you can tell who has won and who has lost in sport. Business is far less clear and indeed, there is a question over who the competition really is and what winning looks like? Is it about market share, profitability, P/E ratio, share price appreciation, number of customers or something completely different? You never really know if you have actually won as there is no end to the ‘game’ or competition. Is it at the end of the financial year; when you have eclipsed the competition on your key measures or some other outcome?
  2. Business is relentless. In sport the aim is to peak for an event. Whether it is an Olympic Games, a World Championship or World Cup or even in league based completion athletes aim to be at their physical peak so that they perform at their best in that particular competition. The closest that business gets to a final event is at a year end when the past year’s performance can be assessed and published. But once you have finished that particular period, the next one begins immediately – there is no opportunity to sit back and relax on a beach, recharging your batteries before training begins again. Stop, and you run the risk of being left behind – and that would never do.
  3. There is no ambiguity in sport. Aside from the binary outcomes of sport, at the elite end of performance sports, diaries and schedules are very closely managed. There is no room for ambiguity over when it is time to train, rest, eat, sleep or recover. Athletes are supported and guided in this so that when they are asked to perform, their do so as close to their full potential as possible. Ask any CEO whether they can rely on their diary to remain ‘locked down’ over the course of a week or even a day and I bet that they answer is a resounding ‘No!’ Business requires adaptability and flex; it thrives (sometimes) on the need for change and dealing with ambiguity is a core competency for most leaders.

The outcomes are binary in sport. Business is far less clear and indeed, there is a question over who the competition really is and what winning looks like?

David Sole OBE

Of course, there is a huge amount of cross-over between the worlds of sport and business, not least in Mindset, which we heard about from Jeremy Snape on the recent School for CEOs webinar. Coaching is another area where there is overlap with business, albeit business has been relatively slow to adopt Executive Coaching as something that really enhances performances. Coaching’s origins were predominately in dealing with remedial issues, rather than in the acceleration of performance. Now, as Emma Jacobs pointed out in her article in the FT, the start of the New Year sees an uptick in demand for Executive Coaching as leaders seek to develop their skills and capabilities. Becoming comfortable with feedback - central to coaching in sport – is something that is critical…..albeit we are now drifting into the subject of another article altogether.

Sport can provide leaders and teams with great insights and understanding about how to enhance performance, but it is not the panacea to all ills.

DS Author bio 2

Author Bio: David Sole OBE

David Sole OBE is the Managing Partner and Co-founder of the School for CEOs. He has been an Executive Coach since the end of 2000 and has worked with executives across a range of sectors and industries. He is currently Chairman of Worldwide Cancer Research and played international rugby for Scotland, the Barbarians and British & Irish Lions. He was awarded the OBE in 1993.