Pep talk: Can business leaders learn from sport?

Lots of books have been written by sporting leaders giving leadership lessons to business. I’ve read a few but they don’t seem to me to work, perhaps because while sports people peak for occasional high-profile events, most workers face a daily grind (more akin to the training that sport stars do away from the glare of media attention).

These books often focus on motivation and teamwork but what about strategy? Does taking over a new business and building the top team have much in common with, for example, a football manager taking over a new team? I think it does.

Being a keen fan of football and all things Spanish I’ve been following the arrival of Pep Guardiola at Manchester City FC with interest. Here is one of the world’s most successful coaches turning up in a very different environment here after his success in Spain and Germany. He had a great start (five straight wins) but more recently his expensively assembled squad (that he largely inherited) has struggled to do things in the new way he is looking for.

Listening to a recent interview with Guardiola on Sky Sports by Thierry Henry, I was struck by some of the things he said which indicated a similar approach to that which I’ve seen (and used myself) in a business transformation context. That Henry played under Guardiola when the latter took over at FC Barcelona in 2008 added to the insight. I see this approach to transformation as having five steps.

Step 1. Building a vision and goals

It’s clear from the conversation that Guardiola has an “idea” (as he calls it in English) of how things should work. “Vision” (or “guiding idea”) would be another term for it. A leader has to set a direction of travel towards a goal, in his case how they are going to consistently win matches and therefore trophies. Guardiola is clear that his “idea” is based very deeply on how he developed in his formative years at home in Catalunya. He is equally clear that his is not the only way of doing things. There is more than one right answer.

Step 2. Communicating the Vision

A good vision is necessary but not sufficient. It has to be communicated to the team whether that’s a football team or a boardroom team. It has to be understood so the team can buy in to the big picture. Henry says that at Barcelona, at first, he and others didn’t understand what Guardiola wanted. Guardiola is clear that it is his responsibility as the leader to ensure he is understood. Henry recognises that it is difficult for Guardiola because “he sees everything” (all the details in the game as well as the big picture) and it’s hard for others to grasp. Leaders must simplify and make sense of complexity.

Step 3 Strategy, structure and roles

With the team members now understanding and bought into the vision and goals, the strategy for getting there can be developed with them. At this point the leader develops a structure with key roles and finds people to play those roles. The leader needs to ensure that the key personnel in these roles understand their objectives and those of the rest of the team.

Step 4 Developing the team

The leader must invest time coaching the key individuals and in some cases where things aren’t working consider replacing them if they prove to be unable either to understand or buy in/commit fully to their role or if they cannot deliver it to the required standard.

Step 5 Adaptation

One of the most interesting parts of the interview was the clarity that Guardiola knows he will have to adapt his system to his new environment. He clearly understands some of the ways in which the new environment (English football) is different but I suspect has not yet fully worked out (or not got his players to understand) how those adaptations will work. Sometimes the people in the team are fine but the context demands the leader adapt the strategy. In practice steps 4 and 5 are in my experience are inter-related.

I believe he will succeed (and I’m not a fan of his club). Why do I say that? Partly because of the resources he has but mostly for the following four characteristics;

– his humility comes across in the interview. He knows the financial resources he has had are a big part of his success so far. “I am not the Special One” he says in a clear reference to his rather egotistical rival Jose Mourinho. In a subsequent interview when asked if his players were not good enough for him, he replied “maybe I’m not good enough for them”.

– he is authentic – in a recent interview with BBC he was clearly irritated and this shows another side of the real leader. His team will relate to him showing this human side,

– he can assimilate large amounts of information and communicate well (in at least five languages), and

– he is open-minded and prepared to adapt without compromising his principles.

The five steps and the personal qualities summarised above would serve any business leader well. Just as sporting organisations have become run more like business – maybe business leaders can learn from top sporting managers like Guardiola. Not old ideas about team bonding and motivation but more modern and relevant concepts such as leading in a diverse and constantly evolving environment.

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