Few things capture the imagination quite like sport. From tales of the underdog to records that beggar belief, the passion that sport stirs is infectious. Of course, we don’t all get to compete in the Olympic Games, but that takes nothing away from the chance to compete – albeit at a lower level.
Sport infiltrates our daily lives, imparting variety to our routines, as well as aiding healthy bodies and happier minds, but that’s not all. It can also teach business a few tricks of its trade. Tutorials that stretch beyond ‘pitching’ for business, ‘teeing up’ a colleague, or ‘taking a punt’ on a new hire.
Consider team sports.
How many times have we seen a collection of outstanding individuals lose to a lesser ranked team?
Think about England’s ‘Golden Generation’ of footballers – David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Frank Lampard, and Steven Gerrard, to name a few. Pep Guardiola – arguably the best football manager around today – could not understand how England failed to achieve more with those players. The problem was they didn’t work as one. Lauded the world-over for their abilities and undoubted club success, every one of those individuals was more significant than the team.
Organisations contest the myriad challenges of teamwork day in day out. Big business does so on a colossal scale, tasked with assembling various personalities, approaches, abilities and opinions, block by block. The desired result is an eclectic mix of talent operating in unison, animated by light bulb moments and ground-breaking products. It seems easy, right? Well, achieving such harmony is far from it. Indeed impossible without the addition of two key ingredients – vision and values.
Planning, implementing, executing and monitoring, are only worthwhile endeavours when a vision exists. As Andrew Carnegie, one of the pioneers of the industrial revolution, put it: “Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision, the ability to direct individual accomplishments toward organisational objectives. It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results.”
Andrew was instrumental in launching the steel industry, selling his company to JP Morgan for approximately £261bn in today’s money (proportionate to GDP). It’s safe to say that he knew a thing or two about building a business.
Vision provides a focal point for action and a direction for the business. People feel inspired to act for the greater good. It creates energy and dynamism, boosting commitment while harnessing change, and a clear vision keeps us on track through testing times. It ensures that we rarely stop striving for the finish line.
There is little doubting the impact of a vision, but it also sits at the nub of a broader story – one built around values.
Values are the deeply held principles that govern our choices and sway our emotions. There is also now evidence that purpose is closely related to values (Siwek, Z. et al. (2017) – the things that we believe with conviction.
I recently watched a BBC Sport interview with Sir Alex Ferguson discussing the part that his roots played in his success – “It will cling to me all my life because how you’re brought up lives with you, the important things that your mother or father taught you… as you get older, your own personality maybe changes. But these things are really the foundation.” – Sir Alex was referring to his values, in all but name.
When our value system deviates from those around us, the fallout is often considerable. The very nature of our values dictates that we are right. There’s a reluctance to make concessions, disputes linger, and the workforce becomes disillusioned – it’s the reason values carry such significance in an employment context.
Football’s European Super League (ESL) fiasco offers a clear example. The proposal announced by twelve clubs – Europe’s self-acclaimed elite – would have seen a team like Arsenal yo-yo from ‘The Invincibles’ of 2004; to ‘The Incapables’ of recent times, and onto ‘The Untouchables’ of tomorrow. The threat of relegation, and hence competition, both distant memories.
For those that don’t follow football, John Henry is an American billionaire and the principal owner of Liverpool Football Club – LFC, as he calls it. The first owner in 30 years to float a top-flight league title into the docks of Liverpool, and we all know that Scousers are a passionate bunch. He should be – and was – idolised by the red half of the city. But this love affair was terminated by fans, with his involvement in the ESL.
You see, while Henry’s cultural sensitivities prohibited the swapping of Football for Soccer – LSC does roll off the tongue! – he underestimated other deep-seated values held dear by the English game. When you’re own employees and customers vehemently reject increased pay, better infrastructure and a larger share of the pie, it can only be because you have sold their principles short. And as already highlighted, disagreements that rattle our very core don’t disappear overnight.
Let’s turn our attention to cricket. The best batters in the world demonstrate lightning-quick decision making. They can adjust their shots in under 200 milliseconds, instilling confidence and control, no matter the stakes. Natural talent gets you so far, but sheer repetition is the only way to hit these heights.
Experience – the corporate equivalent to the nets – takes time to develop. But being on first name terms with our values means we can push boundaries and face new challenges; they act as a guide for speedy decision making.
Sports psychologists have also proven that intrinsic motivation – playing for the love of the game, as opposed to rewards or pressure – significantly improves training and performance. A high internal drive makes a good player great, and the best teams understand how to spot such qualities. Businesses must divert attention towards values as a means of replicating this knack.
Dictionary definitions for sport and business tell two different tales. One talks of goods, services, and financial gain, while the other speaks of fun and physical exertion. But the truth is that these once separate spheres are now firmly intertwined. Professional sport is big business, and its stars prove that they can rule the corporate roost.
As sporting setups continue to come to terms with enterprise, industry champions should glance back with studious eyes.
Taking leaves on vision and values from the annals of sport will hand corporations a sizeable sum.
About the author
Co-Founder and Director of Auricoe
The first values-led recruitment company. Specialising in audit, risk, compliance & ethics recruitment across the UK and Europe.