High-performance elite sportspeople have always been attractive to the world of business for promotional purposes but now the links are more than skin deep. Chris Sheedy reports.
Are sport and business really such great bed partners? It depends on your approach.
When Oarsome Foursome rowing legend Nick Green made the move from the sporting arena to the world of business he was surprised to find his training as an athlete translated exceptionally well to the office environment.
The principles of sport and business, in my opinion, are exactly the same, they just happen to be in two different fields, Green says. As an athlete you try to do two things set yourself or your team a common goal and ensure, both individually and within the team, that you’re able to achieve that goal. In business the challenge is trying to identify the team objective; the goal. Then you can set the way you conduct yourself, and the way your staff perform, to achieve that outcome.
As Access Manager for the Bluearth Institute, a health based organisation which aims to decrease the diseases caused by sedentary living, Green looks after corporate marketing, sales, branding, alliances and partnerships.
It’s a major responsibility and a long way from the boat in which he earned two Olympic gold medals (Atlanta 1996 and Barcelona 1992) and four world championships. But Green is convinced his sporting experience gave him most of the tools he needs to succeed in business.
I know how it feels to achieve at the highest possible level, he says. Successful athletes are passionate, committed, dedicated, hardworking and goal-oriented all those principles are in place already. They just need to be applied to a different environment.
Lessons from the field
The sporting and business worlds have never been closer. Successful coaches and players are in enormous demand to share their secrets with business managers and team leaders. Sports sponsorship is a booming industry worth hundreds of millions of dollars annually. Business leaders are happily volunteering their time to mentor the country’s best-known athletes and those sportspeople, once their time on the field is over, rather than heading off to become TV presenters, are being wooed by the business dollar. But how much do business and sport really have to offer each other?
Performance psychologist Gavin Freeman, who has worked with corporate entities as well as Olympic, Paralympic and World Cup Rugby teams, reckons we haven’t even scraped the surface.
For an athlete it is essential to concentrate on repeating behaviours, says Freeman, who has launched his own company, Business Olympian, to share success secrets of elite athletes with businesspeople.
In business it is assumed you will repeat behaviours which led to a successful outcome. But I bet my last dollar that most businesspeople don’t really know how they created such a success, or why exactly they failed.
To illustrate his point he gives the example of an Olympic archer. Their ultimate goal is to have their arrow land in the bullseye. If, however, they only concentrate on this final goal then success will be less likely.
Elite athletes have been trained over many years to learn and repeat every process in order to achieve the final goal. Their stance is a process, as is the drawback of the bow, aiming to the right or left in order to allow for arrow movement caused by wind, the correct amount of tension on the string, and the timing of the release.
Only when all of these processes are absolutely correct, and can be repeated flawlessly, will the athlete become a champion.
Is there really a need to set outcome-related goals in business? Freeman challenges. When businesses go about achieving their final objectives, their aim needs to be short-term goals they need to be process-focused, just as elite sportspeople are. The people involved should buy into the desired outcome but more easily see the step-by-step process by which they can achieve it.
This concentration on process and short-term objectives, Freeman says, is also of immense value for an organisation’s mindset.
If the final objective is to be in the top 20 in their industry by the end of the year, but something uncontrollable happens at the last moment and prevents that goal from being achieved, most organisations would consider this a failure.
Sportspeople, however, experience these failures time and time again, but because they’re concentrating on processes, they know that each time their final goal is not achieved they’re still coming closer to perfecting their repeated behaviours and achieving that goal.
If an organisation does not concentrate on its short-term processes and goals, even when it succeeds in its final objective it will have no idea how to repeat the success.
If a business does not achieve their overall goal, Freeman continues, they should still be able to say they managed to get two-thirds of it done. They did achieve something valuable and they’re much closer to achieving that main goal next time.
Leigh Matthews, legendary senior coach of the Brisbane Lions Australian Football Club, led his team to three consecutive AFL championships from 2001-2003 (in 2004 the Lions were defeated only in the grand final). The club is now experiencing record membership, record crowds and a massive profile. Matthews, who played for Hawthorn Football Club from 1969 to 1985, was also named in the AFL Team Of The Century. Some say he’s the best AFL player ever.
Matthews believes experience gained from team sport at any level is not only useful in business, but in life itself.
When kids play team sport it teaches them a few things. They’re working towards the team being successful, but everyone in the team is not their best friend. They have to work with people they like and people they don’t like towards the same end. That’s a pretty good lesson for life because that’s the way life is.
His words of wisdom have been so heavily sought after by businesspeople that Matthews has released a video through Coaching Corporate Australia, outlining the ten building blocks required to create an elite team.
At the Lions Football Club my title is senior coach, but I think of myself as GM or CEO of the Lions Football Department. We’re a medium-sized business in that regard. I manage about 60 people whose skills I need to utilise to get the best results. The players are like the sales and marketing people, the public face of the organisation. But all the people behind the scenes finance, administration and production are equally important.
Each individual is driven by their own ambitions, Matthews continues. In a group setting those ambitions will only be realised by helping the group to be successful. It’s the difference between a word like sacrifice’, which implies that I’m giving something up and getting nothing in return, and investment’, where you will get your individual return by investing in the team.
Matthews and Freeman both agree sport can also learn a few lessons from the business world. Freeman has implemented SWOT analyses into his sessions with sportspeople, as well as 360° evaluations between players, coaches and managers, but currently the major direction of information flow is from sport to business.
In mid 2004, 30 senior executives travelled to Camp Wallaby in Coffs Harbour , the Australian rugby team’s training camp, to meet the Wallabies one on one and set up mentoring relationships. The group included such luminaries as QANTAS CFO Peter Gregg, former Ford Australia president David Morgan and MBF chief executive Eric Dodd.
Relationships between elite businesspeople and elite athletes have become personal, and, as comfort levels rise, the money flowing between the two groups has reached monumental levels. For the final three years of its Wallabies sponsorship Vodafone handed over $15 million.
Matthew Christie, Managing Director of CNBC Australia & New Zealand, a world leader in providing cable business and financial information the world over, says The Wallabies have had three sponsors in six or seven years, and the problem with naming rights is that a lot of people refuse to call them the Vodafone Wallabies’.
So I’m not 100 per cent sure that they’re getting what they paid for.
My feeling is that when you’re among eight or nine sponsors, such as the cricket tours of Australia and India , it diminishes the exposure you get. You’re essentially paying top dollar to be one of nine sponsors, he continues. The best thing about sports sponsorship, I guess, is a winning team and the worst thing is a losing team. If I’d sponsored Souths Rugby League last year I’d be a bit concerned about where my money went.
But Christie accepts the relationship between sport and business is a healthy one which will always prosper. Look at Michael Hawker, an ex-Wallaby who now runs IAG. He says he learned a lot of his business practices from sport. And John Eales works for BT Funds, resolving issues in complex situations. He’s a relationship builder that would have a lot to do with his history as captain of the Wallabies. It’s a great fit.
But there are also a lot of teams, especially in rugby league, who’ve put ex players in administration positions and found themselves in a whole lot of strife. Someone who’d done an accountancy course and knew nothing about the game of rugby league would probably have been a better choice.
The relationship between sport and business is here to stay, but the dollar amounts shared between the two will never be taken for granted. And while superhumans such as Nick Green will slot comfortably and successfully into the business world, demand for business professionals will increase in the sporting world also. After all, major sports teams are big business too.
Are deals still struck on the golf course?
The idea of contract negotiation and wheeling and dealing on the golf course conjures images from the heady days of the eighties but does it still happen today? Here’s what those in the know have to say
I don’t think it happens much at all. The game of golf gives people an opportunity to know each other a bit better and cement relation-ships, as opposed to them talking deals. It assists in building business relationships.
General Manager Terrey Hills
Golf & Country Club
In my industry there are not any key decisions made on a golf course. It’s good for relationship-building and entertaining clients or getting to know your staff. But if you’re entertaining on expensive golf courses all the time I imagine the client would be wondering why you don’t translate those costs into a better price for them instead.
Managing Director CNBC
Australia & New Zealand
Not really, it doesn’t happen. We’re in the sports entertainment business, so if we’re not providing what our members, corporate supporters and sponsors want then no game of golf will save us.
Senior Coach Brisbane Lions Australian Football Club
Boomers’ super coach
Brian Goorjian Head Coach of the Sydney Kings and the Australian Men’s Olympic Basketball team, the Boomers is the most successful basketball coach in Australian sports history and is widely regarded as one of the best coaches in Australian sport.
Goorjian says the key to building a great team, in both sport and business, is empowerment and selection.
With the Boomers, we put as much effort into that, with the leadership team, with the support team and the captain, as we do with our conditioning, with our defence and our plays, he says.
Goorjian is one of the premier speakers on the motivation circuit. He speaks about building culture, selection of people, motivating teams, empowerment, leadership, and gaining and maintaining respect.
The feedback I’m getting is that a lot of businesses are working along these lines.
What we’re trying to do in sport, they’re trying to do in business, Goorjian says. And he believes that sport is really ahead of business, as far as understanding how a team should work: carrying the roles, communications, goal setting and working as a team.
It’s a focus point, so I think it is seen as something considered more important in sport than people do in business. And I think business is starting to realise Hey, if we don’t have these things, then we’re not going to be where we want to be’.