I’m really glad Archbishop Tutu refused to share a platform with Tony Blair at the recent Discovery Leadership Summit. Not because I share his moral outrage – on the contrary, I think his reaction was quite rude and juvenile. There are far better ways to make your point (like using the platform you have been given, for one). I can just imagine the chaos behind the scenes as Discovery scrambled to find a suitable replacement speaker. They could hardly have done better – Tutu’s withdrawal opened up a slot for the esteemed Professor Tim Noakes and special guest Chad le Clos.
Noakes’s presentation was the highlight of the summit for me. He drew intriguing parallels between the leadership role of the sports coach and that of the business leader. Drawing on historic moments in sporting history, Noakes showed how the quiet influence of the coach had a huge role to play in shaping the performance of the athletes. He argued that leaders in business can be equally influential in inspiring peak performance from the employees they lead.
This got me thinking about how much better the workplace would be, in general, if businesses were run like sports teams. Or, conversely, how ridiculous sports would be if they were run like our modern corporations.
Picture the scene. Usain Bolt has just won the 100m final in a blistering time of 9.63 seconds, setting a new Olympic record. Predictably, he is now strutting up and down the track, beating his chest, and performing his usual self-adulatory routine. The race director decides that Bolt is not a “team player” and chooses instead to award the gold medal to John Upton-Smith, whom he has known for years – in fact, they attended the same private school together. Silver goes to Sipho Tshabalala who didn’t have the same opportunities to train as Usain, so can’t be expected to perform at the same level. And the bronze medal is awarded to Sammy Sikkofant, who agrees with everything the race director does and keeps telling him how wonderful he is.
In such a world, Anna Kournikova would actually win a Grand Slam because she’s “hot”. Andy Murray would beat Roger Federer in the Wimbledon final because he’s British. And Oscar Pistorius would win the 400m Olympic final because he’s “awesome”, and “what a feel-good story that would be”.
In the real world of sports, however, it’s all about performance. It’s the great leveller. If you touch the wall first then you win the gold medal – even if the person you beat is the greatest swimmer of all time. No matter your personal circumstances, your skin colour, your qualifications, your experience, who you are or who you know – it’s all about your performance when it matters. If only business could be like that.
One of the big problems is that performance in business is actually quite difficult to measure. In sport, we use a stopwatch or the score-line. It’s objective and transparent. In business, the assessment of performance is usually subjective. We use tools like performance reviews or 360° surveys. It’s not perfect. The question is: can we use the assessment of sports performance to improve the way performance is assessed in business?
A different way to improve performance
Take rugby or soccer. After every single match, the coaching team sits down with the players and meticulously reviews video footage of the game. Every play is analysed in painstaking detail. Players’ mistakes are magnified and pulled apart. Successes are analysed to see what led to that success, so that it can be replicated in the future. And immediate action plans are put in place to address any observed shortcomings before the next game.
Now let’s look at what happens in business. Managers rarely sit down with their employees one-on-one to review their performance. At most this happens once a year, if at all. The annual feedback session rarely goes down to the level of detail required to make real changes in behaviour. And action plans are usually fuzzy or non-existent.
Imagine a world where the manager sits down with each employee after every project and gives detailed feedback on the employee’s performance for that project. The manager highlights the employee’s strengths in dealing with the project, as well as weaker areas to work on. And finally, the manager puts together an immediate action plan for the employee to improve his or her performance for the next project. What do you think the performance of the company would be in such a world? What type of talent would be attracted to work in such an environment?
The wrong focus
Another key lesson to learn from sports is where we should be focusing our efforts to improve. Sachin Tendulkar is a cricketing legend. He’s one of the world’s greatest batsmen, having scored over 15 000 test runs at an average of 55.08. He also bowls occasionally, though he has had far less success in this area (just 45 test wickets at an average of 54.46). He wouldn’t make any international team on the strength of his bowling alone. When Sachin goes out to practise every day, where do you think he should be focusing most of his efforts – his bowling or his batting?
If you’re a typical manager, the answer would be to focus on his bowling.
That’s where he’s weak, so that’s where there’s the most room for improvement. If you’re a typical coach, however, the answer would be to focus on his batting. That’s where he is going to win matches for you. Sachin is never going to be a world-class bowler, no matter how much time he spends practising. Yet small improvements in his batting technique can push him even further up the table of all-time batting greats.
Traditional management thinking has got it all wrong (though the strengths-based approach to leadership development is fortunately starting to attract some following).
A more radical lesson
The most important lesson, however, lies in the very definition of successful performance in sports. The success of a coach is inextricably linked to the success of the team he leads. If the team wins, the coach is lauded. If the team loses, the coach is lambasted. And if the team loses often enough, the coach loses his job.
In business, it’s the opposite. Employees only get rewarded if the manager succeeds. If a team doesn’t achieve its targets, who gets fired? I’ll give you a clue – it’s usually not the manager. Imagine how much more motivated managers would be if their own success was inextricably tied to the success of the employees they lead – to the point where their jobs depended on it. The business world would look very different.
Thank you, Professor Noakes, for starting the conversation. Hopefully it doesn’t end here. In the meanwhile, I’ll be firmly planted on my couch in front of the TV this weekend. Go bokke!
Dr Gavin Symanowitz is the founder of FeedbackRocket.com, an award-winning online innovation that enables anonymous management feedback.