Sport Means Business

by Zbiggy 7th September 2015

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while now after watching an incredible one-day cricket series between England and New Zealand, and reading a very good piece in the FT Weekend Magazine about what business can learn from football and its talent management.

As a bit of a preamble, for those that don’t know, I’m a sports nut. The only sport I’ve never been interested in is horse racing. I reckon this is probably down to my all-or-nothing personality and therefore a sense of self-preservation. Given the whole sport is betting-driven, I probably wouldn’t have needed much encouragement to blow my life savings on a horse running in the 3.15 at Uttoxeter, rather than investing in my business. :-)

Anyway, and yes I know, I know, I have a habit of occasionally heading off on a tangent, back to the intent of the post, namely “sport means business”.

Having touched upon football and rugby in past posts, and given the fantastic one-day series against New Zealand, and then the fascinating Ashes series (well done, England!), I thought it would be interesting to look at what cricket especially, and sport in general, can teach us about business.

Given all the Ashes exposure, I’m going to focus on the England vs New Zealand one series, which I believe was the conduit to our exceptional Ashes victory.

The Individual and the Team

The main reason I’ve decided to focus on cricket in this post is what for me makes it so fascinating to watch. Namely, it’s a one-on-one battle, be it batting, bowling or fielding. But, at the same time, it’s a real team sport, with the clear understanding that to be successful you need the help, support and assistance of your fellow team mates.

Therefore, as with any company, it’s this ability to match the individual talents with a true collective culture that is so important to have a winning team. This for me is especially key if you want to have long term, sustainable success.

If you look at the most successful teams in cricket during my lifetime, those that have dominated the sport like the West Indies and Australia, they had not only incredible characters but also a fantastic sense of team spirit.

Leaving cricket aside for a moment, I went to see my mate Ads in Scotland and he treated me to a VIP package and stadium tour for Raith Rovers v Hibernian. I really enjoyed it, but what truly struck me was a comment made by our tour guide, an ex-player, when giving us an understanding of the dressing room culture.

As a small club they had always prided themselves on a real team spirit, yet he openly stated that it took just one player coming in, no matter how experienced or talented, to break that.

It answered something that had been playing on my mind, namely why United had dominated the Premier League for so many years, while City, despite all the recent riches had not done the same.

My view: At United, the likes of Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville et al, while all fiercely competitive, grew up in a team culture that encouraged the individual. Whereas City bought a lot of incredibly talented individuals and expected to make them a team.

Put simply, a real team ethos that people have completely bought into, and live and breathe on a daily basis, cannot be underestimated and is rarely beaten.

A Dead Fish Rots from the Head

One of my real passions is the importance of “Leadership”. It came as no surprise to me, after the sacking of Peter Moores, that the interim appointment of Paul Farbrace had such an immediate impact on the one-day series, especially on Eoin Morgan, the captain.

The turnaround between Morgan’s and the team’s performances at the World Cup and the one-day series was quite simply astounding. For me this was down to two incredibly important factors:

  • A coach who trusted his players to just do what comes naturally and therefore a captain who could be himself.
  • A no-fear culture that allowed the players to actually enjoy themselves and play accordingly.

These points for me are especially pertinent. As mentioned in previous posts, I was incredibly fortunate to have bosses that just let me be. The only time, and luckily this was very rare, I stopped enjoying work and became far less productive, was when I was micromanaged.

For any team or company to be truly successful, you shouldn’t micromanage talent. You have to set an agreed vision, strategy and culture, and then let people just do it by being themselves.

In addition, and this for me is the worst trait, truly crap leaders surround themselves with people who don’t pose a threat to their job. Great leaders want the best results, and therefore surround themselves with the best teams, plus they inspire and trust people. I couldn’t agree more with Trevor Bayliss, the new England coach, when he said in a recent interview that he wants 11 leaders on the pitch. Amen!

So, like the England team, if you want success surround yourself with talented, real team players and create a no-fear culture that inspires and excites them, and crucially lets them get on with making it happen.

And finally, for any budding leaders out there, while it may be easy to blame your staff for poor results, sorry, for me the buck stops with the person in charge. Always. As one of my ex-bosses said: “A dead fish rots from the head”.

No Place to Hide

For me, the fascinating thing about sport in general is that like any business it’s all about results. However, unlike general business not only are the results immediate in sport but everybody involved is subjected to incredible live scrutiny.

Let’s face it, in most long-standing businesses it takes years to build or destroy a company. Also, because of this and the myriad of people involved, it’s generally quite difficult to assess who did what and therefore properly allocate responsibility for a company’s success or failure.

Sport in general and cricket, especially now, given the exceptional coverage and analysis, means that any and all weaknesses and strengths are immediately put under the spotlight.

It was fascinating to watch both the captains, Brendon McCullum and Eoin Morgan, in the one-day series, epitomise the most important leadership traits. Namely, leading from the front, fearless, incredibly inventive and yet also ensuring that, while fiercely competitive, the series was played in an incredible spirit of sportsmanship.

Not only can businesses learn from the above, but it would be fascinating, given the money they earn and riches they control, if we were able to watch the leading CEOs and their top teams subjected to the same live scrutiny by their shareholders. Yes, it will never happen, but it’d defo be the one reality show I’d be willing and wanting to watch.

Analysis Paralysis and the Curse of the “Textbook” Approach

OK, one of my major bugbears is the complete overkill approach re data and the so-called “textbook” approach that so many coaches in sport and business seem to be obsessed with.

Using a simple maths formula: ‘equal to’ will never be ‘greater than’. The most amazing players and the most amazing companies are the ones that normally break the “rule book”, not follow it.

It was great to see Jimmy Anderson recently break the English record for the most wickets taken. However, what is less well known is that after breaking onto the scene as an incredible wicket-taking bowler, the powers that be decided the action wasn’t textbook. The result was, after they tried to get him to remodel his action, a number of years in the wilderness. It was only when he went back to his natural action that he became the mainstay of the attack and ultimately our leading wicket-taker.

As Shane Warne, the Australian spinner and record-breaking bowler, said: “A coach is something that takes you to the stadium and back”. Love it!

The most talented and therefore likely to be the most unorthodox, the “creative mavericks” as I like to call them, don’t need real coaching; they just need to be allowed to get on with it.

We have become obsessed with data and process to a level that I’m finding unnerving. Data, analysis and process are all well and good at the right time and in the right place, but ultimately it has to be down to the individuals on the front line to make decisions as they see fit, and ensure this is what comes naturally.

To prove my point, it was fascinating to hear Nasser Hussain mention that one of the all-time great bowlers, Glenn McGrath, wasn’t coached until he was 22. Go figure!

Cometh the Hour, Cometh the Man!

It was great to see, both during the one-day series and the Ashes, how many players were willing to stand up and be counted when it really mattered. Joe Root, Moeen Ali, Jimmy Anderson, Mark Wood, Steven Finn, Ben Stokes and, last but not least, Stuart Broad, to name a few.

It was not only great to see, but also the humility and team ethic of each of them was exceptional to watch and so refreshing.

I have a simple rule in life: it’s easy to have close friends, talented work colleagues or great partners during the good times, but it’s during the more difficult times that you truly get to distinguish the wheat from the chaff.

Also, as an aside, it’s been absolutely brilliant to see the amount of time the England team have spent with the fans signing autographs, taking selfies etc. Let’s face it, without fans, sport would die. So it was brilliant to see a team that understands and actually really appreciates this.

It’s Got to be Fun

One of the real joys for me watching both the one-day series against New Zealand and the Ashes series, was the approach of both Joe Root and Mark Wood.

It was such a refreshing change to see a couple of young guys actually smiling and having fun. We have got so used to sport and business in general being one of an incredibly “serious” philosophy.

Therefore, it was great to see a couple of young guys playing with smiles on their faces and not only truly enjoying the moment, but also performing brilliantly.

Let’s face it, who would be willing when their leader has just been hit in the balls to be viewed by millions at the Cardiff test laughing his head off? Just brilliant!

Guys keep smiling. Remember, it’s just a game. Enjoy it!

PS Woody, I hope you can keep riding that horse of yours to more victories!

Putting Things in Perspective

Building on the above about cricket just being a game, it was refreshing to hear Trevor Bayliss, having survived a terrorist attack when coach of Sri Lanka, stating that it put sport in perspective.

Having been involved in the rat-race and painfully learnt my lesson, it truly scares me how the work, work, work culture seems to have taken over our lives.

So a few words of wisdom based on experience:

1. Don’t worry about what people expect, do what makes sense to you. From a very early age we are conditioned to behave and act in a certain way. I say screw that and fuck convention, do what comes naturally. When you do what is “expected” rather than needed or natural you are, in my opinion, on the slippery slope to failure and therefore obscurity.

2. Make time to think not do. I remember being told on many occasions that it is implementation not strategy that matters. Sorry, I couldn’t disagree more. Based on real, hard-earned experience, it’s the quality of the time spent on making sure your strategy is right and then implemented properly that is the real game-changer.

3. Enjoy and explore. Building on the above point, it’s important that we all take time to not only chill but also open our minds to new ideas and influences. My advice is to take time out, look, listen, read, meet and chat with interesting people. You never know what inspiration and learning you can get from all this. Believe me, it’s far more productive than sitting in wall-to-wall meetings.

It’s all in the ‘tache

Finally, and to end this post, once I had seen the Australian team and especially the pantomime villain they always bring to these shores (in this case David Warner), I knew we would win the Ashes.

Sorry mate, and maybe you grew it for charity, but that is not a moustache to strike fear into our boys. Just for info, I leave you with a few examples from the past and will let you decide.


“Howzat” for a conclusion?