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Effective Teams – What Business Can Learn from Sport

One of our HR Director friends recently described his new leadership role as, “inheriting a team like Real Madrid.” What he meant by this was that Real Madrid have traditionally chosen to buy expensive, high profile ‘galactico’ players, but the team has had mixed results. In the HR scenario, this director had a number of individually talented HR professionals, but there was no cohesiveness or teamwork. This was, of course, affecting the team’s ability to produce results, and most importantly it was affecting the business’s perception of the HR group — as a disjointed bunch of individuals, rather than a cohesive HR team with specific delineated roles. There is some accomplished and expensive HR talent going into organisations, but sometimes with mixed results. How can companies ensure that a new hire will be able to deliver the type of favourable outcome that both the organisation and the individual desire? From our observations of the market, we feel the following five key factors can contribute to success both on the football pitch and in the office.

Consistent and Effective Team Management

A level of consistent performance in the HR function is often linked to strong leadership. Significant leadership changes result in high turnover throughout the rest of the function, particularly in Asia Pacific, where there are often succession challenges. When an HR Leader leaves, there is generally 20-30% churn in the team over the next 12 months. In a growth region where business evolution is a constant, HR leadership changes can cause further instability in an already volatile environment. Therefore, a dependable and long-term HR Leader can not only help to attract the best HR talent to that organisation, but he or she can also be a strong vehicle for retention.

To continue the football analogy, evidence shows that clubs with greater management continuity tend to be more successful. Sir Alex Ferguson, one of the most successful football managers in recent times, was not only able to attract the best players to Manchester United from the external market, he was also able to retain that talent and therefore grow from within. In addition, he was a leader who could effectively manage the individual needs within the team.

“Coaches need to understand each person on the team,” says Gladeana McMahon, an executive life coach in London, who has worked with a number of top business managers using sports metaphors. “They need to know their strengths and limitations, what motivates them. They need to customise the way they talk to each person. They need to find what really makes them tick.” Ferguson was a master of this, as is his successor, Louis van Gaal, who makes it a habit to learn everything about his players, their lives and their families, as part of the process of establishing what makes his professionals tick. In an HR context, this includes understanding personal motivations, and providing career enhancement through rotations into specialist roles, international assignments, promoting at the right time, and building a diverse team with complementary skills.

Confidence in Leadership

The best sports managers share their vision for the future and ensure players are bought into this. They commit to winning trophies, but they also communicate on a 1-1 basis so that each player in the team knows exactly what their role is in reaching the objective. As a leading Human Resources expert said, “Leaders must recognise the need to attract ‘followers.’ To follow, people must feel confidence in the direction in which the leader is headed. They must feel enabled and empowered to do their part in accomplishing the stated objectives. Followers need to believe that, at the end of the journey, they will be recognized and rewarded for their contribution.” Longevity can also play a role in attracting and retaining followers. People who have followed a leader for ten years will continue to follow, unless they lose trust in the leader’s direction.

Build the Right Foundation

Just as when a new football manager arrives at a new club, a new HR leader will often look at an inherited team and make significant changes. They will offload some ‘players’ and buy in others – often people they have worked with before. This immediate change can often drive performance, but after the initial impact, it may only serve to lower that overall team performance over a ‘season.’ We see a number of new managers in football sacked within 12-24 months for not delivering prolonged success, despite a promising start. It is, however, only when the new team has worked together and gelled that the {nolink}benefits{/nolink} of the change are realised. In Sir Alex Ferguson’s own words. “The first thought for 99 per cent of new managers is to make sure they win – to survive. They bring experienced players in, often from their previous clubs. But I think it is important to build a structure for a football club, not just a football team. You need a foundation. And there is nothing better than seeing a young player make it to the first team. The idea is that the younger players are developing and meeting the standards that the older ones have set before.”

Peak Performance

So what can managers learn from sport about driving performance? Sir Alex Ferguson talked of instilling a subtler form of discipline, which is about different kinds of limits – both physical and personal. For example, good managers stop players from overtraining, to maintain peak performance for the match, and to prevent injury. Executive Coach McMahon notes, “In business it’s the same. A body is only flesh and blood. If you think you can work 24/7, 365 days a year, it doesn’t matter how powerful you are, eventually it will catch up with you.”

Good sports managers also get star players to sublimate their big egos for the greater good of the team. If each player is trying to score a goal for his personal glory, the team is likely to lose. According to Dr. Ed Weymes, Pro Vice-Chancellor of Waikato University and co-author of ‘Peak Performance: Business Lessons from the World’s Top Sports Organisations,’ if the business world looks to sports, it will see “We need to look to the importance of relationships – and that being an individual isn’t always the most effective way of winning.”

Got to Have the ‘Buzz’

In the best teams there is a confidence, a positivity and a general demeanour that breeds success. Manchester Utd had it in the glory years, and someone like Jose Mourinho, current manager of Chelsea, has it in spades as a leader. They create a ‘buzz,’ along with a sense of togetherness and camaraderie that breeds a winning mentality. Interestingly, new studies have tried to measure ‘buzz’ in the workplace. ‘Buzz’ can be loosely defined as body language and communication that can impact the success of the team. A Harvard study in measuring the behaviour of teams that ‘click,’ by installing electronic tags on workers, noticed, “we could sense a buzz in a team, even if we didn’t understand what the members were talking about. That suggested that the key to high performance lay not in the content of a team’s discussions, but in the manner in which it was communicating.” This study also found that the best leaders were ‘charismatic connectors’ — people who talk and listen to everyone, driving conversation and then moving on to the next person, working the room to collect information. When a team has enough of these charismatic connectors on board, it does well. It’s about harvesting information, and then co-ordinating enough with other people to ensure the right flow of ideas around a team or organisation.


There are a number of lessons that business managers can learn from their sports-driven counterparts. Leadership, in any context, remains a balance of allowing the opportunity for input and suggestions, and taking control when a decision must be made and the team needs clear direction. In the
case of Sir Alex Ferguson, he welcomed input from his players, but only on his terms and when he asked for it. Leaders like Sir Alex are only as successful as their teams are, and the great ones know that with the right team dynamics, decisions, discipline and diversity, everyone wins in the end.


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