What can sport learn from business?

If you’re a sports fan, I would imagine the last six odd weeks of coverage from both Olympic games has had you frothing at the mouth, monopolising the telly and shouting down any dissenting channel opinions. Seizure of the remote control is key to the success of this strategy!

In my brief time here in the City (I’m a Kiwi and have been here five years and counting now), I’ve found businesses to be generally willing and open to learn from areas outside of their world – excellence in sport and in the military are regular ‘go to’ places for idea generation.

Anton-caricatureI know a little bit about this because in another life I was a professional rugby player for sixteen years, for thirteen of which I was lucky enough to play for the New Zealand All Blacks. I also had the good fortune to captain the team as well.

Along with a set of cauliflower ears, a liberal sprinkling of arthritis from north to south, broken digits and a face for radio, I guess I’ve accrued some knowledge from my time in sport – most specifically about high performance teams, which look, feel, and behave differently to other teams. Why is that, and how can teams striving to become excellent deliver on this aspiration?

It’s this knowledge that has me speaking to companies and at events from time to time, because, as stated earlier, in my experience the City is generally open to ideas from individuals in sport who have experienced success – Olympians, medal winners, world champions, world ranked players etc – and want the skinny on the secret sauce: how did they do it and what are the lessons that can be applied from sport to business.

However, for all the fawning and bouquets that get dished out to successful sports people and sports organisations, I very rarely see sporting organisations gaze over to the vast sea of white shirts and grey suits and think ‘What can sport learn from business?

And while I believe that there are lots of things that sport can learn from business, I think there’s one concept in particular, above all of the others, that any business worth its salt understands deeply and implicitly: that the customer is at the heart of everything that they do.

All businesses – everyone is selling to someone – know this because their relevance, legitimacy, long-term viability, indeed their very survival, is predicated on them understanding their customers’ needs and delivering to these. History is littered with the skeletons of companies that lost sight of this.

I think the very best sports teams and sporting individuals understand their customers’ needs but most, in my opinion, don’t.

But hold on I hear you say, why does sport need to think about the customer anyway? Surely it’s all about winning isn’t it? You win the game, you get the trophy, sponsors come knocking – happy days.

My argument is that you win the game because you care about something bigger than yourself. Moreover, sustained high performance – intergeneration excellence – can only be achieved by meaning that sits outside of one’s own orbit.

Part of the problem here for sport is a definition of the customer.

When I was in the All Blacks I didn’t see News Corp and Rupert Murdoch as my customer. I hated doing TV ads and any kind of promotional activity for commercial partners because they didn’t seem important or relevant to me (even though they were the ones with all of the loot).

I knew it was part of the deal and I had to do it, but that doesn’t mean I liked doing it.

What did matter to me was what the All Blacks meant to Mrs Miggins, to little Johnny, to Aunt Betsy and Grandad Smith.

I guess looking back, and using the language of this blog, to me, they were my ‘customers’.

I think the best sports teams and individuals leave their egos at the door, are open to the idea that they can learn and improve from anyone, and crucially, they connect to something greater than themselves – i.e. the customer.

That’s certainly a big part of All Blacks culture. We’re agnostic to where the ideas come from and look to innovate and grow irrespective of where we source knowledge. It’s drummed into us that the jersey isn’t ours, we’re simply custodians of it, and it’s our job – individually and collectively – to leave the jersey (and when I say jersey I mean the national identity and ownership of the team that is embodied by the All Blacks jersey) in a better place than when we first received it.

And we’ve just seen that play out in front of us at the Olympics – when natural talent, mental toughness, and a motivation that, in part, is fuelled by achieving something bigger than oneself, remarkable things can happen.

Compare this to the attitude that most of the world’s top male golfers had when they didn’t even bother turning up to Brazil – presumably because no money was going to change hands: there was nothing in it for them.

I don’t know much about football, but I reckon the English team could learn a thing or two by observing some of the elite amateur Olympians and the best businesses in the world; they’d understand that connecting with the ‘customer’ and setting about achieving something for reasons other than personal and team gain just might be time well spent. Let’s hope the new manager can instil this in time for the next World Cup.

The value of investments will fluctuate, which will cause prices to fall as well as rise and you may not get back the original amount you invested. Past performance is not a guide to future performance.