First Past the Post

First Past the Post

Perhaps it’s because the Olympic torch is about to start wending its way across Britain (albeit for most of the way in the back of a truck), but there seems to have been an increasing interest in teaching the business aspects of sport recently. EMLYON business school in France, for example, begins its new MSc in Sports and Outdoor Industry Management this autumn, and across Britain and America, schools such as Liverpool, Coventry, George Washington in D.C. and Drexel in Philadelphia are all offering sports-oriented Masters or MBA programmes.

Clearly business schools are well placed to offer tips on finance and management to sporting enterprises. But some business-school professors wonder whether it also works the other way around: can sportsmen teach anything to the next generation of corporate leaders?

Some of sport’s most successful managers apply remarkably old fashioned principles. Few bosses now think the best way to motivate staff is to subject them to the “hairdryer treatment”, an in-your-face dresssing down famously perfected by Sir Alex Ferguson (pictured), the boss of Manchester United and English football’s most successful coach. Still, bosses who are evaluated on quarterly results might learn a thing or two from athletes who are judged in hundredths of a second.

According to Keith Hatter of K2, a management consultancy, one of the first lessons that business hotshots could learn is preparation. ”In the sports world there is a much greater emphasis on preparation than there is in corporate life. Even though most businesses recognise how important it is. Elite athletes operate in an environment where as much as 90% of their time is spent in preparation, and just 10% doing the job. No company could duplicate this, but there is certainly too much of an obsession with ‘doing’ in the corporate world at the expense of planning and understanding.”

In the majority of businesses too much effort goes into working out what has one wrong, what doesn’t work. In sport it’s the complete opposite. The emphasis is on understanding what makes someone good at what they do, how they can become even better at it and how they can pass on these lessons to others in their team.

With both an NFL prospect and an Olympic gold medal skier in his classroom, it’s no surprise that Karl Moore, a professor at McGill University in Canada, should also find parallels between sporting and business achievement. One of the most surprising is the concentration on fitness that athletes and top managers seem to share. “I’ve interviewed over 200 CEOs in my time,” he says, “and what’s struck me is just how much time they spend working out to maintain their physical fitness at the high level they see as necessary to cope with the stresses of such a demanding job.” However he maintains that one of the best lessons that sports can teach aspiring entrepreneurs and business leaders comes directly from a student who is also a professional footballer—the danger of complacency. “It becomes clear that every single day you should be learning, developing and improving, because if you don’t you are going to lose out to someone who does achieve all these things.” Perhaps a dose of the hairdryer treatment might help.

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