Senior Consultant Foulger Underwood
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Accountants can take inspiration from sports managers
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Lessons from sport: The leadership game


With the Euros football tournament and Olympics over, cricket in full swing and the Paralympics starting this week, sport will continue to provide a focus towards the end of summer. Phil Shohet draws the parallels between on-field and off-field management techniques.

23rd Aug 2021
Senior Consultant Foulger Underwood
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People whose closest acquaintance with any form of physical exercise is the 10m dash from sofa to fridge during TV commercial breaks will be giving us the benefit of their expert opinion on the performance and decision making of individual teams, coaches and managers.

All these armchair coaches have one thing in common: an unshakable belief that their team would do very much better if they were in charge. Yet if you were to offer these individuals the opportunity to take over the management of their companies, few would have the same confidence in their abilities.

The worlds of work and sport are very different… Or are they?

It’s no coincidence that once their playing days are over many leading sportsmen and women carve out careers for themselves as motivational speakers, sharing the secrets of their ability to compete and win under any circumstances. Companies look to successful sporting teams for inspiration to improve their performance and send their employees on courses designed to identify those with leadership abilities and encourage better all-round teamwork.

A team game

People who work together as a team function more effectively than a group of individuals trying to achieve the same objective but not pulling together. It seems logical to suppose that sport has many lessons to teach the commercial world when it comes to maximising the skills and potential of their employees.

Accountancy practices are no different to any other commercial organisation when it comes to management. Good management is vital for success and this means having the right people in charge.

But all too often in accountancy management is seen simply as part of the career progression from lowly auditor to the dizzy heights of partner - rather than as a specialist skill in its own right. This is where firms could learn from the very different attitude that prevails in sport.

Examining the advice from a range of top sporting managers reveals a number of common themes. One of the most important is players play, managers manage. To be truly effective in a leadership and teaching role, it is impossible to be part of the team as well. Just as importantly, technical expertise and management ability do not necessarily go hand-in-hand. New Zealand All Blacks rugby coach Graham Henry never played at international level, yet he was responsible for managing the most successful rugby team in the world.

Likewise, the American John Wooden was considered to be one of the greatest basketball coaches – he never played the game. He believed his astonishing success was founded in the planning, preparation, practice and then performance. Winning or losing is a by-product, an after-effect of that effort. It is the quality of that effort that counts most and offers the greatest and long-lasting satisfaction.

The manager’s support and attitude towards individuals within the team are integral to long term success. “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care” is a mantra repeated by many top coaches. Their motivational key is to convey clearly what they want the individual to achieve, not just for the good of the team but because they also have a genuine interest in seeing that person fulfil his or her potential. The success of the team as a whole follows as a natural result.

Performance in review

Just one aspect of this attitude is the different approach to performance review. In sporting teams, this is a continuous process and a major part of the management role. In business it is a formalised process that happens, generally, on an annual basis. But why wait a year to tell someone that they are not doing a good job, or to wait to promote them?

Finding the right players for the team is key to success and many sporting managers are surprised at how little effort the business world seems to expend on search and selection. There can be few HR managers or staff partners who cannot recall several occasions where new recruits failed to live up to the promise of their CV.

Indeed, surveys show that a considerable number of CVs have little relation to the achievements and abilities of the author. This is extremely rare in the world of sport as managers are far more rigorous in the selection process and take nothing for granted. Personality profiling is common for new players, with the results analysed by the manager/coach to better understand the individual and how they need to be handled.

One of the big advantages sporting managers have is their ability to drop under-performing or disruptive players. Legislation in the commercial world makes it far more difficult – yet another reason for business to take a great deal more time and trouble with their staff selection process.

Individual responsibility

Another vital element of success in sporting management is the level of responsibility that managers give to their players. Many include more experienced members of the team in discussions about tactics and team selection. This serves two functions. First, it allows the players to feel part of the chosen methods and goals of the team, thereby strengthening their commitment.

Second, the more responsibility they have, the better they will perform. They will feel valued, their self-esteem will improve, their belief in what they do will increase and they will be accountable for their actions.

Perhaps one of the greatest differences between the manager in sport and the manager in business is that in sport failure can be very public. Get it wrong the press and public will be baying for blood. A coach needs nerves of steel and the hide of a rhino. However, while their mistakes may be less world-shattering or public, the business manager also needs to have the courage of their convictions. This is particularly true of managing partners in accountancy practices who, in the current business climate, are having to make radical changes in the way in which their firms are managed and finding themselves exposed or undermined by more conservative colleagues.

Delivering change

Managers in both sport and business need to be aware of the changing times in which we live. They are generally working with younger people, in their teens and 20s, so they meet cultural and attitudinal change on a daily basis. They know that unquestioning obedience is a thing of the past and that age and experience do not automatically confer respect. Managers in business must plan carefully to gain the obedience and respect of a broad range of people.

Unfortunately, too many think that management simply means telling them someone else what to do without any discussion, context or respect.

On reflection, it is perhaps not surprising that the rules for good management in sport are broadly similar to those in business. The ultimate objective is the same: working together to achieve success. In business this means growth and profitability. In sporting terms, it means accolades, fame and of course increased earning ability.

Taking lessons from those who coax extraordinary performances out of ordinary people in sport will perhaps help those whose task is also to coax extraordinary performances out of ordinary people in business.

Phil Shohet FCA is a senior consultant at Foulger Underwood


Replies (5)

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By Rhys
24th Aug 2021 09:59

Thanks Phil.

"He believed his astonishing success was founded in the planning, preparation, practice and then performance. Winning or losing is a by-product, an after-effect of that effort. It is the quality of that effort that counts most".

I cannot tell you how strongly I agree with this - so many businesses set performance goals based on outcome - sales targets met, budgets exceeded, etc, on the outcome not the input.

But listen to sportsmen/women being interviewed (especially during breaks in play) - all they ever talk about is the process: making more first serves, eliminating handling errors, bowling a good line & length, etc. They never discuss the result whilst the game is live.

Business KPIs really need to be set on processes, on things the employee can control, and which are aligned to the businesses goals. Get enough of those right across enough people in the team (hopefully everyone) and the results will follow. Then yes, by all means reward the result - but make sure that is linked back to those performance based KPIs.

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Replying to Rhys:
paddle steamer
24th Aug 2021 14:00

I suspect measurement difficulties re application, effort and input push the targeting towards more readily measurable outcomes.

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By AndrewV12
01st Sep 2021 10:56

Its probably easier to sack a premier league manager than an accounts manager, no matter how crap they are.

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By Mortons
09th Sep 2021 09:31

Accountancy practices are no different to any other commercial organisation when it comes to management. Good management is vital for success and this means having the right people in charge.

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By Mortons
10th Sep 2021 07:38

This blog post will look at a number of different sports, and the life skills they require to succeed, as well as enable you to develop through taking part. The aim is to get an idea of how participating in a mixture of sports can aid the development of numerous life skills.

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