Features: June 22nd, 2012

There are similarities between sports and public sector organisations. Professor Graham Jones examines the reasons for the similarities and describes how a common approach to being the best can bring success in both spheres.

The majority of Public Sector leaders I have worked with have a ravenous fascination with and curiosity about top-level sports. I have no doubt that most of them have secretly dreamed of being star athletes themselves. Whenever they find out about my involvement in the magical world of such people, they besiege me with questions. How do their heroes cope with sometimes over-intrusive interest in their professional and private lives? What are those people like? How do they motivate themselves to endure the intensity of training they subject themselves to day in and day out? Why does the U.S. Ryder Cup golf team, with the best players in the world, so often struggle to overcome Europe’s team?

Businesspeople in general are so fascinated with elite sport that companies pay vast fees to listen to inspirational talks by sporting legends. But what do they learn from them? Do their stories provide anything more than an opportunity to rub shoulders with names that will impress friends? How can listening to such stars change what executives do when they return to their desks? Some executives are sceptical that it can at all. They see their world as too different from one with such obvious and extreme motivators as Olympic gold medals and world championships.

The common elements in sport and public sector organisations

Elite sports is a powerful metaphor for business, and there are some striking parallels. Fierce competition, winning by sometimes the smallest margins, achieving goals and targets, establishing long-term and short-term strategies and tactics, hard work, perseverance, determination, teamwork, dealing with success and recovering from failure and setbacks–those are all key challenges in both worlds. Success in sports and business alike relies on the ability to continually move performance to higher levels. What you achieve this year will never be good enough next year. Goals and standards move onward and upward, creating an unrelenting demand to find new means and methods to ensure the delivery of performance curves that can seem tantalizingly, or even impossibly, out of reach.

I have spent most of my career researching and understanding the world’s best athletes. Having long consulted with Olympic and world champions, I founded Top Performance Consulting, a performance consultancy. I’ve been applying the lessons I’ve learned from athletes with leaders in public sector organisations

The common mindset

The first crucial lesson is that elite athletes are not born but made. Obviously there has to be some inborn natural ability–coordination, flexibility, anatomical and physiological capacity–just as successful senior leaders need to be able to both strategize and relate to people. But the real key to sustained excellence for both elite sports and business leaders is not the ability to swim fast or do quantitative analyses quickly in their heads; rather, it is the development of mental toughness.

The ability to thrive under almost inhuman pressure is perhaps the most defining characteristic of elite athletes. They excel when the heat is turned up. They are able to stay focused on the things that really matter in the face of a multitude of potential distractions. They are able to bounce back from setbacks with a determination and intense desire to succeed. And, most crucially, they are able to maintain their belief in themselves in the most trying circumstances.

The common approach

What lessons can they bring to leaders of public sector organisations? For the very best athletes, making it to the top is the result of very careful planning, setting and hitting hundreds of small goals. And if it’s hard reaching the top, that’s nothing compared to what it takes to stay there. Expectations are enormous, and you become the target and benchmark for every other competitor. You have reached heady heights and have become highly visible and exposed. It’s a marvellous place to be, but it also comes with great potential vulnerability and loneliness if things go wrong. Sustained success in such an environment requires astounding physical ability, but that isn’t enough to make you better than all the rest. You need an extraordinary mindset too. The positive and resilient mindsets of the best athletes underpin their drive and ability to reinvent themselves continuously in order to stay ahead of the pack. Does any of this sound familiar from your world?

Finally, especially important in today’s roller coaster public sector environment, these elite athletes take time to celebrate their victories. It helps remind them why all the hard work and commitment is worthwhile. At a time when survival is a key priority in so many organisations, don’t forget to spend time celebrating successes, however small they may be.

My work with senior leaders and their teams over the last 15 years has focused on applying and adapting these lessons in their worlds. Of course, there are some differences between sports and public sector organisations, but there are too many similarities and parallels to ignore. Perceiving them can help drive you and your organisation to achievements and successes that others only dream about.

Professor Graham Jones is the founder of Top Performance Consulting Ltd.