Friday, September 28, 2012

Football & Soccer: Who’s Managing? Who’s Leading?

Is Business a Sport?

Well it’s football time here in the US and baseball is heading into the World Series.  Soccer (European football) is in start-up and hockey is locked-out.  I often wonder what or obsession with sports tells us about how we run our businesses.  Are sports and business connected?

Think of an American football game.  Everything is measured right down to quarterback ratings that cannot even be explained.  The team concept is that everyone has a clearly specified job and that the team succeeds when everyone does their prescribed task.  Wise coaches on the sidelines provide the thought capital to conjure up the next play; only when a play breaks down are players allowed to be creative – and even creativity is within tight boundaries.  At the end of the day, win or lose, every play is broken into its multiple components and analyzed to polish positives and eradicate negatives.

Baseball takes individual statistics to the extreme and precision of play to the ultimate.  In baseball every rotation of the ball is measured and when the ball is actually put into play every player knows the detailed response they must execute.  If your not aware of stats or tactics there isn’t much to do at a ball game.  And I love baseball’s honesty – it doesn’t even pretend that teams are headed by coaches; the main man is known as “the manager.”

Other sports like soccer and hockey have a different nature.  Sure they count goals and know who scored them; they know how long someone is on the playing surface; but coaches don’t control the game, the players do.

During a game of soccer or hockey the coaches do little more than make sure they have the right people in the game.  For the coaches all of the work is done before the game.  Like their counter parts in football and baseball, they get players to buy into a system and each other; they develop skills; and they teach plays.  But here is where the comparison ends.  The coaches can’t control the strategy or tactics of play.  They can explain that players should exploit a particularly vulnerable “defensive midfielder” or shoot high to the goalies weak glove side – but they can’t control the players tightly enough to make these things happen.

Americans often say that soccer is boring or they can’t follow the puck in hockey.  Maybe another reason is that the dynamic flow of these games is counter to the mechanical static nature of football and baseball – the games they have played and love.  In football and baseball there is plenty of time to socialize, analyze, and eat; in soccer and hockey there’s no time to understand what just happened or forecast what’s about to happen.

So, do values and principles embedded in these sports carry over into business?  I think they must.  An executive's understanding of coaches, players, and teams must influence how they run a business. 

I believe that if you have been groomed on games like football and baseball then you will tend toward certain characteristics like a fixation on numbers – starting with profits and all of its derivatives.  Stemming from profits runs an OCD about metrics, rewards and holding people accountable.  This style produces results but the style is more the management mechanics of command and control than the leadership dynamics of flexibility and empowerment. 

Conversely, if you're into games like soccer and hockey (or basketball that was invented by a Canadian trying to bring hockey into the gym) then I think your business models are built from different influences.  For example, you probably see inter-changeability of roles and fluidity of leadership.  You’re also more likely to encourage horizontal achievements and group rewards because you see individuals as collective contributors more than individual heroes. 

Although this sports hypothesis is general I find that it has some application at a national level.  I’m a Canadian and a naturalized US citizen.  This sports insight was valuable in my transition to consulting in the US.  During my transition I found that I was often in a mind warp with my clients.  My hockey mind was competing with the football/baseball models held by many of my clients.  To be effective I had to change my starting perspective by understanding their preferred sport.  In my executive interviews I began probing on sports (yes, with women executives, too).  These interviews grounded me in where to begin, but not where to end. 

Conversely, my initial cultural alignment is better in Europe and many parts of South America where soccer aligns with my hockey background.  The same cannot be said for my experiences in Asia where my hypothesis just doesn’t hold up.

For me Asia is a duality.  Usually there is a strong hierarchical managerial type of authority that can even be manifested in deference from subordinates.  Yet there is also a strong collectivism in organizations – people can discuss issues forever, trying to come to a consensus decision where everyone is recognized and no one loses face.  It’s almost like management from above and leadership from below.

So, what’s the lesson here?  Well first of all I believe that many executives come to the business world holding sports orthodoxies that they transfer into their organizations.  And second, like most sports analogies this one has its limits – it can be helpful in many situations and misleading in just as many.

That’s just my opinion.  I could be wrong.

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