Jumping the Shark: Introducing Elite Sporting Ethos into Organisations

20 April 2017 -


From embedding values to practical application of best practice, business can learn a lot from the most successful sports teams

Guest blogger Nick Wragg

You, like me, may not have heard of Jeff Cable. I hadn’t until recently, when he was called upon to contribute a small ‘thought-piece’ to a national newspaper on the subject of leadership within the NHS.

I had the good fortune to stumble across this little article, slightly lost in the midst of a ten page treatise on all things wrong with our crumbling jewel in the national crown. Jeff – and I like to think he won’t mind me being on familiar terms – according to his profile, retired from nursing in 2001 and is now a locum orthopaedic practitioner.

His piece was titled ‘Peel back unnecessary layers of management’, and I recommend it heartily. He summarised in around 400 words not only everything wrong with NHS management, but in doing so inadvertently described perfectly the same problems facing the public sector in general, especially education, and possibly other organisations labouring to survive within this area of continuing austerity.

Actually, I’m uncertain whether education can still be termed ‘public’ as more institutions rush to privatise with no logical contingent strategy in case of failure. Like building an aeroplane with no emergency exits.  Although at 30,000 feet a door marked ‘exit’ serves no useful purpose. As George Carlin once said, the language of airports is largely doom laden. Who wants to leave from a ‘terminal’ building?

Back to Jeff. He says: “Middle managers talk too much, do too little, and are unsupervised. The turnover of these roles is high, and the resulting mess is left to the incoming manager to do nothing about before moving on in their own endless cycle of ‘career development’.”

The exception is around the classification of ‘middle’, which we’ll amend a touch to include upper–middle. This churn of individuals does nothing to create any tangible longevity of success for an organisation, nor – despite whatever strategy it constructs, exhorts, fanfares - in striving to succeed will it embed the principles of elite performance or a culture of winning behaviours, lacking as it does in two key areas: soft skills and congruent practicalities.

Let's deal with the latter first. Elite sport puts immense effort, structure and money into the practical aspects of winning. Coaches, nutritionists, psychologists, bio-technicians (I may have made this last one up, but let's go with it), et al, all work in search of improvement and 'marginal gains' towards successful outcomes.

In doing so, all is subordinated to the achievement of the overall strategy, and importantly, the strategy is athlete-centred. Coach-driven, but athlete-centred.

So how does this translate to business? In most organisations, all is subordinated to either the senior or middle managers in their personal quest for status and power, as Jeff suggests, or to the concept of the external 'customer'. A strategy which may be alluded to prominently on websites and other media, but which in reality is lost within the internecine fragility of organisational structure, (and the pitiful lack of realistic cogent long term strategy), especially in either employing the right people, or truly valuing the contribution of existing employees.

Which leads us onto soft skills. Think that organisations are woeful in implementing or emulating best practice, then look at the dreadful neglect involving soft skills. Winning teams in sport talk of respect, morals and belief. Higher level values are embedded and worked on in equal measure to the aforementioned practical aspects, and each with commensurate significance.

Organisations have little understanding of such vocabulary, and instead talk glibly of teamwork, but this is a gossamer lining of platitudinal nonsense. The difference between a truly elite sporting team and what happens within an organisation purporting the same could not be more extreme.

This is neatly summed up by Woody Allen in his film 'Annie Hall'. The main character in the film likens his relationship with his girlfriend to that of a shark... "if sharks aren't moving forward all the time, they die. What we have here", he says "is a dead shark".

Dysfunctional organisations, burdened by the management baggage artfully described by Jeff, are like dying sharks, except without the compassionate eyes. In reality only a tiny minority of enlightened organisations seek out the nuances of sporting best practice, with the remaining majority delusional in their belief of doing so, paying lip service to the ethos of excellence.

Unlike the experienced athlete, nurtured and appreciated for their knowledge, the equivalent employee is often side-lined or ignored, subjugated by management who perceive knowledge as a threat or challenge to their existence.

The answer is to treat staff – be that for example a nurse or a teacher - as the athlete. Yet again Collins is correct - employ the right people, but in terms of striving for elite, subordinate all to the employee and promote the soft skill of trust.

Coach-driven in this case simply means ensure everyone knows their responsibilities, job role and position within the organisation. This is the platform on which to build excellence. If only organisations had the congruent desire to want it, and managers with some experience and a sprinkling of humility, to deliver.

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