Sporting styles for the management game

06 July 2012 -


The management masterstrokes of Duncan Fletcher, Brian Clough and Alf Ramsey offer inspiration for bosses in the corporate world, says Tom Peck

Stop someone in the street and ask them to name their favourite manager, and you’re unlikely to hear too many names from the world of business. Like never before, sports managers are cultural icons. In many cases their wages surpass those of the chief executives of major companies.

It wasn’t always so. But it is no coincidence that as sport has become increasingly stuffed with cash, the central importance of the manager has risen with it. Deciding who is and is not worth £50m is no simple decision.

Managing egos and expectations, making a team out of people from 20 different countries, keeping focused on the task in hand in a world so eager to distract you; be it in business or sport, these are all tasks for the successful modern manager.

With the arrival of so much money, sports managers have had to learn pretty fast how to be businesspeople. But what lessons can businesspeople learn from their sporting counterparts?

Most importantly, the arrival of 21st-century technologies means that businesspeople often need to move as fast as a Premier League football match if they want to succeed. Here we look at some moments of sporting management genius, and what lessons they give to the business world.

Box clever

The audience gasped when, right on the bell at the end of the fifth, Henry Cooper knocked Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, to the ground at Wembley stadium in 1963. Ali was in serious trouble. His trainer, Angelo Dundee, carried him to the corner, and had to use smelling salts to revive him – this was a violation of the rules. There was a small tear in one of Ali’s gloves that, so the story goes, Dundee secretly opened up, to the point where serious repair work was required. Boxing commentator Harry Carpenter claimed this delayed the start of the sixth by several minutes, buying Ali crucial recovery time. Ali hit his opponent with a hard right in the next round and the fight was stopped. After this fight, a new rule was introduced, insisting that a spare pair of gloves was always kept at the ringside. The rule still stands today.

Former TalkSport presenter James Max says:

“Never underestimate an opponent who is down. Also be cautious of an opponent or counterparty who plays for time. Perhaps the biggest lesson of all from this is to know the rules by which you are engaging in business. Much as you would like everyone to operate in the same way that you hope you would in any given situation – realise that they may not. If you suspect that your competitor or counterparty is prepared to play dirty, be prepared to walk away rather than be trampled over.”

Stealth strike

The West German football team were decidedly unsettled on their first visit to Wembley in 1966, for a friendly against England in February of that year. Just who was this new centre forward? It was defensive midfielder Nobby Stiles. England manager Alf Ramsay handed him the number nine jersey, but gave him strict instructions to play in his usual position. The West Germans were so unsettled – not knowing how to mark him – they lost 1-0. And it was Stiles who scored the game’s only goal – his only goal for England. It sowed the seed for a rather more historic contest between the two sides in the same stadium a few months later.

Max says: “Some like to think business is straightforward. It isn’t. It’s as much about psychology as it is about actions. While I would not suggest being underhand in any way, it is often advisable to keep your cards close to your chest. Always be honest and honourable in the way you deal with clients and counterparties. However, there is no need to go wearing your feelings on your sleeve or indeed revealing your intentions on day one. Sometimes it’s best to wait and see how the other side plays its hand. Be patient and confident in your own strategy, but there’snothing wrong with springing a few surprises along the way.”

Arm done

Australia’s former cricket captain Ricky Ponting unleashed a four-letter-word filled tirade towards the England balcony as he marched back to the pavilion at Trent Bridge in the crucial match of that classic Ashes series of 2005. Gary Pratt, a substitute fielder on the England team, had picked up the ball and, with an extraordinary direct hit, run out the Australian captain at a crucial juncture in the series. Ponting had been complaining for weeks about the use of substitute fielders. England, then under coach Duncan Fletcher, regularly rested their tired batsmen and bowlers during the lengthy sessions in the field; the Australians didn’t. It was certainly within the letter of the law, maybe not the spirit, but the history books won’t care about that.

Fighting DirtyMax says: “The person who loses their temper, uses bad language or behaves in a way that is socially unacceptable should never be tolerated. A lost temper indicates lost control of a situation. It opens you up to the charge of being unprofessional and indeed to making further mistakes. Think about it. How often can you remember what you said in a fit of rage? More importantly, how much do you remember in the immediate aftermath? Very little, I suspect. That’s where a deal can go wrong – nasty clauses slipped in under your nose, or even the loss of a transaction. Save your frustration until later. It’s better to walk away from a situation rather than face someone down. Anyway, revenge is always better served cold.

As for England’s substitute fielders, some people like to take the “you snooze, you lose” approach to business. Somehow it’s macho to work all hours, to stay late and to keep going. Of course, there are rare occasions where that is absolutely necessary. Don’t rule it out completely. However, if you are organised and diligent, it really should not be necessary. An even-handed way to ensure deadlines are sensible and achievable combined with consistent work-rate, rather than periods of slack and intensity, will be far more productive.”

Party power

Legendary Nottingham Forest Football Club manager Brian Clough was never one to analyse the opposition, so when he called his players for a team talk at their hotel the night before the League Cup final against Southampton in 1979, no one had a clue what to expect. Certainly, they wouldn’t have expected what they found. There was Clough, sitting happily next to a crate of champagne. The doors were locked and the players were told nobody could leave until all of it had been drunk. John O’Hare was brave enough to complain, on the grounds that he only drank bitter. Clough left the room and returned with 10 pints. Tony Woodcock was carried to bed. The wisdom of such a stunt can only be measured by the result itself. Forest won 3-2. And Woodcock scored the deciding goal.

Max says: “Perhaps drinking and boozy nights out are a bit passé. But there is something to be said for a team that bonds. It makes you dig deep and provide a performance that punches above your weight. Would I recommend going out on the lash the night before a major pitch? No. Can a teambuilding session work if there really is nothing on the agenda other than having fun and getting to know people a bit better? Absolutely.”

More about Max

Former TalkSport presenter James Max appears regularly on Sky News. A business specialist, Max is also a qualified chartered surveyor and spent 15 years working in commercial real estate, investment banking and as a principal at one of Europe’s leading private equity firms

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