Sports has a less-obvious lesson for business too

The star system is spreading to more commercial activities
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The Independent Online

"Going for gold" is a theme that anyone familiar with sales conferences will be well acquainted with. Businesses often use sporting themes to give focus to internal meetings and almost as frequently use sporting stars to speak to their people.

"Going for gold" is a theme that anyone familiar with sales conferences will be well acquainted with. Businesses often use sporting themes to give focus to internal meetings and almost as frequently use sporting stars to speak to their people.

But is sport really the same as business, or more directly, can the business community learn from the sporting one lessons that go beyond the energising of the sales force?

Sporting stars fall into two distinct groups: those who are team players and those who are individualists. All athletes need focus and determination to win. But some sports are suited more to loners: preparing for most track events is an individual business, and the longer the distance the greater the emphasis on personal preparation. Marathon runners often say they are running against themselves and in a way they are. True, they are doing so at the same time as other runners who are also running against themselves, but the sport is essentially a lonely one. It is more like being an author than a business executive.

Can business learn from these individualist sports? I think it unlikely. Of course, the stars can go on and triumph in whatever walk of life they choose. Several of Britain's great middle-distance runners have had successful subsequent careers: Sir Roger Bannister, Chris Brasher and, in a slightly different way, Sebastian Coe, have all made their mark. But it is hard to see any real connection between success in the individual sports and success in the "normal" world.

But with team players it is different. Take Formula One. Nikki Lauder founded and runs an airline; Jackie Stewart a substantial leisure business. Footballers become managers, some brilliantly, some less so. Rugby players (including Tony O'Reilly, the chairman of this newspaper group) quite often have successful business careers. This is understandable, for businesses are very much team games.

So what can business learn from team sports? There seems to be one obvious lesson and one less obvious one.

The obvious lesson is that several of the techniques developed in sport can be applied to business. One of the most fashionable themes in human resources is "coaching" - taking skilled, talented people and helping them to add to their portfolio of skills and to develop their innate talents. Good managers are good coaches.

There are many others: motivation, team-building, league-tables, focus, fun. A vast array of aspects of the sporting world can be applied to business. Expect to hear much more in the years to come.

But this is sliced white bread. The less obvious and more interesting lesson is that one particular aspect of sport - the trading in talent - is going to become much more important.

Take the parallel between football and financial services. The particular skill of the great football manager - this is Arsene Wenger's genius - is to understand the dynamics of managing talent. This is not just a key skill but the key skill for managers in the City.

Top City stars are not traded in the way that footballers still are (though the European Commission may change all that) but the management principles are the same. Sensible team-builders in the City know that they have to offer clients a range of talent; they have to spot and develop young "players"; they have to know when to let someone go; they have to recognise that someone who is great in one job will be less great in another; that a clever reshuffle of the pack may add value at near zero cost; and that people are not motivated just by money.

Why is this mattering more? Because the star system is spreading to more commercial activities. In the financial field, you want your money managed by the best specialist in, say, emerging markets. Sure, the second or third would be fine, because everyone has good years and bad. But you don't want your money managed by the sixth best, or by someone who is not rated at all. So you are ready to pay a premium to have the right person doing the job.

Much the same applies in the analysts community. A few months ago I was talking to one of the City's top-rated analysts about the development of talent.

"The thing I'm most pleased about," he said. "Is that I have created at least half-a-dozen million-dollar-a-year analysts."

His value to the firm was not just being number one himself. It was his ability to spot talent and develop it - just as a great football manager would do.

The new communications technologies seem bound to spread the star system still further. It becomes possible to measure performance more easily; to spread the knowledge of that performance more widely; and to reward the knowledge more precisely. So it will be easier to assess how a great manager of talent adds value.

Not all the business world will be taken over by the star system. Many industries will need dedicated plodders: people who make sure that the technology works or that the invoices get collected. But even there, the easier it becomes to measure performance, the easier it will be to focus on ways in which clever management of people will improve overall performance. So the whole "back office" of winning sports organisations may have wider lessons for business too.

A further thought. If business can learn from sport, surely the people working for a country's Olympic team can learn from business. Winning medals is ultimately down to wonderful individuals. But putting people into the position where they can realistically hope to win them requires organisation, order, planning, calm - and money. The cross-over goes both ways.