Why you should run your business like a football team

Lifting your game

Performance expert KIRK PETERSON argues that businesses should be run like football teams, with more time offered to employees to reflect and improve.

By Kirk Peterson

Any successful sporting team has a key ingredient that is vital to continuing high performance. 

That ingredient is reflection. A large part of a footballer’s life is taken up with pre-game strategy meetings, appraisals from coaching staff at each break in a game, post-game reviews, group team analysis and individual reflection. All this happens every week.

So how is it that the majority of our workplaces only have annual and – if you are lucky – half-yearly performance reviews?

Not only is the opportunity for reflection and assessment limited in business, but it is carried out in a format that encourages defensiveness, negativity and a sense of self-doubt. How can employees continuously self-check, reassess and improve without a system and support network that allows them to do this?

"There is a constant awareness of exactly what you, as an individual athlete, bring to the team.”

The yearly performance reviews that most businesses currently undertake can rarely be described as a positive arena of feedback and development. Instead, they tend to lead the employee to think they are being overly managed.

People may accept that there is a need for improvement and development, but what they do about it is often questionable.

Think like an athlete

An improvement mindset is vital if we are to change workplace thinking and boost growth. If employees can start thinking the way our greatest athletes do, a culture of continual growth and high performance will grow. 

Here’s where we can learn from the way our greatest sporting teams operate. Their processes of reflection are positive. Opportunities for development are welcomed with open arms. Players play to their strengths and, as a secondary endeavour, work on development areas.

Professional development: Monitoring and improving performance

There is a constant awareness of exactly what you, as an individual athlete, bring to the team. There is also a shared acknowledgement that there is always a need for continuous improvement.

What is pivotal is getting employees to see reflection as a positive experience and a way to improve their own performance. In the Australian Football League (AFL) competition, for instance, defensive players must develop their ability to run the ball out of the opposition’s scoring zone.

Former St Kilda Football Club defender Jason Blake recalls how watching a video of the team’s defensive work made his group realise the importance of reading the play as their defensive situation changed. “We could not achieve the progress we did without the concept of reflection,” he says.

Playing to your strengths

How do we start this reflection process within organisations? By focusing not only on the employee’s self-awareness, but more importantly on the self-awareness of the leader in the situation. Every leader needs to be honest with themselves and their employees about what their strengths are.

If leaders are honest about what they do well and what their opportunities for improvement are, they instantly gain credibility with employees and the process can become a positive one.

This approach is termed strengths-based management, and it puts the focus on the individual’s innate strengths. Everyone should be working 90 per cent to their strengths and 10 per cent to what they are trying to develop.

This is not to say that we should ignore weaknesses. It simply recognises that self-improvement can be a lot more enjoyable if the focus is on strengths, rather than the things we are not achieving and are not doing well. 

With the right training, and ultimately the right processes in place, this sort of accountability can be pushed into all businesses. Just as a coach holds you accountable for your actions, businesses can hold individuals accountable for their own continuous improvement.

There is only one constant in business, as in sport: change. 

By building systems that encourage positive reflection and work to individuals’ strengths, we can build people’s ability to change, to progress and to achieve.

Kirk Peterson
Kirk Peterson is the principal of Performance Shift, which delivers training in leadership, management, sales and customer service. His clients have included Monash University, CBA, Australian Grand Prix Corporation, Woolworths, Flight Centre and St Kilda Football Club.

Read next: Why managers share the responsibility for poor employee performance


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July 2016
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