Management lessons from football

It never fails to amaze me how many parallels there are between sport and business. Because its summer here in Toronto, I’ve been playing even more football than usual.

Seeing up to 22 men running around a football pitch after a ball for an hour or so gives you great insight into the human condition and into the thought processes of colleagues, partners and clients.
The big thing I’ve noticed recently is that when a team is one the attack, everyone wants to get involved. Everyone wants the ball. Everyone is talking. Everyone thinks they are in the best position and if you don’t pass them the ball, the chance will surely go begging. Everyone on the team streams forward, almost relentlessly, piling on, hoping for that decisive touch, that glorious goal.

But when the team is on defence, that mind-set changes, but the motivation doesn’t. Players run back far slower than they ran forward, just in case the defence gets the ball and needs an outlet pass. No one talks to each other, no one wants to take responsibility and no one wants to make that mistake that costs their team a potentially deciding goal.

Which, to me, is the exact opposite of what should be happening.

When things are against you, you want your team to be constantly communicating. You want everyone to be taking responsibility and you want everyone to be busting a gut for the greater good.

Conversely, when you’re on the attack, you don’t want people over complicating it. You don’t want everyone’s selfishness to get that goal, make that sale or sign that client to get in the way of the team doing well. You still want everyone busting their proverbial guts but you also want a sense of altruism – you only call for the ball when you’re in the best position and you help the person in possession by pointing out colleagues who are better placed.

The strange thing is that when a team is really motoring, there is a weird silence. You don’t hear a lot of people yelling but when someone is in position, the communication is short and efficient. Sometimes as simple as a monkey call or grunt. The team gets into a grove and things just flow. Everyone becomes selfless and good things happen.

I guess what I’m saying that if you’re the manager, you want to ensure that you:

  • over communicate in the hard times. Make your team stick together and form a collective responsibility for each other
    get out the way when things are going well.
  • Celebrate the wins, celebrate the goals and make sure the team knows why its doing well but don’t over manage them.

Do the hard work to mould a team out of individuals but know when to let that team do its thing.

UPDATE: This post, as do all my posts from now, has been featured on Brazen Careerist where there is some conversation. I wish we could aggregate all the comments but for now, here’s the link:

It’s Almost Football Season: Here’s What Management Can Learn from Watching the Pros

More about managing with sports:

Who will do what by when (a really excellent book and one that I’ll be doing a full book review on, er, soon)

From the ballfield to the boardroom

Management lessons from a sports icon

Business Lessons from Sports


4 Responses to Management lessons from football

  1. Nice analogy. And very happy you didn’t use ‘soccer’ when you really mean football. 😉

  2. Joe Boughner says:

    Who doesn’t love a sports analogy? And fear not, Ed, this isn’t a footie-specific phenomenon. I grew up playing hockey as a forward but I took up goaltending in men’s ball hockey leagues around Ottawa a few years ago. As a goalie, I get to spare a lot, which means I play with different teams on a regular basis. Without fail, it’s the teams that communicate at both ends of the floor that win more than they lose.

  3. […] me, blogging you August 28, 2008 Management lessons from football – I get involved with football only on TV … and only with the World Cup semi-finals & […]

  4. Rayna says:

    Dear Ed, interesting & useful reading. Thanks! I could not help it & linked it from my spot. Best, Rayn@

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