If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s a successful sports person or manager being wheeled out in front of a rapt business audience to tell us how they achieved success and what we can learn from them so that we can get success too. The business networking circuit is laden down with this kind of nonsense.

So here’s a controversial thought: Business is not like Sport. Winning in business is not the same as winning in sport.

  • Sport is designed to achieve a singular win, over relatively short periods of time, be that a tournament or a season.
  • The rules in sport are fixed – you know what the variables are.
  • There is no real “left-field” in sport, as in coming out of left-field. All the players and opponents are assembled in front of you.
  • Sport is about winners, and therefore there has to be a loser.

Business, on the other hand, is about longer periods of time and operating in a dynamic environment far from the fixed structures of sport.

There is a left-field in business – ask the music industry about Apple iTunes, the taxi industry about Uber or the horse and carriage industry about Ford.

Successful business is about you winning, and the other guy winning too. The economic theory of the division of labour operates on the basis of better outcomes for everyone.

The sustained greats of Industry – IBM, Microsoft, Toyota, GE and many more deliver on their promise over many years. There’s more sustained success in business than in sport.

In fact, sustained winning in sport is rare: Manchester United or Liverpool had decade long periods of success, or Kilkenny’s hurlers – these stand out because it’s actually quite rare to achieve sustainable success in sport.

Take the current Dublin Footballers – hailed as one of the great teams having achieved a result in 3 out of 4 years. The most interesting commentary I’ve heard from Jim Gavin, the Dublin manager, is a description of sport like business – processes, training and allowing the individual flourish within the context of the team structure. But Jim’s from the long-term successful commercial airline industry, so he knows from business what sustained success looks like.

For all that I love sport for, it’s not to give me guidance in business!

Do you agree? Share your view in the comments below.

John Eager

Principal, WinAbu Consulting

John is a member of CAIM – Chartered Accountant Interim Managers