What do elite sport and business leadership have in common?

What do elite sport and business leadership have in common? With over 20 years of experience at the highest level of elite sport, Vistage Chair Graeme Thompson has the answers.

Graeme’s career has been a varied one. He played international rugby league for Scotland, worked for London Broncos Rugby League, a club owned by Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, and was the team manager for England in the 2008 Rugby League World Cup. He then took a performance advisor role at UK Sport, followed by more leadership positions with GB Water Polo and Curling/Wheelchair Curling. Now he draws on his elite sport experience in his role as Vistage Chair.

From recruiting the right people and creating a vision to setting strategy, the parallels between business leadership and elite sport are clear and numerous. But there is one - perhaps less obvious - defining feature connecting elite sports and leadership.

Success within sports and success as a leader comes down to understanding people. As Graeme says: ‘It’s an incredibly human environment, and it entails people’s passions and dreams’. Whether you’re a sports coach, a performance director or the CEO of a company, the statement fits.

In sport, it’s hard to forget the fact that the individuals you’re coaching and leading are your biggest asset. This can happen in a business setting too.

We caught up with Graeme to find out more about why he believes success in business and sport is fundamentally about ‘understanding the whole person’, why the devil is in the detail, and how you can harness the power of thinking like an elite sports director.


The world of elite sport

When you’re running a performance department with the aim of winning World Cups and gold medals at the Olympics, the stakes are high. Just like a business leader with specific goals, you need a plan.

‘My job was all about setting the strategy, setting the vision. And you’re very conscious that your vision is matching up with your people’s dreams about winning World Cups and Olympics - and Paralympics. You are talking about getting to the top of the world. You need to recruit the right people - staff as well as athletes. The part I enjoyed the most was seeing a new athlete come into our performance programme and then develop themselves all the way through to potentially playing their first international and onto World level success.’

Success starts with a holistic approach to understanding people. It’s also important to set the right goals and establish exactly what you want to achieve.

“The higher up you get, the margins of improvement are smaller - and more important. We’re talking about real attention to detail. Whether it be the person themselves - their skills and abilities, the desire to make the team even more effective, to build trust and camaraderie or to take a wider look and think about how technology can give you an advantage.”

When Graeme asked how technology could give his athletes the edge, it led to the creation of the first ever National Curling Academy complete with the best performance analysis capabilities. This allowed the team to look in granular detail at their performance.

“Our facility allowed us to give the best possible feedback. We could look at what was happening with the team and what was happening in the rest of the world. This meant we could create an advantage, as well as mitigating some of our weaknesses. So, a very very strategic approach.”

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Becoming a Vistage Chair

“We had a presentation from a Vistage speaker called David Smith, and he talked about his research on bad bosses. He said the number one complaint was people saying their boss hadn’t taken an interest in them.”

So, what’s the net result of this? Apart from an individual feeling unhappy or resentful, there are real and far-reaching business impacts: performance will be affected as well as talent retention, and, of course, your business culture. As far as Graeme’s concerned, this approach from leaders is simply not good enough - both in elite sports and business leadership.

“You need to acknowledge the whole person. I can’t say to an athlete: forget about your studies, just get on with winning a gold medal. If you have a singular focus, that doesn’t help people. There’s a balance to be struck - you need a holistic approach. A lot of athletes win a gold medal, thinking it’s going to be Nirvana, and a lot of them find it’s more like: “That’s over, I’ve achieved my Everest, but what do I do now? What have I got to work with?’”

Graeme explains that this is why he became a Vistage chair:

“And so on to Vistage, which is great, because I get to work with people who want to invest in their own development, which is exactly what athletes want to do. I enjoy working with people who say: ‘I want to put some time aside and I’m passionate about what I can learn to make a difference to myself and to my organisation.’”


Breaking down the leadership lessons


Strategy and vision

Strategy and vision are two of the pillars of leadership success - in any field. But Graeme is clear in pointing out that strategy and vision should have people at their heart. It’s not just about organisational success. Your vision should help you create a culture in which individual ambitions and passions can thrive:

‘You have to set a strategy and a vision - and you need your vision to be inspiring. The people who you’re leading or training need to come into an environment, a working place, and feel like they can achieve their dreams and passions. This might sound like something which is more applicable to sports than to regular workforces, but I do see some of the young entrepreneurs instilling these ideas in the environments they create. A really high and strong vision should push and inspire people from the bottom up’.


Investing in people

The idea that talent is everything is not a new one. But talent isn’t just about finding the best person. The leaders who take a more long-term, strategic approach to discovering and nurturing talent are the ones who achieve personal and organisational success. Graeme believes it’s about readjusting your mindset to think like an elite sports performance director so that you view the people who work with you ‘not as a commodity, but as people who you are going through a journey with’. He explains:

‘In elite sports, you invest in people. For example, in a curling team we do a lot of work on how the four people interact. We do psychometric assessments, bring in new people to help them communicate better with each other. We support them, knowing we’re going to be investing in them for years. If you take this idea into business it can change your approach’. He illuminates further: ‘Do you recruit internally or externally? Do you have a strong internal programme? Are you going to send someone on a training course for six weeks and that’s it - or invest in someone for two to three years and get a return?’


Taking a holistic approach

Graeme explains why it was important for him to consider more than just athletic achievements when looking after athletes.

‘We had a young person in the curling fraternity who won his first world medal with his team, and in the same month, he got a first class honours in his degree. That balance pleased me – knowing that he may well go on to get an Olympic medal but that he’ll also be able to fall back on his education. Furthermore he felt valued completely as a person by our organisation not just as an athlete commodity”

Graeme believes applying this philosophy to business leadership is the key to personal and organisational success. Taking the time to learn what drives people and how you can support and help them develop holistically will make individuals feel seen and heard. Acknowledging people in this way can help with goal setting and career mapping, and will ultimately lead to happier, more productive employees who are much more likely to stick around.


Ask the right questions

In sport as in business, Graeme believes the most successful leaders are those who dig down into the detail of how they can improve, both as individuals and as a team. After a major sporting event, the analysis begins: How could we have done better? Where were we weak? Did we get all the logistics spot on? This can be applied to business leadership, says Graeme:

‘Really going into detail isn’t about just talking about something and using some buzzwords. It’s about asking: “Did our values hold up when we were under stress? Did we support each other as well as possible? What small things can we change to be even more aligned? Did we act in the way that we said we would?” You need to take a granular approach and really put yourself and your team under the microscope. Being at an World Championship or an Olympics demands that attention to detail to how well you performed’

Being a leader, whether in the world of elite sports or in the world of business, is fundamentally about constant development and learning – both for others and for yourself. When you take a that approach to the people you lead and nurture their development, you develop your own skills as a leader, as well as those of your colleagues.Furthermore that nurture of talent creates talent retention and loyalty. As Graeme says: ‘All the best sports teams have the right people on the bus. You cannot carry many, if any, passengers in elite sports and neither can you in business leadership teams.”

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Image: By Andrey Burmakin via Adobe Stock

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