Create teams not talent – a sporting parallel

Published: 29 September 2016

Hiring and retaining talent is often touted as the CEO/company’s key focus but what is rarely discussed is why hiring key talent is so crucial. Comments such as ‘we only hire the best’ and ‘our business relies on great talent’ are great sentiments but often get lost in the rhetoric of talent debates. To be clear, I absolutely agree that talent is the key differentiator between today’s businesses, but there is immense value in leaders stepping back to understand what their talent strategies are attempting to achieve and why.

Nowhere is the importance of ‘talent’ more apparent than in team sport. The long held traditions of putting a ball in a net, over a net, through a net, in a hole, over a line etc. is the single most transparent view of ‘talent in action’ that you will find.  Football for example is a sport where in effect no team has any real differentiators when it comes to the game itself:  two teams of eleven with the same equipment trying to achieve the same outcome. In theory if you put the best eleven on the pitch you should take home the win. However, history has told us that it is not a simple story and the best eleven individuals won’t necessarily make the best team. Even more apparent is that the impact of individuals not physically on the pitch can heavily influence the outcome of games and seasons.

Below I have attempted to equate what you may see in most football team’s organisations to the commercial world:

  • Youth team (graduates/1st jobbers)
  • Squad players and 1st team regulars (most of your employees) 
  • Superstars (the maverick engineers or target busting  sales people)
  • Captain and team leaders ( middle management)
  • Manager and their team (CEO and board)
  • Physios, dieticians, kit person etc. (the unsung engine room of the business – administration, facilities etc.)
  • Owner (shareholders)

From this I believe there are many parallels that can be drawn when looking to create long and short-term sporting and commercial success. The most obvious, and in many ways easiest, is simply to replace the Manager (sometimes necessary, often a poisoned chalice). Others include investing heavily in attracting and retaining the best youth players to eventually make up the bulk of your team, albeit football clubs as with companies often do not have the luxury of time to make these robust but long-term plans. More esoteric may be to hire a sport psychologist to improve the performance of your players in pressure situations. Or what is in my view often the most impactful - a change of ownership.

I personally find equating a team sport to a company is a useful way of stepping back from a situation to look at the moving parts and how they interact to achieve the goal. Changes can have unintended consequences both positive and negative, and balance is crucial. For example, hiring star performers with poor infrastructure and administration is almost certainly pointless, time consuming and costly. However, if you want to win the league you will either have to nurture talent or spend big!

My final thought on the analogy is that the simplicity of footballing success (win the league, remain in the league etc.) makes everything that follows crystal clear; ‘will signing player X help us to win the league’ if yes do it, if no, don’t. In corporate speak this would translate as your company goals. It therefore follows that if you can clearly articulate your company goals, your talent acquisition strategy will become altogether more straightforward and impactful. 

Callum Wallace is a Consultant in the Technology & IT Leadership Practice 

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