Building a winning team on and off the pitch

Posted by in Commercial, HR, Jim Chaplin, Management, UK

What does it take to achieve success in a sporting organisation? Recently, SRi invited a number of sports leaders to discuss the myriad challenges that can be faced. Managing director Jim Chaplin looks at some of their learnings which can put senior leaders in the industry in the best position to build a winning side and ensure lasting glory.

One of the reasons why running a sports organisation is so complex is that the individuals involved, whether on the pitch, in the first team squad or up in the boardroom, tend to have incredibly different backgrounds, skill sets, priorities and targets. With the world of sport becoming ever more global, it’s important to make sure that the right people are in place to bring all those different cultures, ideas and areas of expertise together. With that in mind, there a number of areas to consider.

A top-down understanding

With the starting point being the pinnacle of the team or organisation, leaders must look at their top-down structure and ensure that it enables the right balance of guidance versus autonomy. The board must let its executive team have the space to breathe and manage their organisations on a day-to-day basis, while also ensuring there is the environment with which to assess, scrutinise and develop strategy.

Creating a legacy

It is down to the leadership team to work with both playing and non-playing areas and develop a common purpose across their whole organisation. It might be something bigger than events on the pitch, such as changing a public perception about a cricket or rugby format, or it might be a target within the white lines, such as winning a world cup or a tournament.

Teams must have a point of aspiration with which to pull behind. Publicly we’ve seen Eddie Jones at England Rugby target being the best in the world, which has been echoed by the executive at the RFU. The vision now permeates through the whole sporting body and wider, to enable everyone to feel part of a ‘winning team’, or one that is at least on the way to being one.

All great or aspiring sporting brands must build an aim around this concept of achievement and legacy. There is a huge responsibility, whether implicit or explicit, to leave the jersey in a better place than you found it, adhering to the values that the leadership must put in place.

Changing the tyres while driving down the motorway

Crisis is constant in sport, with one bad result turning perceptions and possibilities on their head in an instant, so the challenge can be finding space to plan for the long term. While sport will remain a results-based business, it’s important for sports leaders to identify a core number of priorities and be ruthless on executing them – teams can’t get bogged down in things they can’t control.

Having the people in place to exact change on the move, while keeping going in the same direction, is critical. Progression can happen in trends, with blips and knocks along the way, but those aims must remain.

Keep the heartbeat steady

With so much change within an organisation focused on cycles – seasons, Olympiads, tournaments – a major part of building a winning team must be about considering those constants. With a quality leadership team, athletes and players may come and go but the success remains – think of Sir Alex Ferguson or Sir Dave Brailsford, for example.

In an oxymoron that seemingly only sport can provide, organisations must go through constant change without, in essence, changing.

Don’t forget that there’s an ‘i’ in team

For all the collective aims and vision, building a winning team is as much about individual responsibility as it is about one figurehead leading the way. There must be a level of democratisation within the organisation; a coach, manager or CEO will be criticised as much for a ‘do as I say’ mentality as they will for letting their players or subordinates run riot.

Sport has an incredible ability to attract talent from elsewhere across all types of roles. Those coming from outside sport will bring their own ideas and skills, so it falls to the leadership to enable those ideas to be evolved, tested and, in many cases, implemented. While this does offer its own challenges, such as marrying the traditional and the progressive, sports organisations are becoming ever more sophisticated and it is outside ideas which will drive further innovation and evolution.

Develop the talent

One of the current pressures for those looking to build a career in the sports world is that, traditionally, progression has been tough. The best roles are incredibly popular but, with the right tools in place, there are answers to the progression question.

Leaders are now looking at ways to take their talent out of comfort roles and offer new challenges. Not only does this provide the ability to freshen up the role that has been incumbent for a longer period, but also develops their current talent and improves their organisation as a whole.

Sporting leaders see that if they don’t develop and continue to challenge their talent, they’ll lose them to other sectors.

Diverse and enjoyable

Just because staff are working at great brands in the sporting world, it doesn’t mean that the organisation’s leadership can assume they’re enjoying themselves. Sport can demand long and unsociable hours, so much thought needs to be put into how to build the best possible workplace environment for all involved.

Leaders must consider ways of ensuring that those not directly involved in the team or ‘glamour’ do feel integrated. The hiring strategy must bring together people who buy into a shared vision and culture, but also retains an element of friction that keeps people interested, challenged and progressing.

No one size fits all

The fascinating observation to be made about sports organisations, governing bodies or teams is that, for all their differences, each face very similar challenges. Sharing ideas across the sports, whether it’s from football, cricket, rugby, athletics or elsewhere, provides each with the opportunity to take on board those different ways of thinking, then tackle their challenges in their own way.

Building a winning team was never meant to be easy, but if those leaders can understand and address the considerations of their own complex machine, they can ensure it is working to its absolute maximum potential.