Cover story : Home Team Advantage – What Can Business Learn From Sport?

And with less than minute on the clock, New Zealand gets possession and go, go… go… scores! New Zealand is the winner.
When it comes to sport, New Zealand punches well above its weight and has ridiculous number (per capita) of winners. We do okay, very well some would say, in business but we don’t have the same national expectation of success and global reputation. Why?
When searching for the reason for our sporting prowess, there are number of theories ranging from our outdoor lifestyle, pioneer attitude, work ethic and discipline through to the culture of the organisations which pump these winners out. The truth seems to lie somewhere in the middle – combination of these things which puts us on the sporting winners’ podium and may be able to do the same for business.
Mike Pratt is firm believer in the power of the organisation. His 2000 book Peak Performance (co-authored with Clive Gilson, Kevin Roberts and Ed Weymes) studied top performing sports organisations from around the world, including two from New Zealand – the All Blacks camp and the force behind Team New Zealand.
“The most interesting thing we found is that sports people come and go but some sports organisations manage to sustain peak performance over really long periods of time. So it can’t, in those circumstances, be just one or two particular athletes. It is probably something about the way the organisation operates that has led to that peak performance. That was the underlying premise in the book,” Pratt explains.
Obviously there are some gifted athletes who can bring something special either to themselves or to an organisation for period of time, just as there are gifted business people who can bring the same to their organisation – but that is not necessarily the same as building an organisation that is capable of sustaining peak performance over long period of time, he says.
“One of the things we found about individual performance was that the one common factor in all of the brilliant athletes was that they practised and practised and practised infinitely. It didn’t just come by accident or because they had innate genius. It was really that genius in action simply by religious practice.”
Pratt says that is lesson which must apply to business – adopting philosophy of continuous learning and networking into the global business environment to gain foresight of the next big thing in order to plan what your products and services could be.
“It’s question of really clueing in to value networks and learning networks and really seeing that as very much part of the way you do business. It’s continuous networking and learning and never being satisfied with the status quo because there’s always better way,” Pratt says.
He believes business people can never do enough of this – although admits it does have to be balanced with running the operation. “But I do think there is propensity, certainly within the businesses I often consult with, to get locked into the imperatives of day to day and forget to incorporate into that day-to-day work, the necessity to learn and grow and be better today than you were yesterday.
“So I think the metaphorical lesson is you wouldn’t get to be and sustain as top athlete unless you actually see as part of your working week, the necessity to practise and achieve mastery of all the skills of the profession and to continuously hone those.”
Pratt firmly believes that alongside what business can learn from elite athletes, is strong lesson from sports organisations and how they operate. He talks of their passionate commitment to purpose and the importance of having everyone in an organisation passionately committed to shared purpose. “That really starts the play and energises everyone,” he says. How many business organisations could realistically make that claim?
Mirroring the clarity of purpose which saw him make the New Zealand swimming team at the 1990 Auckland Commonwealth Games and the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, NZX chief executive Mark Weldon has clear thoughts about sport and business: success is due to discipline, strategic planning and attitude.
“In particular, the discipline to execute relentlessly. Because you have to. You have to train 10 times week in the pool and couple of times weight training and you have to be strict about your diet and you’ve got to be strict about your social life. It’s basically relentless, continuous execution. And if you don’t have discipline then you just won’t win. It’s pretty simple,” he explains.
His second theme is strategic planning, put into practice via an annual and “brutally honest” review on one to 10 scale.
“Every year after nationals or commonwealths or whatever the major event was, I would sit down and review whole bunch of things; strength, flexibility, mental preparation, muscular endurance, technique. Really break the sport down to components, evaluate them and then set plan to improve on each of those individual parts over the next year,” Weldon says.
Those who have worked with him in business environment can attest to his honesty and no-nonsense attitude in reviewing performance. It has made him very successful.
Weldon’s third point centres around attitude, namely that winning isn’t normal and to succeed, you have to have an attitude which accepts and embraces that.
“I remember reading book when I was 14 called Winning Is Not Normal. Statistically, when you think about it, swimming race is eight people and one person wins. There might be heats and semi-finals and finals, so it goes from 100 people to one. So statistically, winning isn’t normal.”
And that, he says, is an interesting and freeing revelation because it makes it okay not to be normal. “In fact, if you are completely normal then you’re probably not going to win lot which is why lot of top sports people tend to be bit wacky, little bit outside the square.”
Given this, Weldon says, he would not expect to find anyone who lives every single part of their life in way which is considered normal and is world-class outstanding sports person.
“They’ve got to be willing to take risks, to be brave because winning is different,” he says. As do business people if they intend to reach the top of their game.
“In terms of business success I’d say things are pretty similar. It’s strategic planning, and brutally honest strategic planning; it’s about reviewing what we’ve done; reviewing whether we’ve done it well or not and then not repeating mistakes but building on more of what you’ve done well,” Weldon says.
Bravery is also key, he says, adding that in New Zealand there are many business people who let fear drive their decision making.
“Fear of the media, fear of the public, fear of exposure, fear of public failure. If you were sports person and you had fear of failing, you would fail – because you’re not focusing on winning, you’re focusing on failing. You’ve got to be brave, take few risks, understand that winning isn’t normal and be prepared to stand out.”
His take on why we have so many successful sports people is that it’s okay to stand out and be different in that arena – but in the business world that difference is not typically rewarded by the public.
“I think the tall poppy thing kicks in pretty early on in business and it doesn’t in sport to the same degree. It does in sport once you’ve failed, but not for being aspirational, not for wanting to succeed in the first place,” Weldon says.
He doesn’t believe New Zealanders are inherently any better at business or sport, more that the reward system and the culture is much more affirmative for sport than it is for business. In order to change that, more confident attitude must be developed as success breeds success, Weldon says.
“A whole series of individuals creates momentum and hopefully over time the culture changes and people get less worried about what gets printed in the media, less worried about what people might think of them personally and professionally. That’s

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