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Why sports stars make good salespeople but poor entrepreneurs

A tennis racket and ball held in a man's handsWhen it comes to performance under pressure, business people can learn a lot from sports stars. But, can the qualities that drive exceptional performers like Roger Federer help an owner-manager to run their business well? Simon Wicks examines the evidence

In an earlier article, Ian Cochrane - a performance trainer who has worked with both sports and business professionals - talked about the importance of "mindset, skills and structures underpinning those skills" to performance under pressure, both on the field of play and in the workplace.

You can understand the analogy: sport is outcome orientated - it's about securing clearly defined results in a competitive environment. Guess what? Business can be described in similar terms (although I'm aware that not every business is driven by competitive imperatives, but that's another discussion).

The similarities between sport and business

Of course, there are other similarities beyond this straightforward definition:

  • Both sport and business frequently emphasise teamwork in the pursuit of goals, for example.
  • Sometimes they even stress collaboration between different teams/businesses (success in cycling, for example, often depends on co-operation between competitors).
  • The development and exercise of skills is integral to each.
  • At the highest levels of both sport and business, insight, imagination and the capacity to assess risk and opportunity swiftly are qualities that separate the greatest from the merely very good.

No doubt there are plenty more. But what's really interesting is how the analogy actually manifests itself in the real world. It's fair to say that many successful business people also enjoy sport and quite a few practice it to a reasonably high level. An earlier interviewee once told me that recruiters looking for high-flying professional women advertise in rock-climbing magazines. The boss at BHP (the company behind the Marketing Donut) used to play rugby to a fair standard and continues to coach.

And it works the other way, too. Traditionally, footballers would open up a pub when they retired. And there are endless examples of retired sports stars putting their names to products and getting their faces on billboards (George Foreman anyone?).

Exceptional sports people rarely make good entrepreneurs

But I'm not interested in ex-sports stars hawking brands, chasing sales targets, taking on narrow roles within organisations or making money from clever investments; I'm intrigued by the ex-sports people who have successfully set up and run their own business. I'm sure there are plenty, but a Google search is more likely to highlight business failure than success - thus reinforcing my view that the drives that shape the classic sporting character are actually detrimental to success as a business owner/manager.

Why? Because self-centred performance in a clearly-defined role is relatively straightforward; but dealing with the organisational, administrative and human complexities of running a business requires yet another set of qualities. At the very least, you need to be able to set flexible goals, devise strategy, marshall the resources to execute your strategy, lead a team through every challenge your environment throws at you, display the patience and staying power to build your enterprise from the ground up... and so on.

A successful entrepreneur is far more like a good sports manager than a player - a Rafael Benitez, say, or an Alex Ferguson. Neither was an exceptional player, but both have great team-building and organisational management skills. Stand-out players rarely make good managers; perhaps they struggle with organisational processes or can't get to grips with other people's talent, or just find it hard to see things from someone else's point of view. Who knows?

A sense of duty - an essential entrepreneurial quality?

But there are exceptions to every rule and, as a cycling fan, one name jumps out for me: Eddy Merckx. If the only cyclist you've heard of is Lance Armstrong, you should check Merckx out - his achievements make Armstrong look like a beginner; he was so good, in fact, that one year the organisers of the Tour de France actually paid him not to race, so someone else could have a chance of winning.

At first glance, he is the epitome of the self-centred individualist practicing his sport to the exclusion of all else. But Merckx is different. Post-retirement, he set up a business manufacturing bicycles and spent almost 30 years overseeing its operation, day-in, day-out, until selling up last year. The reason the business became successful is that Merckx brought to it the same care and conscientiousness that he brought to setting up his bicycle, raising his family, maintaining contact with his fans.

Indeed, Merckx once spoke of the duty he felt to compete hard, as if winning was a matter of conscience and not just a selfish goal. No doubt he felt the same sense of duty when setting up his business. The product and service had to be good, because nothing else would do for his customers - just as nothing less than trying his hardest would do for the people who willed him to fulfil his immense cycling talent.

So maybe we can add conscientiousness, too, to the list of qualities that make a rounded and successful business owner - a sense of duty towards customers, staff, even family members who depend on your endeavours. It's quite a weight to bear, but you don't need to be Eddy Merckx to bear it. Anyone who carries it off is exceptional in their way.

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