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Five key lessons on sport and business

30 November 2018

The article at a glance

Cambridge Judge Business School academics share their thoughts in advance of the big Varsity rugby matches between Cambridge and Oxford at Twickenham. …

Cambridge Judge Business School academics share their thoughts in advance of the big Varsity rugby matches between Cambridge and Oxford at Twickenham.

Nick Koster (Social Innovation 2017), CURFC Captain at the Varsity Match 2018.

Business and sport have much in common. They can both be fiercely competitive, yet teamwork is essential. And while both have huge moments (a blockbuster merger, a dramatic goal), long-term success often reflects patience and resilience.

It’s not by chance that sporting expressions like “slam dunk” and “keep your eye on the ball” are heard in company boardrooms, as about half the CEOs of Britain’s 500 largest companies have, at some point, won awards for athletic prowess.

Yet there are also key differences between the sporting and business worlds that also should be kept in mind in seeking to transfer lessons from the pitch to the bottom line.

Dr Philip Stiles
Dr Philip Stiles

Two academics from Cambridge Judge Business School, University of Cambridge, will discuss some of these similarities and divergences at The Varsity Match between Cambridge and Oxford rugby squads at Twickenham Stadium on Thursday 6 December. The sessions, to be held between the women’s and men’s rugby matches, also include leading sporting figures who have forged successful professional careers off the field.

Dr Philip Stiles, University Senior Lecturer in Corporate Governance at Cambridge Judge, will lead a seminar on “Developing Resilience”, focusing on how leadership entails making decisions and taking action in difficult circumstances. Other panellists include Sue Day, who had 59 caps for the England rugby squad and is now Chief Financial Officer for the Rugby Football Union (RFU); Steph Cook, who won the gold medal in modern pentathlon at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and is now a doctor; and Karena Vleck, who played in the inaugural Women’s Varsity Match in 1988 and was General Counsel of the RFU until 2017.

Dr Allègre Hadida
Dr Allègre Hadida

Dr Allègre Hadida, University Senior Lecturer in Strategy at Cambridge Judge, will lead a discussion on Managing Corporate Transition, including the ability to blend existing assets with new strategic moves, ideas and actions. She will be joined by Ian Ritchie, Chair of Premiership Rugby and former CEO of the All England Lawn Tennis Club, and Rob Andrew, former England and British Lion fly-half who is now CEO of Sussex County Cricket Club.

Academics from Cambridge Judge here share five lessons about the interaction of sport and business:

1. The ability to bounce back stronger from setbacks is crucial.

Dr Philip Stiles says, resilience is a huge topic in the area of leadership, and of course resilience is also essential to sporting success. Leadership is about three things: it’s about rethinking, it’s about relationships and it’s about providing meaning. In all three of those areas resilience is important, as leaders go on a journey which inevitably involves ups and downs. The same applies in sport, where very few teams go undefeated and the very best teams quickly recover from defeats and learn from them.

2. There are techniques to emerge stronger from dramatic change.

Dr Allègre Hadida says, dramatic change in organisations can be internal, such as a change of leadership, or external, for instance, a radical change in market conditions. Sports teams can also face big changes, even within a single season: injuries to key players, coaching upheaval, rival teams acquiring new stars. Organisations need to deal with the trauma of change and emerge in a more powerful position, and they need to look at what should be retained and what should be discarded in dealing with such massive change. It’s not so different for many sports teams, which need to refresh the roster while retaining experience in key positions.

Mark de Rond
Professor Mark de Rond

3. Competition and collaboration must often co-exist.

Mark de Rond, Professor of Organisational Ethnography at Cambridge Judge, has extensively studied elite teams including the University of Cambridge rowing team. He says, the teams I study are typically made up of people who are inherently competitive. To form them into a team and expect this need for rivalry to disappear is not realistic. (But) in rowing, the only way to make a boat go fast is perfect coordination.

If you lose synchronisation, you slow the boat down. So you effectively have an environment in which competition and collaboration co-exist and feed off each other.

Christoph Loch
Professor Christoph Loch

4. Sport brings a new perspective from diverse teammates.

Professor Christoph Loch, Director of Cambridge Judge, who has played and coached amateur football in four countries, says, it can be really beneficial to see the world through the eyes of your teammates, particularly when they come from different backgrounds and jobs. There’s a way of thinking that comes with every occupation – be it academia or banking – so it’s really important to interact with people who think differently and can bring a new perspective.

5. Business doesn’t always have such clear-cut objectives as sport.

Professor Mark de Rond says, an Olympic sport like rowing has a clear, measurable objective: to cross the line first. As the former Cambridge University Boat Club manager Roger Stephens famously asked about every proposed idea: ‘Will doing this make the boat faster?’ Compared to a sports team, however, a business serves many interests and stakeholders whose interests may not always align – so factors like loyalty and experience that are rightly cherished in business don’t necessarily translate to a true meritocracy like elite sports.