Business at the Speed of Sport


Sport provides great lessons and insights into business.

With endless metaphors about winning and failing, most times business reaps the benefits of sporting mentality.

But in business, there’s still an old school perception that gets held as the litmus test of an individual – totally failing to take into account the qualities that makes an athlete a top performer. What is it? It’s speed.

This is the one big exception – it’s when people are fast.

In sport, you are rewarded for talent, hard work and training. An athlete who has built a body that runs like a high performance engine puts themselves in the position of great reward. Podium finishes. Greater sponsorship. Bigger prize money.

A runner who finishes a 10km race in 31 minutes get more time off their feet than the runner who takes 50 minutes. They are rewarded with front of the pack ribbons, prize money, recognition and even greater opportunity against bigger and better competition. But it’s the rest component I want to shine a light on.

Go Home

A talented worker who can finish a project in 30 hours is still expected to show up the rest of the week and work their ass off. Yet the person who takes 50 hours on the same project – producing equivalent quality is often held in the same regard. They are both expected to be there from 9-5. They both get the same holidays, often even the same pay.

When you have people who value lifestyle, family time, health and fitness – a company could reward its high performers with time instead of pushing them to fill their allotted hours and rewarding them with bonuses just because that’s what everyone does here in their 40+ hours.

Where’s the reward for speed?

Where’s the incentive to be really fast? To set a new personal best… to improve yourself so you are faster than your co-workers?

This is the spirit of competition at its very core. And businesses don’t get it because they are fixated in people clocking their hours. So the internal competition for being truly fast gets lost.

Imagine a sales company that says, “Sell $50,000 worth, then have the rest of the week off.” Rather than pushing people for grand totals and amassing gross totals – incentivise speed.

If you are slow, you work 6 days a week. If you are fast you work 3. It’s no different than the 3 hour marathon runner chilling out with friends, sipping a cold one whilst watching the 5 hour and 6 hour runners come in. His speed gives him the extra time off.

The Reward for What No One Sees

But let’s put this in perspective for a minute. The marathoner who gets to put her feet up after 3 short hours has earned the right. She has done the training. The hours of training, discipline, good habits and commitment are hidden somewhere inside the result.

People rarely ever see the true level of work that goes into success. Getting fast requires a lot of repetition. It takes practice. And with that practice there normally comes reward. But is that how business really looks at it? The answer is no. Not naturally anyway.

Many companies talk of family values, balance and lifestyle. It’s preached but not practiced. We want people to put in the hours. It’s a default measuring stick of commitment. But it’s false.

At the end of the day, it’s only results that matters. Did you finish? How long did you take to do it?

When you talk to a cyclist, runner, swimmer – whatever – this is the true litmus test. They put in the work to get as good at performing on the day. That work translates into getting the job done faster than anyone else. That’s how you get to be no.1.

Businesses Next Challenge

So what if your business built a culture on speed, effectiveness and getting the job finished? What if others saw half the team going home early? What would happen if incentives were spun on their heads? What if we changed the entire labour system to be one of “get the job done” not an hourly rate for being there.

Richard Branson recently wrote a great piece on Why Athletes Make Great Entrepreneurs and it lends itself to similar thinking.

I believe businesses and people deserve the opportunity to re-invent ways to be effective. To use their talents, experience and own resourceful nature to finish fast. Let them rest so they can go fast again. You can’t perform at world record or personal best levels if you are burnt out.

With a changing world, we have a real opportunity to look at other systems we can change. No one lies there on their death bed wishing they spent more time at work.

Truly Valuing Time

Since we are all given the same 24 hours each day, best we begin taking seriously the speed in which we complete things. The finish line has many great rewards, especially if you are fast. But forcing people straight back into another race, ignoring the importance of rest and revitalisation will only lead to breaking people.

Celebrate wins. Encourage speed. Create a culture that seeks personal bests. And your business will reap the rewards.

Your business is the only place you can create a kind of utopia. You get to make the rules. Want people to go home early – just open the door. Want people to go home to less washing and enjoy more family time, hire a laundry person and give all staff free washing and folding service. The point is, you get to build a world that brings out the best in people.

Proportional Reward

In coaching circles, we know that by removing distractions and energy suckers, the athlete can go on to perform at their highest levels. Working long hours only works if it is complimented with proportional rest. Logging long kilometres in a month means a runner will need more sleep, more massage so their body can absorb the training effect. Otherwise you break them.

Imagine thinking of your workers in the same way. Log some serious mileage, then rest up like a high mileage person. Refresh and then you can go again, but next time you’ll perform at even higher levels because you are stronger from the previous effort. But only because you were given the rest that was proportional to the effort you put in to grow.

Top 5 Recommendations for a High Performance Culture:

1. Personalise.

Forget about trying to create standards that everybody lives by. That’s not how you coach an athlete. You need to tailor make a path of improvement that is specific to the individual if you genuinely care about helping them find their personal best.

2. Focus on training and performance execution.

There is no escaping the grind of hard work to improve. Whether it’s learning a new skill, getting stronger, developing more endurance, more focus, better people skills – it’s the discipline of showing up again tomorrow (with a good attitude) and putting in the work. Then, when it’s time to perform, you should be fine tuned and ready to produce something special.

3. “Stronger the breeze, stronger the trees.”

People shrink or shine under pressure. Too much and you break people. Too little and they don’t improve. It takes pressure tests, intelligently drip fed into a customised training plan to know that people are actually improving. Personal trainers will do a fitness test. You should run from the one that doesn’t. But you shouldn’t do one every day. The process should be 1. Learn 2. Practice 3. Feedback from Coach 4. Practice a lot more with feedback 5. Test yourself.

The test is where you give people the opportunity to put in their best efforts and see how they perform. It could be a sales presentation, a design, whatever – you need to see how people respond under pressure. True colors show when under some heat. It’s a key part of training. Often skipped because it makes people uncomfortable but it’s outside the comfort zone where the growth happens. Make it part of what you do.

4. Develop a philosophy.

A central belief is critical in organisations. Why you do things means something to people. Many companies play “secret squirrel” at the top and fail to share any sort of vision or direction – let alone the underlying belief system that makes you what you are.

Google transformed the world with a central reason for being that goes something like “We exist to organise the world’s information”. That reason why attracts people. It inherently holds a high standard just because of the grandness of the vision.

5. Look and Listen.

Giving feedback to help others improve is easy. Sitting there with a completely open mind, that truly listens, and really sees what is going on is hard.

The ability for leaders and coaches to be able to quiet their own minds and stop thinking about what they want to say next, and truly see what’s going on is the only way to find solutions that lead to real improvement in others as well as yourself.

The Game and How to Play to Win

Business is as much a game as any sport. It has team members. A scoreboard. And you will win and lose in varying amounts. Failure is part of the course. Success is the ultimate outcome. And then you wake up to play again another day.

But it’s the businesses that think like athletes that I like to watch. They value speed. It’s performance, attitude and results that matter.

The ones who really do well are the ones who understand the work, the training that goes into producing high performance people. Results are the effect. The growth through training, testing, coaching and feedback is where the causes of great success lie. You’ve gotta start out with at least some scrap of talent to begin with, but show the person with talent who failed to put in the work and I’ll show you a failure. Sidewalks are littered with people who fail to capitalise on their potential.

Show me the environment that brings in talent, nurtures them with patience, honest feedback intended to help them be their best and I’ll show you an organisation that can compete on virtually any playing field.