Business Teams Aren’t for Sport

We know the value of teamwork. We want the success of the latest league champion for our operation. We read the books written by coaches like Pat Riley, Mike Krzyzewski and Rick Patino to learn their ways of building winning teams. We even pay for speeches by champion athletes that are supposed to teach us what will motivate our team members to support our teams the way they supported theirs.

We become frustrated when our business teams don’t match the championship performances of the sports teams we’ve modeled. We shouldn’t be. It really isn’t surprising the same results aren’t achieved; the games aren’t the same. Business isn’t a sport.

Perhaps the most obvious difference is that the business team is typically a form of participative management. Sports teams are usually the furthest things from that. If you doubt that statement, picture a lineman coming up to Mike Ditka and saying, “We voted and have decided that we should run left more.” If you know anything about Mr. Ditka and his reputation, you are now smiling.

Sports teams are almost a perfect dictatorship. With the possible exception of the pros where some stars have authority, the players have little to say about how the team is operated. The coach decides what plays are going to be run, who is going to play, and what the practices will be like. If the players don’t like it, tough.

That brings up another major difference between athletic teams and business teams. For most, if the athlete doesn’t like the coach or their teammates, there are only two alternatives: live with it or quit playing the sport. Changing to another team is not usually possible. Before college, athletes usually have to literally move to get to another team. In college, there’s loss of eligibility and extra time needed to complete school, and in the pros, there are contracts. The athlete is pretty much locked to his team.

That isn’t the case with the business team member. They have the ability to switch teams. The foundry laborer that doesn’t like the way things are being run applies for another position that pays about the same. He doesn’t even need to look for another job in a foundry. He may decide the assembly plant on the other side of town is more to his liking. The people in higher positions on the organizational chart may have to look further than the other side of town, but there are always organizations looking for good people. If the business team member doesn’t feel the team is meeting their personal needs, they go to a new one.

Another factor to consider is that athletes “want” to play the game while business team members usually “must” play. Athletes know there is more to their sport than the glory of Saturday afternoon and have decided that the unglamorous parts are worth it. When they decide it isn’t worth it, they quit. Business team members usually don’t have that option. They must be part of some business team in order to support their family, eat, or whatever. There’s a reasonable chance the business team member would rather be hunting, fishing, or playing on athletic team, but in order to survive, he must be part of the business team.

In sports the success of the team is the success of the individuals on the team. Before the pros, it’s unlikely a member of a team will receive individual recognition unless his teammates do well. The greatest running back doesn’t look very good unless someone is blocking for him.

In business, that’s not the case. With the freedom to move, team members who can convince a new team that the problem with the current team is caused by others don’t need their current team to be successful.

That brings us to what I believe is the most important difference between the business and sports teams – promotions. If a lineman does real well, he doesn’t get promoted to a more prominent position in the backfield. Athletes simply don’t get promoted up the management chart as happens in business. While it would seem the lack of promotion would be a detriment to good performance, it does enhance team play.

An outstanding performance by a teammate in business isn’t viewed as being good for everyone. Picture the business team in which there are a number of people all of whom have about the same credentials for a promotion. During “the game” one member of the team performs exceptionally. What’s going to happen? In all likelihood, the outstanding performer is going to be the next person promoted. That won’t necessarily make the teammates happy.

The important thing to remember is that business is not a sport. You should learn your lessons from other sources. While your favorite athletic coach may have some valuable hints for you, you’re playing under vastly different conditions than he is. If you don’t think so, picture how your secretary is going to react when you yell, “Drop and give me 20!” after she misunderstands your instructions.