Business people often have a curious fascination with sports. It is not difficult to see why. Peering past the corporate suits vs. sports jersey attire comparison, there are several parallels between finance executives and elite athletes. In both cases, there is fierce competition to contend with, goals and targets that have to be met, strategies that have to be formulated, and success is contingent on a mix of tactical acumen, hard work, perseverance and patience. However, there are several other lessons that CFOs can extract from the lives of elite athletes. Some of them are presented below:
1 Build a team where each member has specific strengths
Out of all the C-Suite, the CFO has arguably the most diverse job description that can range from strategic planning with the CEO one day to raising capital from institutional investors the next. With such a complex set of responsibilities, it is difficult for one person to handle all parts of the job. This is where the team comes in. By building a team where each member brings in unique skill-sets and/or expertise, the CFO can mobilize and deploy workflows more efficiently. This is comparable to sporting teams where the role of a defender in soccer is vastly different from the role of a forward. Because of this differential, coaches scout for different qualities when recruiting for each position. A CFO would do well to take a leaf out of that book and build a diverse team accordingly to accelerate results.
2 Go beyond the numbers
By definition, finance teams think in numbers. Targets for finance teams tend to be quantitative e.g. achieving cost savings of €x per year or generating return on investment of y%. While this is important from a shareholder value creation perspective, humans by nature tend to have deeper motivational needs. When sports teams embark on a new season, they don’t think in terms of “This year, we are going to win x number of trophies”. Their mindset is more geared towards the processes and work ethic that they would have to maintain to achieve a specific vision. As a CFO, motivating your team in a similar fashion can be equally productive. Instead of simply defining the level of cost savings that need to be delivered organization-wide, encourage employees to come up with new ways to improve processes or bridge organisational gaps. Rather than mundane targets, this could be a way to revitalise your team to scale greater peaks.
3 Engage with your teams
Sports teams have long recognized the value of engagement in rejuvenating a team. That is why you see owners cheering on their teams from the sidelines, particularly in crunch games. In business, most organizations tend to have a more siloed mentality where C-suite executives are tucked away in their corner offices. Nonetheless, studies have shown that executives that engage on a regular basis with subordinates tend to outperform those that follow the archaic boss-subordinate model. The reason for this is simple. When employees are spoken to by senior members of the organisation and/or asked their opinion about key issues, they feel more valued and involved in the team. This then manifests into enhanced output as they feel a stronger sense of accountability to their work.
While business and sports may only seem to intersect at broadcasting deals and large sporting events, there are plenty of lessons that are transferable between top-level athletes and corporate professionals in senior positions. By inculcating the root causes of the winning mentality that these athletes foster, CFOs and other members of the C-suite stand to gain substantial qualitative and quantitative benefits if done right.