‘Sales team meetings and top-level sports’

BlogMany, a great many (sales) managers use professional sportsmen and sportswomen to deliver motivational speeches to their staff. I have attended workshops with top-level volleyball players, soccer trainers, aikido senseis and mountaineers. Their presentations and speeches usually address perseverance, teamwork and setting goals.

Contrary to what you might expect, I have never observed any changes in sales or motivation in any company in the wake of such workshops or presentations.

One of my last experiences with a sales/top-level sports combination was a blog about American football players using a ‘playbook’ to direct their play. The players know the playbook by heart, they use the scripts in each training session and practice their reactions to situations that occur in their games.

The writer of the blog suggested that sales managers would gain by developing a similar playbook for sales representatives, by developing a recipe for selling.

I sensed that something was wrong in that statement. I felt that you can’t simply copy principles that work well in sports, apply them to a company and expect them to work…

I tried to figure out why I got this feeling. I think it is because I see more differences than similarities between top-level sports and most companies.

Let’s take a closer look at top-level sports, for instance at a team sport like football or soccer, and see what are the determining factors:

  • The performance of the team as a whole is the deciding factor in most games, the stars make a difference but they still need a team.
  • The team trains several times a week, sometimes several times a day.
  • The leader, the coach or trainer is always involved; even during play, players receive instructions and tactics are adjusted in real-time.
  • Feedback on performance is almost instantaneous: the results, the statistics, the audience, the press.
  • Time and energy spent on measuring individual and team performance (yards run, number of successful passes, assists, goals, etc.) and using this information in the next training session.
  • An unwavering focus on performance, on winning.

Compare this to the situation in an average company:

  • Often employees work alone, not in a real team, or they participate in a multitude of teams when they work in a matrix organisation
  • A severe lack of training, especially over the last few years
  • Lip service to leadership, absent leaders, no on-the-job coaching
  • Feedback on performance only to be received on a yearly basis in the yearly performance review
  • Information on (individual) performance often not available or incorrect
  • In a lot of companies it is unclear what an employee should do to be regarded as successful. There is a lack of focus, or as is often the case, there are so many different focuses that you would be better off without them.

Reading this, one could say, a company is ‘a whole different ball game’.

If you are a top-level executive and you feel that working in a company can be likened to top-level sports, you might want to implement and ensure top-level sports conditions as well:

  • Clear, transparent company objectives
  • True leadership
  • Teamwork and team spirit
  • Hands-on Coaching
  • Training to make everyone fit for the job
  • Frequent performance management and feedback
  • Business Intelligence, relevant performance information.

With these conditions fulfilled, your company might indeed begin to look like a top-level sports team and your sales representatives like top-level sportsmen and sportswomen.

By that time, no-one will care about parallels anymore. Your company’s success will be huge and your employees are out there giving inspirational speeches to other companies.

Ron Lameij
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