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What Sports Can Teach Businesses About Success

Published: November 12, 2018

Author: Alex Funk

This week I’ve been thinking more about how organizations build a foundation for success. Businesses can look to sports franchises (run more and more like businesses, after all) for inspiration in management, culture, and leadership.
No city has had more success in the 21st century than Boston, be it the Patriots, Celtics, Bruins, or Red Sox. The latter only lost only 3 games in the entire 2018 playoffs and won the World Series over the Dodgers. Compare that with poor Cleveland, which as I write this (Nov. 1) has only three wins across their football and basketball teams combined (and those teams just fired their head coaches within days of each other). What is is that enables great sports organizations to create a winning product on the field year after year? Let’s break down the themes:

Leadership – success starts at the very top.

Evaluating something like ownership in sports franchises is something many of us can’t even relate to. (I mean, when is the last time you ran a billion-dollar business asset that had millions of devoted, committed fans?) Actually, it may not be all that different than Apple or Tesla – both companies have die-hard fans who want them to succeed, to beat the competition and build better and better products for us all to enjoy.
Ownership, whether it be a family or a corporation, equates to most of the C-suite roles in a business organization. They make the biggest decisions (stadium deals, marketing, TV, merchandise,  executive and managerial hiring, etc.), and they set the tone and goals for the organization. The best owners don’t accept mediocrity; they evaluate their managers and coaches by what they’ve accomplished lately, not what they’ve done in the past. Case in point: the ownership group of the Boston Red Sox reversing the dreaded curse of the Bambino in 2004, only to win again in 2007, then again in 2013, and the most recent World Series title. Despite all the success, the ownership actually routinely makes changes to their coaching staff. The Red Sox have won four World Series titles with 3 different managers, never sticking for too long with one who does not produce a winning product.
Where you play is important as well. Fans need to feel supported by their team and community. The Patriots needed a new stadium in the early 2000s, and other cities nearly lured them away from the Boston suburbs (where they play is actually closer to Providence than Boston). Rather than move the team further from their home base, Patriots owner Robert Kraft privately funded a new stadium and sports complex in the same location, keeping the fan base intact and not saddling taxpayers with the stadium costs like many other teams/cities. Boston is the only city where all of their major sport teams play in privately funded buildings.
Fair, honest, uncompromising leaders set the precedent for the whole organization. Everyone on that team should know what is expected, how everyone should be treated, and what it means to be a member of that organization.

Assessment, accountability, innovation, and strategy

Business managers can learn a lot from winning GMs and coaches — they find talent, build the strategy, motivate their teams, and build cultures that get buy-in from the supporting staff and players.

This is not to say it’s easy! The toughest jobs on a pro sports team are General Manager (acquires and retains talent) and head coach (teaches, motivates, and disciplines the talent). Sometimes these are one and the same person, like Bill Belichick for the Patriots, but often they need to work together — Danny Ainge picks the players for the Boston Celtics and his coach, Brad Stevens, teaches them to play together. Both models can work. Ultimately what seems to be most important it is the ability to assess your talent, tweak the lineup as necessary, know when it is time to blow it up and rebuild, and know when to hold onto players. Both Belichick and Ainge are notorious “traders,” meaning they have traded away beloved players from their teams either in their prime or at the tail end of their career, to free up salary space or improve their draft capital, or help add firepower to an already good team. Randy Moss trade, anyone?
Businesses should always be looking at their own roster, assessing their talent, and building a team to compete each year. If you are weak in an area, then make it a goal to find the best person to round out that team. Additionally, don’t be afraid to cut ties with employees who are not adding value toward the ultimate goal. It’s better for everyone, including the employee, to make that move.

A culture of success

Perhaps one of the most talked-about aspects of a business, one that is a strong barometer of potential success, is culture. But what does it really mean to have good company culture?
Culture is about having fun, but it’s also about winning. Boston is a tough place to play professional sports. The media is a constant force, in players’ faces from preseason until the last minute of the last game. The culture allows players to ignore what is said and written and instead focus on the task at hand. No one likes losing, but making excuses and pointing fingers is even worse. Great teams have accountable players. They are selfless, they work hard, and they win as a team.
It’s no coincidence that on great teams the best players often are pushed hard by their coaches. These guys are usually the first one to the facility in the morning and the last one to leave at night. Their preparation is legendary. Why would coaches be hard on their stars? If you see you the star QB being called out in front of the team for mistakes, it lets the rest of the team know that everyone is expected to “do your job,” as the motto goes.

Companies should win as a team too, but they shouldn’t be afraid to call out the rising stars or leaders — those who go the extra mile, take risks, or take on new jobs that help the company succeed. Pro sports is a meritocracy, and your business should operate as one too.

Mission, vision, and purpose

Whether it’s to reverse an 86-year-old curse or to disrupt the auto industry by bringing electric cars to the masses, the reason you are there and putting in the work is important.
Far from feeling the pressure of winning the organization’s first title since 1918, the 2004 Red Sox nicknamed themselves “the Idiots” during the playoff push to describe the team’s eclectic roster and devil-may-care attitude toward their supposed “curse.” Nine years later, with their city desperately in need of unity and good spirit following the Boston Marathon bombing, the Red Sox rallied behind the “Boston Strong” theme and created a winning culture and atmosphere that took them from tragedy in April to a World Series win in October.

What is your company’s mission? What is your purpose for being in business? It’s important that employees understand what those reasons are and to keep them in mind for each day, each meeting, and each project. It helps to prioritize what is important to the company’s successes and push aside what is noise and distraction. A bad game does not mean you need to dismantle the team because the dynasty is over, so make sure you are ready to keep the ship pointed ahead and “on to Cincinnati.”

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