Why world class companies are like world class athletes

Posted on 13 Sep 2016 by

As we look back on a great Olympics it’s easy to think that whilst it was all a great spectacle, the four yearly event has little or no relevance for business.

But great companies share many of the attributes that make great competitors and understanding these can help your company sharpen its skills for the future.


We often hear of athletes who have a vision of a future where they are winning gold and then go on to achieve great things.

For businesses, whilst winning a medal isn’t necessarily an appropriate aim, being able to form a vision of the future for the company is a vital part of forming a strategy.

The owners and directors of world class companies have a clear vision of the future that the organisation can coalesce around and that allows employees to understand their place within the firm.

For athletes, especially those who are competing in solo sports, forming a vision is more of an internal process and is a psychological boost, for businesses though communicating a vision of a successful destination is an outward communication process with customers, suppliers and staff alike.

Forming a team

Back when the Olympic movement was started it may have been possible to simply turn up and race but today things are a little more organised.

World class athletes form teams of coaches and advisors who help and guide them towards their goal. Indeed they will often look for world class coaches with great track records of improving their customers.

World class companies also form great teams, understanding that teamwork always outperforms a group of individuals. These can  be a team that runs the company as a whole or smaller, more tactical teams brought together to deliver projects.

It is important to remember that some of the coaches may rotate in and out of the team. For instance a cyclist may need technical support to choose and set up bikes initially and then will call upon them at competition time and for routine maintenance in between events.

By the same token a responsive and flexible company will have a core of employees but may choose to supplement this with temporary or contract staff to boost resources at busy times or the provide technical and managerial back-up for projects.

The importance of experience and honesty

When talking about coaches five times gold medal winner Sir Bradley Wiggins pointed out the importance of making sure that those at the top aren’t surrounded by ‘yes men’. World class companies appreciate that the manager needs to be alive to the chance of recruiting people who look and sound alike and that follow the operation’s corporate view. Whilst we all want people to be part of the team we need to make sure that there is a counter to ‘group think’ so looking outside the box for your recruits is a great tip to take from the Olympics.

Typically, coaches for world class athletes will be ex-competitors themselves, bringing their learned wisdom and experience to the table in an effort to ensure a gold medal winning performance. Often the knowledge isn’t confined to just technical aspects but more around the experience of being in a large stadium or living in the Olympic village for three weeks.

Similarly world class companies will look for a mix of young up and coming stars but also experienced older heads that have seen the economic cycle and can make sure that the company stays on the straight and narrow.

Staying flexible

Whilst the Olympic competitor may go into their event with a tactical plan, circumstances may dictate that they change their approach and look for other ways to win. Having the flexibility of approach is important as preconceived notions of how the actual competition may go could prove to be incorrect.

Companies also need to remain flexible on the way to achieving their strategic goal and research shows that the most profitable companies are also the most flexible.

Economic conditions may change, new competitors may appear or there may be shortages of supply and world class companies are constantly scanning their business environment and can adjust and adapt to new conditions as the situation dictates.

Great companies look to all manner of areas for inspiration and learning and the Olympic movement is awash with lessons for managers.

Hopefully this article has given you food for thought and will encourage you to look for more ways that your company can improve. Using lessons from the Olympics is one way for managers to find inspiration for making positive changes in their business.

Sochall Smith. Leeds based Accountants

Category:  |   Tags: