For several years, I belonged to Vistage – the world’s largest CEO mentoring organisation. I thoroughly benefited from the experience, especially from the wisdom of my fellow members.
Take Richard Leman, for example. He ran Olympian, a very successful recruitment agency, named in tribute to his gold medal win at the Seoul Olympics as part of the brilliant GB hockey team.
He frequently drew the comparison between sport and business and for the past month, as I’ve been glued to the Olympic coverage on TV, radio and online, many of his excellent ideas returned to my consciousness.
The first lesson was to set challenging yet realistic goals: there’s no point in going for gold if you’ve never made it past the group stages. A personal best and a place in the final might be a bigger achievement than someone stepping up from silver to the top of the rostrum.
Many businesses make the mistake of setting sales targets they have no chance of getting close to, with the consequent effect of demoralising the team. This is worse, I believe, than setting targets which are too soft – at least these can be achieved.
Next, the importance of planning and preparation: everything a top athlete does – from their diet to their sleep patterns – is planned in advance. Nothing is left to chance. Richard’s obsession with the small details might have irritated some people, but I always admired his meticulous approach – and his total lack of surprise as his business advanced exactly as planned.
Sportsmen understand the importance of the training regime – making sure it is of the right kind, carried out consistently, and with the correct balance of activities. When interviewed after their performances on the track, field or in the water, every single medal winner talks about how hard they train. Richard, however, used to make the point that it isn’t just about training hard, it’s also about training right.
At the start of my sales career, I attended a dozen or more courses with titles such as “negotiating skills” or “closing techniques”, all of which, with hindsight, were worse than useless. They took little or no account of the real world. It was only after joining Vistage and learning from my fellow members – all real businesspeople – that I discovered the right way to train for business.
Of course, all the training in the world, even of the best and right kind, counts for nothing if it’s not applied to the main event – be that the Olympics or a major business presentation.
The key is to carefully visualise your desired performance, playing out every possible scenario in your mind: athletes might imagine running the last 100 metres in Beijing (or London now, of course), rather than at their local track.
My best performances in the boardroom are always those I’ve rehearsed – sometimes writing out a script word-for-word, and practising the answers to every possible question I could be asked.
This process is laborious, often repetitive and boring – probably a lot like training eight hours a day – but it, too, pays off.
Another good practice businesspeople can borrow from athletes is to reflect immediately after the performance, good or bad. Where could you have done better? What could you do differently? I’ve heard clients say they wouldn’t change a thing after a particularly good presentation. You almost never hear an athlete say they are 100 per cent satisfied with their performance: there’s always something they could have done better, faster, more efficiently.
This honesty, and a desire to continuously improve, separates the true champions – the Olympians – from the rest.
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