The leadership lessons from elite sport

Businesses should focus less on retaining talent and more on giving workers opportunities to explore different career paths inside - and outside of - the company.

by Steve Bell
Last Updated: 16 Jun 2022

Becoming a professional footballer is the dream for many young children. My son has been lucky enough to be part of the Crystal Palace academy for the last 7 years and is currently pursuing his dream in the Under 18s side.

The club will have done their research when taking him on - and the same can be said with his teammates. Scouts identify a player's natural ability and assess their potential to develop before offering them a place in the academy.

But this alone doesn’t guarantee a fairytale ending. Competition is fierce - 70% of former elite academy players weren’t handed a professional contract in England’s top two leagues. My son may well not end up playing for the ‘Eagles’ in the Premier League. He needs a contingency plan. 

Academy coaches don’t just focus on what happens on the pitch. They have a duty of care to these young athletes and preparing them for life outside of the game is just as, if not more important than the years they spend within the academy. There should be, and from what I’ve experienced at Crystal Palace there is, a genuine commitment to helping them develop into well-rounded human beings rather than just footballing robots. 

In my mind, modern businesses should follow similar principles to the academy system. Employees won’t stay put forever - they might decide that a particular career path isn’t for them. It sounds counter-intuitive, but retaining all talent within a business shouldn’t be the main priority moving forward. Good leaders should empower people to be active coordinators of their own careers.

But why should businesses concern themselves with a workforce that may leave - and what does the perfect game plan look like? 

Coaching Styles Are Changing

Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp are arguably the world’s finest football coaches at present. They routinely achieve premium results and they aren’t afraid to put players through their paces to get them.

But their interest in player welfare is evident (just look at the interaction between the coach and player at the end of a game). These coaches are pivotal figures in the players' lives - because they genuinely care.  Although winning is their key driver, they want what’s best for their players in the present and the future. 

Companies that want to navigate the current talent war should adopt a similar mindset. The Great Resignation shows no signs of slowing down - and almost 20% of employees are leaving their employers for 'more fulfilling' roles. Money isn’t the primary motivating factor for modern workers. They care about flexibility, the values of the company they are working for and progression.

All employees have their own unique hopes, dreams and aspirations. They want well-rounded experiences - and the chance to explore any avenue of the business that interests them. Employees aren’t passengers along for the ride - companies should encourage full participation and allow for each individual to thrive.

The ‘one size fits all’ trajectory is therefore outdated. Businesses need to leave the ‘how much profit can we squeeze from our employees’ mantra in the past. Demonstrating authentic concern for career opportunities is the way forward. 

Understanding all available routes enables people to visualise how they want their careers to progress. And more importantly, they will know where their skills are most valuable across the business. 

The manager determines the plan. The team puts the plan into practice. 

The Player vs Club debate

Seeing a player transfer to a rival club and playing in a different shirt is difficult. But it is part of the game. 

Businesses must also accept that employees will come and go. Empowering them to take control of their own career trajectory can lead to huge escalations. Some may decide to retrain in a new profession while others remain and progress. 

Embracing this reality is vital. Iris has seen countless employees make significant career changes over the past twenty years. Some of these changes have seen their careers flourish within the business and some have seen people depart for new pastures or start their own projects. What binds them together is they have all played a part in Iris’ journey - and Iris has played a part in theirs. 

What’s more, ex-employees are your biggest advocates - and assets. Treat them with respect and you will naturally create an environment which attracts new talent. 

Employees’ departures are bitter sweet. The time and effort you invest in nurturing their career progression is what makes the breakthrough possible. The desire to keep premium talent never dies - but you shouldn’t cause employees to miss great personal opportunities for the good of the company. 

The world is constantly changing - and businesses need to adapt to it. The only thing companies can control is the quality of an employee’s experience whilst they’re at the firm. Maintaining interest in their passions - and meaningful commitment to their progression - ensures they will always look at you with rose-tinted glasses. 

There’s Never A Final Whistle

My son could achieve great things with Crystal Palace - or he may explore a completely different career path. Football is a game of skill, dedication and chance. The fixture list is still being written - you never know what new opportunities lie around the corner. And the same can be said for businesses. 

Leaders in the dugouts have two options. They can scream, shout and belittle players in the hope they get a result. Or, they can accept the obligation they have to help employees develop their careers without the expectation that this also benefits the firm. With kick-off fast approaching, now’s the time to make a decision.

Steve Bell is the CEO of advertising agency Iris.


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