Vision, leadership, communication and coaching are the essential ingredients needed to create a healthy, prosperous company.
I must admit to an abiding passion for sport. As I am chairman of the Lord's Taverners, it won't surprise you to learn that cricket tops my list; but football, rugby, tennis, horse racing, indeed virtually any other form of outdoor competitive activity appeals to me.
My declaration of this interest is in no sense apologetic. Sport is not just about the excitement of the game or the race. It is about the bridge which it builds between people of all types, cultures and interests. It is about the sharing and single-minded pursuit of common goals, about striving to achieve outstanding performance, about teamwork, communication, leadership and coaching, and ultimately, of course, it is about success.
In sports, individual performance is the key to achievement. I believe that the same could be said to be true of business. Yet the sort of lessons we can learn from the sports field appear all too often to be overlooked in the boardroom. Perhaps it is because the intellectual approach has superseded this somewhat more emotional and pragmatic system.
It has been fashionable for a few years now to talk about people as an organisation's most valuable resource. However well-intentioned these sentiments, there is little evidence to show that they have been translated into anything more tangible. Possibly there has been too much concentration on the packaging and not enough on the product.
It is my firm conviction that an organisation's principal competitive asset should be the commitment and initiative of its people. The key to business success lies in achieving excellent performances from a team of ordinary people. Harnessing the collective capability of an organisation has many strands, but I believe that the principles behind this are very simple. These are to do with vision, leadership, communication and - a surprising inclusion you may think - coaching.
A vision, stated in simple, straightforward terms and outlining the organisation's strategic intent, should be the cornerstone of the harnessing process. Moreover, the vision must be relevant to all aspects of the business. There is no room for platitudes. Colleagues on the shop floor and in the boardroom alike must understand exactly what it means. It must be tangible and measurable, with real goals, and it must become the yardstick against which individuals can measure their actions. Individual objectives should demonstrate a total commitment to this vision.
Leadership is also very important. The leader must define the vision, the strategy and the tactical or operational framework. He must then align the team behind the ideas and obtain the group's wholehearted commitment to the overall plan. The process should not stop at the next level down, but permeate right through the whole organisation. This will take time and determination. Effective communication is essential for the process to succeed.
Companies often hide behind their house journals and corporate videos when discussing communication. The points they make may be useful, but communication should be a two-way conversation. But how many of us actively encourage feedback or willingly accept constructive criticism? How many employees are invited - let alone exhorted - to make suggestions, to take intelligent risks or to do things differently? Coaching should be an integral part of the way we do business, but how many of our colleagues actually coach us?
Coaching is critical, in my view, because, while not everyone can be a leader, everyone can be a coach. Coaches do not have to be more skilled than the person they are coaching but they must be able to add value to that person's development - personal or professional - by virtue of developed skills of observation and explanation and, probably most important of all, by practical demonstration.
It is the traditional view of western industrial society that the development of individuals is the responsibility of the company that employs them, and that this should be achieved through formal education and training. Yet most of the important things we learn in life come from practical experience, and from help from others - walking, cooking, driving, golfing, swimming - to name but a few. There is an important lesson here.
All of this makes such abundant sense that it is hard to understand why some of us still fail to put it into practice. I personally have been trying hard over the last few years to unlearn the lessons of a quarter-century of accepted managerial behaviour. I have found that it is a long, hard and painful process. I have seen people struggle and fail, and I have seen people struggle and succeed. We are by nature territorial creatures, bound by the force of habit. It is much more comfortable to stick to what we know. But I strongly believe that a fundamental change of management style would be of great benefit to many companies.
Such a change is essential to create inspirational performance, especially on the shop floor. Our businesses are becoming ever more competitive as technology and markets advance apace. As the pressures mount, we can no longer afford to stay within the confines of conventional wisdom.
Next time you consider the people problems of your organisation, consider comparing them with the world of your favourite sport. Whether it be tennis, golfing or football, there are important lessons to learn.