Lessons that sportsmen and women apply to their business careers, published in The Wall Street Journal

In September 1988, Adrian Moorhouse stood waiting for the start of the 200 meters breaststroke final.  British number one since 1981, he had won European and World Championships but never an Olympic medal, having come fourth in Los Angeles in 1984.

A pulsating race ensued, with Moorhouse turning at the 50 meter mark in sixth place, before closing in on his competitor swimmers in the final five meters.  In an extraordinary finish, he claimed the gold medal by one hundredth of a second from the Hungarian Károly Güttler.

Despite his memories of this ecstatic moment, and the worldwide acclaim it brought him, Moorhouse today says that he prefers the buzz of running a business to the feelings he experienced as an elite swimmer.

“Winning a medal is quite similar to winning a new contract,” he says, at the headquarters of his management consultancy Lane 4 (so called from the lane in which he won Olympic Gold, the preferred spot for competitive swimmers).  “I do like this feeling, it’s healthily satisfying.  In fact I like it more [than winning medals].”

Moorhouse has a team of 70 full time employees and further freelancers advising clients including Coca Cola and Orange on various aspects of teamwork, performance, leadership and achieving goals.  The Genesis of the company was Moorhouse’s sporting achievements and how they could translate into business success, with a rigorous scientific backing from co-founder and sports psychologist professor Graham Jones.

So much of sporting achievement comes from mental qualities: determination, discipline, drive.  Lane 4 has developed programmes to help businesses understand their work through the lens of a sports contest.

“We ask people what kind of team they are.  For example, are they like a Formula One team, with two drivers at the front and a big team in the back room?  Or like a rowing team, with eight people all doing the same thing?  Or like a hockey or football team, with attack and defence?”

While few businesses have such easily defined goals as sportsmen and women, Moorhouse and his team like to talk in terms of ‘outputs’.  In sports, these are measured in medals and world records; in business, they could be in customer satisfaction, in market share or in financial terms.  Yet Moorhouse argues that too many people fail to look beyond financials. 

“You need to define your goals,” he says.  “That may mean working a bit harder: it’s lazy to say you only want to do a job for money.  What is the company trying to achieve?”  He cites the example of a medical products company which could only talk about its earnings.  “How about the number of lives saved?”

Fellow Olympian Jim Walker, who rowed in Barcelona (1992) and Atlanta (1996), went on to found The Climate Group, a non-profit organisation which launched in 2004 and now has offices in Australia, China, Europe and North America. 

“There are lots of good things that come out of sports, from a business perspective,” says Walker from his office in Beijing.  “Rowers, for example, make good business colleagues who can work well with other people and perform well under pressure.  Track and field athletes, or swimmers, are more about individual performance, so they translate more into entrepreneurs, who have to depend on themselves for motivation.”

As the head of an organisation devoted to fundamental change, Walker sees distinct parallels with his former sporting life.  “When you’re trying to win a gold medal, it seems like an impossible dream, which feels similar to trying to change the shape of the world economy. 

Walker achieved various medal positions at world and European level, rowing alongside Sir Steve Redgrave and other giants of the sport.  He likens his greatest sporting achievements to the thrill of winning a five year, multi-million pound partnership with HSBC bank, which has helped the organisation expand far beyond its modest roots seven years ago.

When looking to motivate his staff, Walker likes to quote the book written by Olympic rowing gold medallist at Sydney 2000, Ben Hunt-Davis: ‘Will it Make the Boat Go Faster: Olympic Winning Strategies for Everyday Success’.  “It’s a brilliant metaphor,” says Walker.  “You need to think about everything to do, whether it will help you achieve your goals, or whether it is a distraction.”

In world-class yachting, this attitude is absolutely essential, as any skipper of a Volvo Ocean Race vessel will attest.  Equipment, training, readiness, weather awareness, navigation, balance, teamwork, sail selection and angle relative to the wind: all of these elements have to work in concert, throughout the months of the race, in order to provide ideal conditions for success.

Most important among that list is the element of teamwork, with different specialists literally pulling together to Make the Boat Go Faster!

“I’ve surrounded myself with a lot of good guys, most of whom are actually better at their jobs than I could ever be,” says Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing team captain Ian Walker, another Olympic gold medallist.  “So my job is really to give them the tools to do what they’re good at.”

In many sports, and businesses, similar approaches apply.  No business manager can be simultaneously an IT boffin, a highly qualified finance director, a top lawyer and a human resources expert.  Nor can the manager of a football team be the goalkeeper, central defender and striker all at once.  “If you look at Arsene Wenger,” says Lee Dixon, former Arsenal and England defender who now helps run a dance company alongside his pundit duties on UK television, “he wasn’t much of a footballer, but he surrounds himself with the best.”

Dixon, who won three league championships and three FA Cups, likes to compare business operations with his old role in the legendary Arsenal back four.  “What you do affects everyone else,” he points out.  “So you have to work for your closest colleagues and for the team.  It’s all about hard work and determination.”