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Many management and leadership lessons carry over from stadium sidelines to business front lines

By Omar Sofradzija

The timing of soccer’s World Cup is forcing some fans to sneak peeks at matches during their work days as of late. Some may view that as slacking. But a case can be made that those fans are, um, doing professional development.

That’s because there are many lessons in leadership and management we can learn that carry over from the locker room to the board room. Really.

“I think there’s a strong correlation of how you approach formulating your team and how to create that high-achieving team” in sports and business, said Kristin St. Marie, assistant director of open enrollment programs for Broad College of Business Executive Development Programs. “It’s very much the same on both ends, but an added complexity for athletics is the public scrutiny of the team, its coaches, and players.”

In past years, the college has held an executive education program titled “Building Winning Teams: A Quest For Excellence,” in which Broad College professors would collaborate with Michigan State athletic coaches for the latter to share anecdotes and insights that confirm the research and lessons of the former.

MSU women's basketball coach Suzy Merchant and men's basketball coach Tom Izzo shared coaching stories and offered insights on team-building and leadership at an earlier "Building Winning Teams" program for executives.
MSU women’s basketball coach Suzy Merchant and men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo shared coaching stories and offered insights on team-building and leadership at an earlier “Building Winning Teams” program for executives.

“The program was comprised of four key areas of research on highly effective teams, each session led by a management department faculty member: team structure and culture; team recruitment and selection; decision-making; and conflict management,” St. Marie said. “We would integrate videotaped interviews with the MSU coaching staff regarding how they managed team situations and challenges related to the program content.”

The program also featured numerous MSU coaches and athletic facilities on the campus. “We found the coaches’ practices mirror exactly what the research shows,” St. Marie said.

The testimony of coaches like MSU men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo helped amplify the validity of academic lessons.

Kristin St. Marie, assistant director of open enrollment programs in Executive Development Programs
Kristin St. Marie, assistant director of open enrollment programs for Executive Development Programs

“The cool part was hearing those very specific situations that might happen,” St. Marie said. “Tom Izzo would talk about the need for leadership on the team. When his teams have struggled, it’s because there’s not someone who can take that strong leadership role on the floor and motivate their teammates.”

Those lessons have real-world applications that can help leaders outside the lines of a field, court, or pitch.

“You can inherit a team as a leader, but you still have the opportunity to change what role your team members serve. If the role is not a good fit, one strategy could be reassigning a team member to a new role that is a better match for both the employer and the employee. It’s best if you can bring in your own team members and hire your own team, but often that is not the option,” St. Marie said.

So, what can business leaders learn from sports? Key takeaways include:

  • Knowing what buttons to push, with whom. “There is a need to understand who the members of your team are and what motivates them. And then, really trying to tailor your message to what their specific needs are,” St. Marie said.
  • Holding your team accountable in ways that resonate. “It’s hugely important,” said St. Marie, adding that when a new player joins Izzo’s team, he asks them for their goals and aspirations – such as winning a championship or going pro – and writes that down on a note card, letting each player know he has a winning formula to achieve their goals. “So when he is working them very hard through the season and (he gets) pushback, all he has to do is bring out that card and say, ‘This is what you wanted, right?’ It is a good reminder that to achieve high-level success requires hard work and discipline.”
  • Doing your job – no matter what the job may be. “It’s a team effort, but everyone has to do their part,” St. Marie said. “Everybody has to have a role and a place, and once you can accept and embrace your role and how you’re contributing, that’s when everything gels and everything is going to work really well. People are accepting the role they need to play to make this team highly effective. Maybe your role isn’t what it was that got you to the opportunity, but it’s going to help you get to your next goal and success.”
  • Valuing all your teammates. “Everyone is involved in supporting the team environment. It’s important to recognize the value each contributor brings to the team, from the coaching staff to the players to the janitors to the nutrition staff and everyone in between,” St. Marie said. Roles may be different, but all contribute to success.

St. Marie said the Broad College is working on creating a revamped version of the seminar to be introduced at a future date.

In the meantime, get out your favorite team’s jersey and a “#1” foam finger. There’s professional development to be done.


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