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Culture Leadership Leadership & Culture Performance | 19.04.18

Why Front Offices Can Learn from Their Athletes

Morten Hansen’s 7 key practices for working smarter in the boardroom.

New York Times bestselling author Morten Hansen believes that there are several ways in which the front offices of elite sport can learn from their locker rooms. “Think about preparing for meetings or presentations,” he begins by way of explanation. “Athletes would practice, practice, practice – how many managers would practice a presentation 20 times before they go live?” He does not wait for an answer, swiftly providing his own: “They don’t. They go to meetings not even having practiced once, not even the opening remarks; and we know the first three minutes matter a great deal.”


By John Portch

Hansen is speaking to the Leaders Performance Institute about his latest book Great at Work: How Top Performers Work Less and Achieve More, which details the findings of a five-year study of more than 5,000 managers and employees. The result of this research is ‘Seven Work Smarter Practices’ that any general manager, director or vice-president can implement today. The seven cover ‘mastering your own work’ and ‘mastering working with others’ and can make a tangible difference.

“The seven key practices I found account for 66% of the performance difference among the 5,000 in my data. Think about that: that’s an awful lot of difference. Since I’m from San Francisco we always think about the Golden State Warriors and Steph Curry. He is the greatest three-point shooter in the history of the game; his career rate is 44% – and this is 66%.” With our interest piqued, Hansen took us through each.

  1. Do less, obsess

“Top performing managers are able to be incredibly focused on a few things. They don’t spread themselves too thin. They don’t try and launch too many initiatives or new projects – they do fewer thing but they do them better. That’s the obsession. Top athletes are obsessed; and with athletes and probably performing arts, they obsess over their profession. In business, most managers don’t. They don’t have the same attention to detail, going the extra mile, making sure everything is perfect, doing something 20 times before you do it for real. Returning to the idea of meetings and presentations, managers all too often have barely prepared, the agenda is bad or they have not even sent out agendas. They take up everybody’s time and there’s no real obsession to make them good meetings. The thing about focusing is choosing a few priorities and really obsessing over those things. Steve Jobs was phenomenal at this principle.”

  1. Redesign your work

“We need to innovate how we work, change practices, change metrics, question conventions and so on. There are so many conventions – we do things because the way they’re done is the way they’re done. The annual performance review was put in place 50 years ago. Why annual? This is where athletes are so far ahead of business. Athletes live on constant feedback from their coaches. That’s the model. In management, you do it once a year so you need to break that cycle and do something simpler, faster and every week. Top performers challenge the conventions in their practice. In sport, what are the conventions? Somebody in LA [where Hansen gave a presentation at the 2017 Leaders Sport Performance Summit] mentioned that their sports doctor was an orthopaedic surgeon – yet the analysis of why people did not medal at the Olympics when they were clear candidates showed that the most common reason was the cold – you’re bringing the wrong doctor for the wrong problem.”

  1. Don’t just learn, loop

“This third principle is what athletes do best: continuous improvement. I call it the ‘learning loop’; athletes are phenomenal in doing something, measuring impact, getting feedback and modifying their approach. That’s what athletes and classical musicians do. In management, we don’t. I ask managers ‘how many meetings do you run a day?’ They say ‘at least two’. That’s ten meetings a week, that’s at least 500 a year. ‘For those meetings do you practice a meeting skill, like, say, asking good questions or setting an agenda or forging a decision in the group?’ And they say ‘no, I do it the way I did it last week’. They don’t practice this looping which is doing something, getting feedback and modifying the approach and then doing it again. A simple technique like asking good questions in a meeting to stir a debate is a skill. Are you doing that? Are you getting feedback from people? Those that do, those that are practicing their skills in that way, they do far better.”

  1. Believe in P-squared. Passion and purpose

 “The fourth principle is about motivation – I call it P², passion and purpose. The best managers and people out there have found a job with both. Passion is what excites you; purpose is what you’re contributing to the world. My hunch is that in sports you find people with both of those – they’re excited and passionate about the job and their purpose is to make a contribution to the fans. As you can imagine in corporate America that’s absent. These four principles are what I call mastering your own worth – how good are you as a manager?”

  1. Become a ‘forceful champion’

 “You need to be a forceful champion for your ideas and projects in management or elsewhere. A forceful champion is someone who has the ability to inspire others and able to persuade others. Inspiration is about getting others excited about a new marketing promotion, a new initiative, a new process, whatever you’re trying to do. Persuasion is to be a little bit of a politician, to understand other people’s concerns and opposition to you, to read their mind and to compromise or build alliances to get stuff done – a bit of manoeuvring around obstacles.”

  1. Fight and unite

“We have fight and unite. When you are running meetings you need to have a good fight and then unite behind decisions. We need more fighting, more debates, more rigorous discussions. There’s only one reason to call a meeting and that is to have a debate. If you’re doing status updates or sharing information, you can do that on an email. You do not need a meeting for that. Meetings are about bringing the right people into a room and to use the collective wisdom in that room to arrive at the correct decision. The leader may still make the decision but you are getting that debate. The problem we have in management is we have no fighting – people sit around and are afraid to speak out or they are political when they speak out, saying what they think the boss wants to hear. Great management involves being open to debate, open to changing your views, open to having an argument where the best ideas emerge and flawed assumptions surface. Having a good fight is a skill if you’re a leader in the room and it’s a skill if you’re a participant, especially if your boss is domineering. If you think something is flawed and wrong, how do you speak up? What we find is teams and managers that are really good at fighting and uniting behind a decision, they do extremely well. If you look around almost all great high tech companies, they have this as a core value, a core principle. Think Amazon: Jeff Bezos called this ‘disagree and commit’.”

  1. Balance the two sins of collaboration

“Collaboration has become this huge buzzword in management – we need to collaborate, everyone needs to work together and I’m sure that happens in sport as well. The problem with it is people collaborate too much and when they do, they don’t put the best people on it, it’s done too late. What you need to do in collaboration is do fewer initiatives and do them better – less is more. It doesn’t mean you should go to zero and there aren’t opportunities where collaboration is a good thing – bringing technology into the game, developed through partnerships is another form of collaboration. What you need to be is incredibly selective and think ‘what are the few key collaboration that really matter?’ and then have the discipline in resources to be able to make them a success, so you don’t over-collaborate.”


To learn more about why some people perform better at work than others and steps you can take to improve your own performance read Great At Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better, And Achieve More. Widely available from Simon & Schuster.