There have always been references to sports in management teaching. The games we play as children in many cases were designed to prepare us for life as functioning adults. And studying the dynamics of sports, where the difference between trophies and empty cabinets is extremely slender, clearly has some application in business.

Through my career I have come to find that some analogies from sports help frame ideas to more junior managers and staff, and these have become a core part of my management style.

The move from doer to manager is actually a major transition that in many cases is really poorly planned for and executed. The following simple ideas are bite-sized, easy ways to slowly introduce more high level thinking in your managers to turn them into functioning leaders.

Don't always look to the bench

It is easy to see problems with your existing team, as you know them intimately. The allure that you can just fire them and improve performance is a common business pipe dream. The reality is that if you continue to use the same recruiting tactics you are unlikely to get better people unless by chance. At the same time you avoid doing what you are hired to do--improve the people you have in front of you.

Substitutions in the middle of the game should be kept for the right reasons, and a little perspective on what they offer and their limitations is an important business lesson.

Horses for courses

This is a British saying. It comes from the idea that racehorses are observed often to perform best on certain race tracks (length, terrain etc). It has taught me to look deeper into performance. Some people are great in some situation and fail in others where you may think they will also excel.

Anticipating which of your team is the best suited to own a specific sales opportunity, technical problem or research task is your job as a manager. Studying performance over time and analyzing the critical factors in success and failure are key.

Drive for show, putt for dough

A lot of people will argue with the truth of this analogy. The tenet is that it doesn't matter how amazing your long game is, if you cannot finish the job you will not win in golf. Those last 1-2 shots are always all about carefully studying the characteristics of the green, and they are more varied than standing on a tee box and hitting when you are in control of your environment.

In business I find this idea of great value. The reality of selling is that you often think you are really close but then the final actions you take fail to close. If your sales team keep telling you how many great new leads they have created but cannot show you the closed sales, then it infers you need to study their putting and help them deal with reading the green.

Play to the final whistle

Any google or YouTube search will find you plenty of examples of what happens when you don't. You may also prefer to think of this as "going the distance." Switching off before the job is done undoes all the previous good work. I find that this analogy helps a lot in looking at hard work and concentration. I think it is important to watch what happens for instance when someone completes something complex and challenging early in the day (scores a goal). Do they rest on their laurels and kick back, or get back to trying to score another? The result is not determined until the referee says it is.

And the ones to avoid?

I don't think that when people say some of these they are thinking much about anything, it just feels good to them. Many of them have been so overused and oversimplify leadership that I personally don't find them to be of great value in analyzing performance:

  • Hitting a home run
  • Punching below your weight
  • Dropping the ball

Not thinking about why you are using an analogy is really to use a cliche, and when you do, your team will switch off.