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11 things SMEs can learn from sport

It’s finals time! And as the pressure builds, so do the clichés – talk of ‘structures’, ‘KPIs’, ‘following the process’, ‘our brand of football’, and the perennial favourite, ‘taking it one week at a time.’

Elite sporting organisations have borrowed heavily from business over the last decade, bringing in numerous business ideas and terminologies to drive performance in the pursuit of excellence.

But there are just as many powerful insights business owners can learn from elite sport. And I say while the big boys have their eyes on the ultimate prize, it’s high time we took something back. Here are 11 things SMEs can learn from sport – and how to apply these principles to your business so you can win in whatever game you’re in.




Coaches and players talk incessantly about KPIs. With good reason. They’re a critical way to ensure you stay on track to achieve your goals.

Just achieving KPIs doesn’t guarantee success – but as they’re based on the key metrics you’ve identified that dictate success (whether hard ball gets or qualified leads). They also give you a snapshot measure of performance – so you can quickly identify when things aren’t working out, and make adjustments to your game plan on the fly.

KPIs also keep everyone accountable – it’s easy to identify if a team member is missing their KPIs, so you can counsel, coach and give feedback on how they could improve performance.


One of the bigger changes in AFL over the last few decades has been a move away from individuals playing in set positions, to ‘structures’ – which is all about playing as a team. Everyone has a role – if we all execute, we’ll achieve more than if we just play our own game. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

This has evolved into forwards (traditionally selfish individuals – let’s call them ‘salespeople’) now having to apply defensive pressure. No longer are roles one dimensional – you simply won’t cut it. Talent alone no longer guarantees you a game. You need to adhere to the team rules, or you’re out – no matter how good you are.

What are the ‘team rules’ for an SME? Our purpose (called a Mission Statement, which dictates what we stand for), how we do things (our core values), and the drivers of why we do what we do (our why – which provides an emotional connection and motivation).

It’s your purpose, core values and why, combined with your history, that drive ‘pride in the jumper’ and dictate what ‘our brand’ means.

Processes & training

Elite sports teams know the more team members understand the game plan, and are clear on their role in executing it (in a variety of circumstances), the more likely they’ll achieve success.

That’s what training is. Elite athletes don’t need to practice the fundamental skills of the game – they’re already adept at that (but of course can improve). What training does is embed the fundamentals of the task so they are able to execute under duress. Training also simulates different match-day environments (or customer scenarios), so team members can adapt as circumstances dictate, but execute with the confidence of having clear parameters to work within.

Head coach, line coaches, development coaches

Long gone are the days of playing coaches – the sports equivalent of a sole operator or control freak SME owner with a few team members to do their bidding. Today, there is a coaching structure with specialisation across key areas: overall strategy and game-day tactics, opposition analysis, and player development.

Strategy and tactics is broken down into ‘line coaches’: the forward line (attackers / sales); back line (defensive – customer support, post-sales service, loyalty programs), and midfield (the engine room – fulfilment and support functions).

Player development is an ever-growing area. Clubs know with the right support, coaching and mentoring, their team members can be more effective, sooner.

What’s your team member development process? It could be a formal induction / graduate program; or an informal mentoring program (as simple as regular coffee catch-ups with team members).

The scoreboard will look after itself

Coaches always remind players that while the scoreboard is obviously important (it’s the ultimate arbiter of success), it’s far more important to ‘play the way we want to play’ – if we do that, success will come more often. They take a more sustainable view rather than do ‘whatever it takes’ to achieve a short term win.

So too in business, we can’t get too focused on our numbers. I shock clients when I tell them your financials come last – because they’re an outcome, not a driver of your business. Focus on the drivers, and assign KPIs to keep you on track, and the financials (our scoreboard) will look after themselves.

Get to the contest

This is a lesson I took from my Aussie Rules playing days. A coach broke it down for me simply: if you want to get 30 possessions, you’ll need to get to 60 contests (assuming a 50% success rate). You can then break that down into quarters or halves to give you an even clearer idea of what you need to succeed, and whether you’re on track to achieving it. It’s exactly the same for business: you want X many new clients per year, meaning you need X prospects (at X% conversion rate)… and to generate those prospects, your sales funnel needs X amount of cold, unqualified leads.

Brand and ‘tribe’

Coaches and players will often talk about ‘our brand of football’.

These days, clubs are experts in branding. In the past, just like many big businesses, they were content to coast along and enjoy the loyalty that was handed down from parents to children. But like many mega businesses – Kodak, Blockbusters, Borders – that loyalty only went so far, and famous sports teams have folded or merged. It’s evolve or dissolve whether on the playing field or the board room.

In today’s TV and media-soaked environment, and multi-million dollar stakes, clubs realise there are significant rewards for building their brand – and their tribe of raving fans – by being far more proactive in attracting and cultivating fans, and converting them into members (or repeat customers, or subscribers).

It’s easier for a sexy sports team to attract raving fans – an unpaid, independent sales force of super-satisfied converts that goes out of their way to tell others how great you are, and recommend they follow (use) you. The questions is, how can SMEs create raving fans for your business?

3rd party referrals are the best source of new business for most SMEs, so always be on the lookout for ways to cultivate referrals. One of the most overlooked ways is also the easiest – ask. Build it into your process so that team members don’t feel like they’re selling, they’re simply following the standard process of how we do things.

Most clubs have leveraged social media to connect with their audience on a deeper level; similarly, SMEs can use social media as a low-cost way to move from a transactional to an emotional connection with your audience.

Take it one week at a time (short term goals)

This old cliché is so well worn… But what does it mean? It’s about living in the moment, not getting ahead of yourself, tackling the challenge that’s right in front of you.

Most sports have the objective of scoring a ‘goal’ – and in business, like in sport, achieving many goals adds up to overall success.

Provided you’ve done your strategic planning, and have the right training and development programs in place, a short term goal – winning this game – enables you to focus exclusively on the challenge in front of you. Breaking down the overall objective into more manageable chunks helps you achieve smaller wins along the way which give you cause to celebrate and motivate.

List management

It goes without saying that your team are critical to your success. Where pro teams excel is in having a clear vision of what they want their team to look like in the future. They are constantly planning and reviewing – where are we strong, where are we vulnerable, how can we improve in the short and long term against the competition.

LinkedIn has changed the talent acquisition game, enabling you to develop a recruitment funnel where you can attract and nurture talent over time, and draw on it as opportunities arise.

Opposition analysis

Every team regularly and rigorously analyses the opposition to identify their strengths and shortcomings.

You too can send scouts to your opposition – whether calling to get a quote or sample; visiting their showroom or offices; getting a free initial meeting; or simply checking out their website and subscribing to their newsletter.

Of course, the more successful teams are no longer just playing the opposition; they look outside their industry and benchmark themselves against overseas teams to find new things to learn, how they can improve, and discover whole new game plans that have never been seen in their industry before. They play themselves.

The ultimate prize…

For footy players, it’s all about winning that elusive Premiership. If there’s a business equivalent, I reckon it’s the ultimate end game of someone offering you a truckload of money to buy your business – it’s winning the flag and the Lotto all rolled in to one! It’s the culmination of all the years of planning, and the blood, sweat and tears of executing along the way. All the ups and downs; the small wins and painful lessons. At that moment, it’s all worth it.

I firmly believe every owner should build a business that’s attractive to others (meaning it’s highly sellable); whether you sell it or not is your choice, but I reckon that’s a great choice to have.