Expert comment
4 min read

Striking for success: from the pitch to the office

Trudi Lang on Strategy

As you watch the Women’s World Cup over the next few weeks think about what business can learn from sport about acting strategically. 

Look for how the player bringing the ball out of defence strategically eyes and pivots the play to the right, centre or left of the pitch depending on her assessment of her team’s strengths or the opposition’s weakness. The skilled execution of this choice makes the difference as to whether the team’s attack and chance to score a goal is successful or not.

hand writing on chalk board with football tactics

Similarly, in business the capacity to skilfully pivot to capitalise on changes among your competition or in relation to contextual changes is core to success - especially in the world of surprises we now find ourselves in.

Look also more broadly for the sets of plays that a team is pursuing. A play is a pre-planned strategy for how to best attack or defend depending on what is going on in the game. These plays are rarely random and will have been practiced beforehand and compiled into a playbook. Similarly, Richard Whittington (my colleague here at Oxford Saïd) and I have explored how strategy playbooks enable businesses to identify potential plays ahead of time to quickly and effectively capitalise on emerging changes. Just like in football these plays are generated from imagined scenarios and executed as needed enabling a firm to be well-prepared no matter what arises.

Mahima Mitra and Sue Dopson on Diversity

football being kicked by woman

A winning football team is only as good as the sum of its parts. There is no point if everyone wants to score but nobody is good on defence. Much like the corporate world, ‘diversity’ in a football team can be a good ‘business’ decision because it can avoid the problem of ‘Group Think’ where it is hard to disagree well. For the game, this can mean recruiting athletes that bring a variety of experiences to the pitch, encouraging players to voice their views on game strategy, and promoting the sharing of new ideas.

Relatively small changes in team composition can have a significant impact on a game’s success, provided that ‘diversity’ goes beyond simple representation in terms of numbers to the creation of inclusive team cultures where the coach, much like a business leader recognises the individuality of team members and makes them feel valued, heard and included.

This is something we explore in our chapter in a Routledge volume on Responsible Leadership along with Andromachi Athanasopoulou and Michael Smets, where we talk about responsible leaders that use emotional, relational and ethical intelligence to engage with their team on an equal footing. A winning football team coach’s first task might be to form a cohesive unit out of a set of individual players. In contrast to the traditional ‘top-down’ sports coaching style, a ‘responsible coach’ could facilitate a shared definition of success and co-develop the route to getting there, create an environment where individuals can excel for the benefit of their team, and recognise and hone individual personalities to create synergy on the pitch.

Kathryn Bishop on Leadership

Every team is unique, with a different blend of strengths and skills. This is nowhere more obvious than in large sporting events like this year’s Women’s World Cup with 32 nations from across the globe competing for the winning trophy and being watched by over a billion people. So the leader – whether it is the team captain on the pitch or the manager on the side-lines - has to bring the best of themselves to that specific context - understanding the team and their individual strengths, but also self-aware about their own personal strengths and limitations.

yellow captains armband being worn by footballer

It’s that blend of the leader’s authentic abilities plus their diagnosis of what the team needs from them at that moment, and in that situation, that makes for success. That’s why, when we develop leaders here at Oxford Saïd, we spend time with them to help them to understand their own strengths, but also to read the culture and the context clearly so that they can shape their leadership appropriately.

We wish the 32 teams competing in the Women’s World Cup the very best and thank them for inspiring success among us all.