I have never really paid attention to soccer but I made a conscious decision to commit to the World Cup. My adopted team made it to the quarterfinals and then had a spectacular flame-out. I discovered there is a football fan inside me – the twists and turns of the game and drama on the pitch sucked me in completely.

I am not a fan of the much over-used sports analogy, but watching the World Cup did cause me to reflect on what we might learn by observing how sports teams manage talent. Professional sports teams are in a unique position – their sole purpose for being is to win championship cups and their only significant advantage is people. How does that affect how teams manage their human resources? What if companies approached human resource planning and management in the same way?

  1. Business, and society, would think about talent over the long term. A professional team is built on the top of a large amateur and professional base. Owners know they can’t wake up one day and have team full of high performers without investing in a farm system populated with players who are developing their skills in hopes of one day making it to the big leagues. You need to cultivate interest in the sport early and widely, support children’s camps and youth programs, and encourage a love for the game. Science camp should be as popular and widely attended as hockey school.
  2. Organizations would scour the earth for players who show promise. Franchises know that teams with the best players are more likely to win. They send out scouts to spot talent early and recruit it into their farm teams.
  3. Leaders would review their org chars on a continuous basis. Coaches and owners are constantly reviewing their player roster. Do they have the right people in the right spots at the right time? When the answer is no, they are quick to make changes.
  4. Companies would invest in heavy hitters when it is going to make a difference. Teams on the verge of a breakthrough strategically acquire and leverage talent to increase the likelihood they will win.
  5. People would be put in positions that play to their strengths. Coaches don’t decide one day to switch up the pitcher and the catcher just to see what will happen. Messi or Ronaldo can probably competently play anywhere on the soccer pitch, but there are spots where they outperform their peers and give their teams an advantage. That is where their coaches put them.
  6. Poor performers would be shed at the earliest opportunity. Coaches bench players who aren’t performing. They send them down to the minors. If things don’t improve, they trade them. And they don’t wait years to make these decisions and aren’t paralyzed by their own discomfort.
  7. Business units would prepare people for the big leagues. Coaches know that you don’t put someone in the spotlight before they are ready. Instead, they train and develop their talent and gradually move them up through their organization.
  8. Leaders would give people exposure in low-risk situations. Sometimes a coach will put a player in a game when there is nothing at stake, to give the youngster exposure to what it will be like when they do make it to the big leagues.
  9. Individual performance results would be public. In organizations, performance reviews happen once a year behind closed doors. On a professional sports team, a player’s performance statistics are posted during and after each game. Everyone knows where they stand.
  10. People would choose by whom they want to be led. On a sports team the captain is selected and supported by team mates. They are not necessarily the coach’s favourite. They are not necessarily the best performer. They are the people who can galvanize the team. They are the ones about which their peers say ‘I would work for her’.

Lessons learned on the playing field have shaped many a business leader. These experiences have helped them develop the skills and mind-sets required to lead and manage people and they are often cited as an important training ground for success in business. Perhaps there are greater lessons to be learned and applied by what happens on and off the field – not just how we become individual leaders, but how we think about and manage talent.