6 lessons I’ve learned about business from running a football team

- October 23, 2020 5 MIN READ
An exciting weekend of football Grand Finals ahead. Sadly my team, Port Adelaide,  failed at the last hurdle to make it to the AFL’s big dance.

As President since 2013, it has been fascinating to be part of a professional sports organisation and observing how high-performance teams operate. And I reckon all business owners can benefit from some of their strategies.


What I’ve learnt

The first thing which struck me is the similarities between every small business and a football organization. They are NOT so different from your business. Yes, they have an enormous profile and focus, and yes they have very passionate supporters who are emotionally attached. They also operate on the same fundamental business principles… just at a heightened level which we all should aspire to in our own business.

The key takeaways for me have been;

  • We all have to become coaches
  • It’s all about the right people in the right place
  • Developing a unique brand is the ultimate differentiator
  • Engaging the tribe and building a passion
  • Review, observe, review
  • Be brave… you get what you deserve
  • Give before you take… community engagement is your soul

You are the coach

We all need to think, act and behave like a head coach when it comes to running our own business. In football the head coach;

Sets the philosophies and values of the group. What do you stand for and how do you want to operate. Fast and creative/ defensive/ physical…whatever. They decide what they want to be known for. The same as in business.

Outline the goals. Not only for the team but also for the individual players. And how the goals of the players help to achieve the overall team goals. The ideal is having players/staff who buy into the importance of their role in the whole organization.

Provide KPIs. What is success and what is a failure? It’s not as simplistic as winning and not losing. Head coaches set individual KPI’s for each person to achieve which when combined add to team KPI’s. It’s exceeding those team KPI’s which hopefully delivers success. Could be tackles, ball efficiency, scoring accuracy… a whole range of benchmarks.

Motivates staff. In football, the players are generally young Australians, while high-performance coaches and assistants are old. They are a cross-section of Australian society and demographics. Head coaches put a lot of development into how they communicate… clarity, effectiveness, simplicity. Head coaches often use consultants to critique their presentation and communication skills.

Mentor and inspire. Building a connection and trust with players is key to motivating them and building loyalty. A head coach understands everyone is different so you need to understand their background, values and what inspires them. They develop a bond where players commit and perform for them.

As the head coach of your business, and driven by success, you need to set up the environment for your staff to perform and you have to build a connection and understanding which builds loyalty.

Right people… in the right places

It’s about playing your role… team first, team care

Look at your staff and you soon realise everyone brings a different set of skills. It’s the same with football teams. Success is not only identifying those skills but also building an environment where those skills and personalities gel together. An important part of that environment is respecting everyone’s role… every role is important.

Football is high pressure. You work all week towards that 3-hour game where every part of your performance is judged under a microscope.

How to make smart decisions under pressure is a key ingredient of success. What eases that stress processes. A system or process of work, if you like, which is a dependable fall back, that staff know intimately and gets the job done.

It’s the process which gets the job done BUT it’s the addition of individual flair, creativity and instinct which can provide the magic to produce something extraordinary.

So the hard bit is getting that balance right between having process as the foundation and fall back without suppressing the flair which creates that special differentiation from competitors which leads to success.

Constantly review

Review, play, observe, review

The amount of time and attention in reviewing all aspects of a game and player contribution is enormous. Way more than in business.

Imagine your staff getting a post-game video of all their mistakes and achievements, then sitting down with their manager and colleagues to have it analysed and critiqued. It is confronting to say the least.

But it is part of the football department routine.

The review looks at the last game in the day or so after the game to see what worked and what didn’t, who played well and who didn’t. Suggestions are made and adjustments implemented. It’s full-on but I think business owners don’t review as much as we should. There’s a happy medium and we should build this sort of routing into our planning.

But in football, it doesn’t end there. After a day or so a new process starts of reviewing the opposition for the upcoming game. Players are sent more videos… not of themselves but of the opposition team and player they will be confronting.

The bottom line is about getting better and more successful.

Engage your tribe… build passion

The heartland is our most powerful weapon

There is no other organization/club/business that attracts more passionate members and supporters than a football club.

That passion is incredibly motivational to players but also drives attendance at games, memberships, merchandise sales, commercial partners and a stream of other revenue sources. That financial outcome is ploughed back into football department resources and community projects.

Engaging with your tribe is absolutely critical. Because while they can be passionate advocates they can also be your harshest critics when disappointed.

It’s all about engagement. That package of great customer service, respect from staff, special insider opportunities and rituals that say “you are important to this club”.

Port Adelaide’s home games are considered one of the best game-day presentations in sport. A key part of that is when the entire 50,000 supporter group stands, with scarves in the air, and sing INX’s hit Never Tear Us Apart. It is spine-tingling. It says to our tribe that we are one group, a family, and we are right behind our players and club.

In business, it’s the same. Customer engagement is crucial to building loyalty. But do we focus on it enough? The rituals in our interaction with customers which make them feel special.

Brand… what you stand for

Never, ever, give up… never tear us apart

In the AFL, Port Adelaide has 17 competitors on-field and off-field fighting for premiership points and financial support. It is a highly competitive marketplace.

The key is finding a differentiator. Something that sets you apart from your competitors.

For Port Adelaide, for example, it’s the style of game we play, our 150-year history, the quality of our community programs, being seen as an international club by playing in China, and being an innovator.

Your brand sets a line in the sand against competitors. What is your line in the sand?

Not only does it help attract new customers but can also be a key factor in attracting the right staff and building the right culture.

After all, the implementation of that brand is the responsibility of staff and you.

But if you fail to live up to that brand you’ve created the backlash from customers can be severe. So, yes, creating a strong brand is important but delivering on that promise is crucial.

Be brave

You get what you deserve

Football teams encourage their players and coaches to be brave, to be constantly improving by trying new strategies. Being nimble and evolving ensures you keep up with the competition.

In AFL, standing still means going backwards against the competition as they continue to progress.

The same in business. Don’t be afraid to try something new. But know when to adjust if it’s not working and continually learn from others.

Naturally, I’m just scratching the surface here but hopefully, there have been a few thought starters.  I hope your team wins.