Feature of the Week

July 23, 2012 12:08 am

Athletes learn from team MBA

Canoe pic

Two men in a boat: Gauthier Klauss (in front) and Matthieu Péché practise for the canoe slalom

Everything Matthieu Péché and Gauthier Klauss have learnt about project management and teamwork will be put to the test at the Lee Valley White Water Centre in August.

The masters in innovation and entrepreneurship students will try to win gold for France in the two-man canoe slalom event at the London Olympics.

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The teamwork has not only been between the two men in the boat, however. Professors at a small but ambitious French management school, ESC Pau, have worked hard to help the canoeists prepare, shifting class times, moving deadlines and providing special coaching to help them fit their studies around a gruelling routine of sports training.

In the run-up to the Olympics Mr Péché and Mr Klauss, who came second in the Canoe Slalom World Cup in 2011, have taken a gap year. Besides spending hours on the water and in the gym every day, the athletes have toiled for weeks in east London getting to know the artificial white-water course.

“We aren’t going to the Olympics just to take part,” says Mr Péché. “We are going for gold.”

The two 24-year-olds believe that they have a good chance. They grew up in Epinal-Golbey, a renowned canoeing centre in France’s Vosges mountains, and have been canoeing since the age of seven. They have been competing together since they were 15-year-olds and even signed up for the same masters degree to maximise their sporting preparation.

“Our sporting career has taken precedence this past year,” says Mr Péché. “But our parents always insisted that studies had priority over sport and they were right. Canoeing is an amateur sport. Even if we win at the Olympics, we will still have to earn a living.”

Thanks to a very flexible approach taken by ESC Pau, they will be well placed to do so. The athletes chose the school partly because of its proximity to a white-water centre with world-class training facilities, and explained their sporting ambitions to the school at the outset.

Mr Péché says there has been a valuable interplay of lessons from the school and the sports training. “We are two men in the boat,” says Mr Péché. “That teaches you about teamwork and teamwork is central to what happens in companies. An Olympic campaign is about fixing objectives and ensuring you reach them. That applies in business too.”

These synergies are increasingly recognised. International athletes and businesses alike are obsessed with improving performance. And business schools are playing a growing role in cross-fertilising ideas from the two domains. John Neal, who heads the Sport Business Initiative at Ashridge Business School, says “sport has a great deal to learn from business”.

Ashridge works in partnership with UK Sport, the funding body for Olympic sports, and runs the elite coach mentor programme that supports the agency’s coaches for many UK Olympic teams, as well as working with some individual athletes.

Mr Neal, one of Britain’s foremost sports psychology specialists, has developed the school’s relationship with sport over more than a decade. The application of business principles by UK Sport’s former performance director, Peter Keen, played a big role in Britain’s Olympic resurgence, Mr Neal believes.

The distinctive feature of the Olympics, says Mr Neal, is the additional pressure to win imposed on athletes driven by passion. Ashridge has developed an eight-point framework spanning vision, strategy, cultural philosophy, performance management and so on, which is designed to help them achieve victory.

Business, Mr Neal says, can “learn about the human side” from sport. With colleagues, he sought to transfer lessons about athletes’ energy and passion to sales teams at some big companies. The result: big increases in sales or sales activity.

Other business schools are also exploring the crossover of leadership ideas. Duke University in North Carolina has a renowned basketball team whose coach, Mike Krzyzewski also coaches the US Olympic basketball team. Mr Krzyzewski, widely known as Coach K, works with the Fuqua School of Business at Duke as executive in residence in its Coach K Center for Leadership and Ethics, which is headed by Sim Sitkin.

One of their conclusions is that many leadership lessons from sport, business or other fields are indeed transferable: managing big egos is a challenge whether you are trying to win a basketball game, trade shares or lead a technology company.

But Prof Sitkin also notes the significance of the globalisation of sport in recent years, its massive revenues from diverse sources and its important non-commercial, social role.

“Sport has become a very big industry,” he says. “Business schools are only starting to recognise how large, important and complex the sports industry is.”

Some schools have responded by launching sports management courses. But gaming, media rights, technology and many more topics also merit closer study, Prof Sitkin says. “I believe we will be moving further into this area because we think that we are well placed to be helpful.”

Others are on the same track. Moïse Louisy-Louis, an athlete and former financial analyst, heads two specialised sports management masters programmes at the International University of Monaco, a business school. This year he took participants on a study tour to London to explore ethics, as well as the business aspects of running Olympic events and venues.

Peter Grant, lecturer in voluntary sector management at Cass Business School at City University London, who has worked in sports funding, says the need for more professional management in many sports is self-evident. Like Mr Louisy-Louis, he believes business schools should study the sports industry more closely and offer more specialised courses.

But what fascinates two academics at the innovation and entrepreneurship group at Imperial College Business School in London is the challenge of the Olympic Games as a project.

Ian Mackenzie and Andrew Davies, experts in project management innovation, have published a widely admired paper on lessons learnt from the 2012 games construction project.

The Olympics study has become part of a long-term research project that is helping turn Imperial College Business School into a global centre of expertise in the management of megaprojects.

The Imperial team is working with executives running Crossrail, a £14.5bn rail link between the east and west of London scheduled for completion in 2017, both to ensure lessons learnt from the Olympics are applied and to capture management innovation developed during construction.

. . .

But the games do not only provide material to teach. In their wake they leave many people seeking a new job or a new career. Olympic construction workers went to Crossrail. Mr Péché and Mr Klauss will go back to school in Pau. Older athletes have found business education a good route to building a new life.

Jonno Devlin is a good example. He has a degree in computer systems and spent eight years as a full-time athlete, rowing for Great Britain at the Athens Olympics and for Ireland in Beijing.

But after Beijing in 2008, at the age of 33, he had to start life anew. For many athletes, he says, the transition is traumatic. The sudden loss of a clear ambition, structure, social life and “being very good at something” is abrupt. After a spell as a financial adviser, Mr Devlin undertook a full-time MBA at Cass. He is now a strategy project manager at Aggregate Industries, a leading supplier of building materials.

“Cass was very supportive and helped me find the funds without which it would have been impossible,” Mr Devlin says. Studying for an MBA “gives you a fresh look at the business world, the skills that are needed and some time to gather your thoughts”.

There are many ways in which business schools and sport are becoming more symbiotic. Helping athletes who will retire after the London Olympics to build new lives and ambitions may be some of the most important.

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