Lessons for Association Leaders

from Elite Sports Teams

Published in December 2020

Entering December 2020, there is rightly lots of focus on creativity and innovation in the association and event world – but I think stamina and mentality will increasingly become key indicators of team performance. It is natural to feel a sense of relief as we come to the end of a year few will remember fondly. However, the reality is that we are only at the beginning of a new, highly competitive, phase in play… and the ability to keep on going through the dark winter months will be essential.

Stamina will potentially be a differentiator and a question of business continuity, especially for small staff teams. The risk of burnout is real. Uncertainty around personal finances, potential school closures or elderly relatives is exacerbated when many are unable to enjoy their usual de-stress activity of choice.

From my experience in this sector it is easy to remember bad days or meetings, and tough weeks or months rolling out organisational change or new event projects, but we do not usually face such arduous, year or longer, challenges. So, looking for inspiration on this topic, I thought who puts themselves through this all the time? The first answer to come to mind was elite sports teams.


Colm Clarke

Partner, Consultancy


Winning Under Pressure

For the purposes of illustration, I will look at two teams who gave me reason for celebration in the last few years – the Ireland Rugby team and Liverpool Football club. I hope you’ll indulge me as I use a few highlights to bring this to life:

  • When Ireland won the 6 Nations grand slam in 2018, their first match against France was won with the final kick of the game – a drop goal from Johnny Sexton with the clock already 2 minutes in the red. To get into position required 41 phases of possession with zero margin for error. A wonderful example of stamina, bravery and execution under pressure.
  • Later that year, Ireland beat the world’s best team – the New Zealand All Blacks. Setting aside the scores, a key moment late in the game was Peter O’ Mahony’s chase back to stop a certain try even though as the commentator remarked “he could barely walk 20 minutes ago”.
  • Liverpool missed out on the 2018/9 Premier League title by a single point, having achieved a points total that would have won the title every other year bar one. Instead of being crushed by disappointment, Jurgen Klopp’s “mentality monsters” came back the next season and won the league with 7 games to spare (sadly in an empty stadium).
  • The highlight reels for Liverpool’s front three, Mo Salah, Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino will showcase their pace, skill and goal scoring ability, but they are equally famed for their intense work rate which is vital to the how whole team system works.

To summarise some stand out characteristics in both team’s successes:

  • teamwork and hard work are pre-requisites; regardless of talent, there is no room for passengers
  • keeping focused and committed when things aren’t going to plan
  • squad rotation and replacements play a key role – not everyone is flat out all the time
  • there is a group understanding of the big picture game plan and an intense focus on the details.

Adapting to Association Staff Challenges

So what has this got to do with associations and events? I think it’s a timely reminder of what it takes to succeed when competition is intense.

Both leaders and team members need to show a combination of intense dedication to the vision and goal, with a demand of excellence when “on the pitch”. At the same time, empathy on both sides is needed. Not everyone plays their best in every match and leaders won’t get every decision right. Association and event professionals can’t be at their best working round the clock, juggling family obligations and health concerns. Another issue with so much uncertainty and change, is those who had “mastered” their roles may have suddenly found themselves uncertain of their skillset and in need of increased support or training opportunities.

Thinking beyond holidays to how squad rotation works is also interesting. In Germany, “Kurzarbeit” was introduced to share jobs and reduce layoffs (albeit with subsidies) but elsewhere companies like Unilever are testing a 4-day work week. So, is an increasingly flexible schedule, especially with work from home now established, an option more organisations should look at? Will flexibility be as important as salary when trying to recruit team members in future?

Additionally, most organisations in the sector cannot afford to retain all the staff capacity and skills they will need on their payroll, and in 2020 many have had to downsize their teams, losing valued members for financial, not performance reasons. Should 2021 see a bigger focus on supplementing core staff with shorter term recruits (including consultants, freelancers, IT experts or other third parties) to bring in fresh energy and ideas to work on complex problems? Or to work alongside full time staff during periods of peak workload?

In complex organisations, there are lots of ways to improve, so it should not just about getting the job done, but doing it better, and bringing onboard the right resources at the right time. Even Liverpool with all their resources, have added a specialist throw-in coach who is not part of their full-time staff but an expert who visits 6 or 7 times a year.

If you’re leading an organisation into 2021, think about how you can build out your core squad, temporary replacements and advisors with the long season ahead in mind, not just the matches week to week.

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    Clarity in Context

    In every team, what should be clear is that everyone needs to understand the big picture and the importance of attention to detail. Now, that is not the same as suggesting everyone knows everything, or that leaders should micro-manage. However, there should be no excuse for an operationally focused staff member not to understand the organisation’s strategy and business model and the role they place in its successful implementation (or how their ideas can improve the result). In the same way, a Board member, CEO or business development lead cannot dismiss operational details as they may be fundamental to the success, failure or financial performance of the initiatives being rolled out in 2021 and beyond.

    As a final example, leaders can excel when they keep challenges in context – listen to South Africa’s rugby world cup winning coach Rassie Erasmus speak about his captain Siya Kolisi’s childhood poverty and how in preparing for the final, “we started talking about what is pressure, and in South Africa pressure is not having a job, pressure is one of your close relatives being murdered… and playing rugby shouldn’t create pressure… we’ve got the privilege of giving hope”.

    So for those of us privileged to have come through 2020 with only the “pressure” of creating new membership value and event models in 2021, let’s look at the end of this year in a hopeful mood and look forward to working together in exciting new collaborative formats.

    Exempla helps associations and event organisers achieve sustainable success with a range of strategic and project initiatives. If you’d like to discuss any aspect of your organisation’s performance, feel free to contact the author.

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