Leadership Lessons from Sports: Fostering Open Feedback Loops and Communication

Leadership Lessons from Sports: Fostering Open Feedback Loops and Communication

In today’s workplace the responsibilities of a manager can be vast and varied. How we set our managers and leaders up for success is therefore crucial. Often promotions to managerial positions are granted as a rite of passage to experts who may lack the desire, motivation, or time needed to focus on getting the best out of their people. This can lead to missed opportunities for team growth and development.

As a founder-led business or organisation, how can you reframe your approach to management roles to support and harness the next generation of leaders? 

From The Playing Field, To The Working Office

“Your role as a manager is to improve players,” said Paul Merson, former football player, manager, and sports pundit, following a 2023/24 season Arsenal v Aston Villa game. This statement is a powerful reminder of the critical role managers play in the development and success of their teams, not just in sports, but in business as well.

Managers should be seen not just as overseers but as mentors and coaches dedicated to improving their teams. At Imagine Beyond we have a golden question that we recommend asking a team member before promoting them or when interviewing someone for a managerial role and that is: “How will you improve your team?” 

This simple yet effective prompt will help you to ensure that growth is a priority for both your team and the manager.

Learning from Sports Leaders

Leaders like Sarina Wiegman, England Women’s National Football Team Manager, demonstrate the importance of open communication and feedback in building strong, successful teams. Wiegman understands that vulnerable conversations enable teams to identify solutions together, build trust, and foster productive feedback loops.

A common pitfall in providing feedback is the ‘convenience bias,’ where feedback is neither too critical nor too complimentary. While this middle ground may seem like a way to avoid potential conflict, it often hinders the potential for real growth and improvement. Effective feedback is crucial in our fast-paced work environment, but it does require skill and practice.

Consider an example from the world of basketball. Phil Jackson, the legendary coach of the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers, is renowned for his unique approach to leadership and communication. Jackson fostered an environment of open dialogue and feedback, encouraging his players to voice their thoughts and opinions within a psychologically safe environment. This open communication style allowed his teams to build strong internal relationships and strengthen their trust – with him and with one another. By treating feedback as a two-way street, Jackson helped his players grow individually and collectively, leading to numerous championships and a legacy of excellence.

Let us turn our attention to a different sporting example in Tennis. Tennis is typically seen as an individual sport, but it also provides valuable lessons in leadership and feedback. Here I like to use the example of Patrick Mouratoglou, the former coach of tennis icon Serena Williams who is widely regarded as one of the greatest of all time. Mouratoglou’s coaching style was also centred around honest and open communication. He regularly engaged in deep, candid discussions with Serena about her performance, goals, and areas for improvement. This level of openness helps to build trust and ensures that feedback is constructive and actionable. Mouratoglou’s ability to provide clear, direct, and supportive feedback has been instrumental in Serena’s success on the court.

During a particularly challenging period in Serena Williams’ career, Mouratoglou didn’t shy away from addressing her weaknesses but did so in a manner that was constructive and supportive. By analysing match footage together, discussing strategic improvements, and setting specific, measurable goals, Mouratoglou created a feedback loop that was both honest and encouraging. This method not only improved Serena’s performance but also strengthened their coach-athlete relationship, fostering a deep mutual respect and trust. This shared method of analysing match or game footage collaboratively is now widely used and documented within the sports industry.

Putting These Techniques To The Test

Here are three key observations to consider for delivering more constructive feedback:

  1. Observe First: It’s essential for leaders to provide feedback based on their own observations rather than relying solely on second-hand reports from colleagues. By witnessing team members’ work and behaviour firsthand, leaders can offer more accurate and meaningful feedback. 
  2. Actively Listen: Feedback should not be a one-way street. By encouraging an open dialogue, you are allowing team members to ask questions and seek clarification. This not only helps them understand the feedback better but also fosters a sense of collaboration and mutual respect. 
  3. Provide Tangibility: Feedback, whether positive or constructive, should always include tangible objectives for improvement. Clear, measurable goals help team members track their progress and recognise their achievements. This continuous striving for better performance will benefit individuals, your teams, and your organisation as a whole.

Creating a culture of ongoing feedback drives continuous improvement, innovation, performance, and growth. Just as the examples above from renowned sports coaches showed, leaders and managers, across all industries, when committed to fostering an environment where open communication and feedback are the norms, help teams to excel. To find out more, get in touch here.

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