The modern sports industry encompasses a broad range of organizations and roles, including athletes and coaches, team executives and staff, medical staff, and media professionals. Non Profit organizations that promote youth athletics are as active within the industry as multi-billion dollar professional sports organizations, making it a very diverse field in terms of career opportunities.
For aspiring leaders, the sports industry presents a number of complex challenges. By emphasizing soft skills that help these leaders better manage change, deliver results, and build effective relationships, organizations can build the agile leaders they need to guide them into the future. High-performing sports leaders demonstrate five key characteristics that allow them to be more successful in their roles.
The Top 5 Characteristics of Effective Leaders in Sports
Build a Positive Culture
One of the key differentiating factors between organizations of any kind is the type of culture they choose to build. While building and retaining top talent remains incredibly important, it’s difficult to develop talent effectively in a dysfunctional environment. High performing organizations understand that stability and support matter when it comes to achieving sustainable success. In the sports industry, this often takes the form of everyone leaning into a team concept that emphasizes why everyone’s role is vital to the organization’s success.
Leaders need to build a strong, positive culture to help teams develop the resilience needed to overcome adversity and setbacks. After the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers suffered an embarrassing defeat in the first round of the 2018 playoffs, many media outlets expected a similar outcome in 2019, especially when the team did little to shake up its roster in the offseason. When the team advanced to the western conference finals after a grueling seven-game series, Portland’s players were quick to credit the success to their team culture.
“Everybody is invested in what we created,” said all-star guard Damian Lillard. “It’s exciting because we all play a part in it. You don’t just create this type of thing with just the players. It takes everybody to be all in.”
Building a positive culture requires broad organizational buy-in. It’s not enough for the people at the top to set the tone; the organization needs to promote that culture at every level. They emphasize the value of their people and make it clear that everyone has a role to play in collective success. That’s why even before 2019’s playoff success, Portland’s communications team was pushing innovative ideas to promote the small market organization on social media. Despite the team falling short of expectations in 2018, the communications staff found ways to keep the positive energy alive and focus on the bright future.
One of the most valuable experiences professionals can receive is working with a knowledgeable mentor. Experienced mentors provide guidance and advice while also modeling the behaviors crucial to success in their field. Looking at the landscape of the sports industry, there is no shortage of examples demonstrating the value of mentorship. Head coaches help their assistants to improve their skills and prepare them to take advantage of future opportunities. Front office executives provide a similar form of ongoing development to build strong succession pipelines that enable an organization to survive the loss of key talent. On the media side of the industry, mentorship helps sports leadership candidates build the networking skills and relationships that are crucial to success.
Finding those mentors, however, can sometimes be a challenge for aspiring leaders. That’s why many colleges with sports management and sciences programs are making an effort to connect their students with leading C-level executives in the sports industry. The University of Miami’s Sport Industry Leadership Council (SILC), for example, was established in 2018 to provide support to both students and graduates seeking networking opportunities with sports leaders from across the country as well as developing their skills for sports management. Programs like this one offer an excellent resource for both aspiring leaders and established professionals to make connections and promote mutually beneficial relationships that build their leadership skills.
Training and professional development go hand-in-hand with effective mentorship programs. Organizations need to provide the tools and strategies that allow people to put together a clear career path and assess what skills will be needed for them to achieve their goals. While a mentor can be tremendously helpful in this process, they can be much more effective when they can direct candidates to tangible development resources.
While sports may be a big business encompassing many different fields, it still focuses on a very human experience. Sporting events aren’t just content or entertainment; they’re invested with much deeper personal meaning that affects and inspires people on an emotional level. Focusing only on the metrics and various KPIs can obscure the fact that sports differ from other industries. Leaders need to be aware of how their organizations connect to customers and help build a sense of community based on trust and a shared passion.
Or as Peter Guber, CEO of Mandalay Entertainment and a co-owner of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, puts it: “We’re not 1’s and 0’s...we’re ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs.’” He and sports executives like Los Angeles Football Club (LAFC) President Tom Penn stress the importance of viewing sports as a way of building communities of shared meaning. Within an organization, that means finding ways to inspire employees and keep them focused on how they can consistently further the company’s core values.
While it may be true that sports is a business, it's important to remember that a sports brand can’t just be all about delivering for the bottom line. If sports-based businesses and sports leadership can’t tell a story that leaves room for their customers to play a major role, they will struggle to find lasting success. Leaders must not only be establish a vision, but also find ways to inspire people to drive toward that vision to make it a reality. The inability to communicate or promote a vision can easily undermine an otherwise effective leader..
Communicate With Impact
New developments in technology and media platforms have fundamentally altered the way organizations communicate both internally and externally. These changes have made communications skills more important than ever. Today’s sports leaders must be adept at using multiple channels and platforms, each with their own potential advantages and pitfalls. More importantly, as the industry becomes more diverse, effective leadership skills emphasizing communication will help to build stronger team relationships and promote better collaboration.
The sports industry also encompasses a broad range of organizations and people who may not share much in common. There are coaches, athletes, agents, administrators, media personalities, investors, fans, and many other groups with different interests, backgrounds, and priorities within the industry. Learning to listen and empathize with their concerns is essential for building healthy and productive working relationships that minimize unnecessary conflict.
While leaders in previous decades may have been more isolated, today’s leaders need to be effective collaborators. This not only provides them with access to more information and diverse perspectives on a situation, but also helps to drive engagement among their teams. It’s hardly a surprise that 81 percent of leaders cite a failure to listen to or involve others as the biggest mistake leaders commit when working with others.
Make Informed Decisions
Thanks to Michael Lewis’s bestselling book, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, even casual sports fans are familiar with the revolution advanced analytics data has played in decision making. What they might not realize, however, is just how deep that revolution goes. Jeff Luhnow, the general manager of the MLB’s Houston Astros, has seen the change first hand since entering baseball in 2003: “Most organizations now have database folks and data scientists that are on their payroll and that are helping them not only store the information and organize it properly but also evaluate what it means.”
With all of that data at their disposal, sports organizations should be able to make better decisions, but the best data in the world doesn’t amount to much if leaders don’t possess critical thinking skills needed to make the most of it. “It’s, quite frankly, overwhelming in terms of the amount of information that we have access to,” Luhnow says. “We’ve made plenty (of mistakes) along the way, and you have to own those mistakes.”
Promoting critical thinking skills allows leaders to identify their inherent biases and make better decisions. These leaders must also have the necessary resilience and agility to adapt to changing circumstances and stand behind innovative solutions that may run counter to accepted wisdom within their industry.
Today’s sports industry is a dynamic field undergoing extensive disruption, placing high demands upon its leaders. By promoting development strategies that emphasize leadership soft skills, organizations can provide aspiring and established leaders with the tools to adapt to changing circumstances and deliver positive business results. Building stronger soft skills can enhance both their agility and resilience in the face of tomorrow’s challenges.