I left school at 16 to make football my full-time profession. In total, I spent four years at Huddersfield Town, at a time when we were promoted out of League One and fighting for play-off places in the English Championship. My career went on to include time in the English Conference League, Premier League of Wales and French leagues.
As a professional footballer, in training, I would diligently work extra hard to improve my shortcomings, but the focus was mostly on honing my natural strengths – pace, strength and conditioning, discipline and defensive organisation (no, I wasn’t a pretty player). Our match-day tactics were designed around how we might play to our strengths to win the game. Ultimately, figuring out how and when we would gain and then maintain possession of the ball to get into goal-scoring positions.
Our ability to build on what worked would take us higher up the league tables. When it didn’t, we slid down. A visible and immediate feedback on what worked versus what didn’t.
Last week, this lesson was thrown back at me whilst taking shelter from the Sydney rain over a coffee with a friend. As we discussed the ups and downs of starting a business, he recalled a simple mantra that has brought him success throughout his 20-year banking career and into his consulting business. Quite simply, “do more of what works, less of what doesn’t”.
Reflecting on my sporting career, I played in different competitions and countries, yet the game was always comparable: football. Situations were certainly more intense, advanced and came with a higher level of pressure and public scrutiny, but as many athletes will testify:
At moments like those, it is important to remember what you’re good at, what you have trained for, what got you to that moment in the first place.
For me, it was the art of defending one on one. It still gets my heart rate going as I think of the individual duels against the creativity of the opposing player. I was skilled at understanding the individual’s body language, knowing when a slight shift of the shoulders meant a move to the left or right or being aware of their pace and movement off the ball so I could quickly intercept the ball before it even reached them. As I would join a new team or play an opposition for the first time, I would begin learning what I could do to make sure their number 9 or 10 didn’t get the ball. To do that I knew it needed me to do my job and then an orchestration of the defensive unit would follow. This is an example of strengths in action, underpinning what makes us perform to our best self.
On the football field I had the benefit of understanding very quickly where my strengths and weakness lie through feedback from each touch or a duel with an opponent. However, in my career after sport in banking, my strengths are much less tangible and feedback is not as obvious.
Through personality assessments I have been able to understand my key values and strengths. I recognise that I’m performing at my best where I can bring Perspective, Leadership & Forgiveness into my daily life and interactions. Additionally, woven with my most prominent strengths as Learner, Arranger and recognising the motivations of my team and colleagues (Individualisation), I can see how my confidence yields the same progressive moves through the hierarchy.
Even better is that now, I can trace back to my more competitive playing days to how those values and strengths were the key traits and strengths of myself as a sports person and team mate. As a player, I never needed to wear the captain’s armband to be the leader. My voice invariably was (and still is) loudest on the field, orchestrating and updating the match day tactics from the defensive back line through to barking directions through midfield to the attackers.
The parallel is evident in my professional career as work best at that intersection of innovation and strategic planning. In a corporate setting I’m comfortable providing perspective to individuals on “what this strategy means to you” and translating that into a 90-day plan.
Does that mean we should only do what we are good at? No. We need to carve out time to experiment. I was encouraged to do this as a youngster by spending time in different positions on the football field. Even as a defensive player, I have had to adapt to different formations demonstrated an ability to play left, central or even in midfield depending on the strategy at play.
In a corporate sense, my entry-level program at GE Capital where I would spend 6-7 months in different roles, business disciplines and countries over a two-year period. I worked in a call centre on the west coast of Ireland, worked on global M&A deals based out of the east coast of USA, launched credit cards in the north of England and cut my analytical teeth becoming a 6Sigma black belt in London.
We should seek out positions where our strengths can propel us further, whilst experimenting with new skills.