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The Lessons Elite Sport Holds for Business

By Galimzhan Yessenov, Chairman of the Board of Directors at Jusan Bank and founder of the Almaty Marathon

Sport and business have a long history together, whether that’s quite directly related to the business of sports, like broadcasting rights and sponsorships, to businessmen taking their career winnings and buying their favourite local soccer club, or to retired athletes like David Beckham monetising their careers and profiles.

There’s another way that I have found sport and business to be intertwined and that’s the lessons that participating in sports teaches, that have applications in a person’s career.

I’ve learned these through many years of amateur training alongside my business career, especially in triathlon. I was lucky enough to be able to train for and complete a full-distance Ironman in Copenhagen in 2018, and I always try to build time in my day for training where I can. The lessons I’ve taken from sport have had a real positive impact across much of my business career.

The first of these is ‘marginal gains’, a concept that’s had a lot of currency in cycling and triathlon in recent years. In sporting terms this can mean anything from wearing cycling clothing made of more aerodynamic materials, to adding an extra few minutes of sleep per day to help recovery – any small adjustment that on its own has a small benefit, but added together with many others creates a large impact.

In business, this can mean anything from really basic efficiency gains, such as making every call and meeting 25 or 55 minutes long rather than the typical length, which can ensure that you have a short break between call to focus on the next meeting, all the way through to more sophisticated improvements.

For example, the datasets available right the way through businesses are getting more detailed and sophisticated, and there have never been more tools available to help analyse and make sense of these. Finding tiny improvements here – whether that’s how you record your time, a new metric for measuring how a marketing campaign is going, or a different piece of financial information – can be a small investment of time and effort, but can lead to a big impact.

A second key concept is ‘economy of effort’. In training and especially in long-distance races like Ironman, you need to strike the balance between putting in enough effort and energy that you make sufficient progress, but not doing so much that your efforts become counterproductive. Some sports scientists call this the ‘minimum effective dose’ – the minimum you need to put in to achieve the desired training outcome.

I’ve often found this principle applies in business. Whether it’s managing people, poring over business plans, or drafting materials, you can spend a certain amount of time and effort achieving a certain level of outcome – and keep pushing beyond this, without really making any further impact.

I therefore always try to economise my efforts, doing what’s necessary to achieve what’s needed, and then taking a step back, delegating to a colleague or moving on to areas where I know I can spend the same effort to achieve something more impactful elsewhere.

A third major concept I’ve taken from my sports experience into my business career is simpler than these two, but arguably the most important thing in any training – consistency.

In endurance training and racing, you can optimise all your equipment and nutrition, and tailor all your efforts perfectly, but without applying these concepts consistently over time, you’ll never hit your goals. In fact, you can in most cases get further with improper application of a lot of training, so long as you are consistent in your training over time.

I’ve found this to hold true throughout my business career – aiming for perfection and reaching this once in a while, while letting things slip elsewhere, leaves you without the results you aimed for, and can undermine your and your teams’ efforts.

Throughout my career, I’ve found that consistent, persistent application, whether in myself or in the teams I’ve worked with over the years, has had a far greater impact than rare moments of genius.

Finally, there are the benefits of shared endeavour towards a goal. Even in endurance sports like running and triathlon, where in most cases you participate in events as an individual with your own personal goals in mind, I’ve still gained a lot from that sense of shared struggle and that feeling that those around me are thinking the same things. In business, this is a core component of a strong corporate culture, something that’s very hard to define but crucial to get right. I think business leaders in search of guidance on how to create a positive culture in their organizations could learn a lot from looking at sport.

As leaders, embracing sporting principles offers not only a path to success but also a blueprint for fostering unity and resilience within our organisations. As we navigate the dynamic landscape of business, we can learn a lot from sport, forging ahead with determination, camaraderie, and a steadfast commitment to excellence.

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