independent

Saturday 19 April 2014

David McWilliams: Lessons from sporting legends can keep businesses on the ball

Can Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane transform Ireland's fortunes?

The hotel ballroom is jammed. And this isn't any old ballroom but the ballroom of the Al Faisalya Hotel in Riyadh – the most posh hotel in a city of posh hotels. I am writing this from the foyer of the hotel, having just finished a speech to Arab investors on the global economy in 2014.

These people manage billions of dollars, deploying the country's oil fortune in the financial markets to generate a return for future generations. The discussion jumped between the fate of the dollar, the likely move in US interest rates and whether the new Fed boss Janet Yellen will "taper" next year? There was much talk about what Germany would do now that it has inflation and the rest of the eurozone has deflation; would the Germans tolerate a possible ECB rate cut?

The conversation was the typical diet of financial market players – that was until the end. Just as I was finished, one guy comes up to the podium and asked the question that had been on his mind all morning.

"How will Roy Keane get on with Martin O'Neill?"

You've got to love it.

We got chatting about the biggest story in Saudi sport yesterday morning and, as we talked, a few Sri Lankans, Indians, Omanis and a few more Saudis started talking about Roy Keane. It was all a bit surreal. This is what Roy does: he animates people.

Anyone who has visited the Gulf will know how much the locals love football. However, not surprisingly given these are business people, as we were chatting quite incongruously about Roy Keane, the conversation turned to transformational managers, in business as well as sport.

More specifically, the talk was about the similarities between management and performance, whether in sport, business or economics.

The job for O'Neill and Keane of rebuilding the Irish football team is not unlike the job that a manager in any business faces each day. What will we do differently? How will we get the best out of our resources? How will we keep the customers (fans) interested? How will we get results against better sides and not lose against lesser sides? What tactics and strategy will we employ and how will we execute it in the competitive marketplace?

In this regard, business and sport are very similar and the qualities inherent in good business managers and good sports managers are not that different.

It made me think about some of the great manager-player teams of the past. The ones that come to mind are those who caused the greatest upsets in sporting history. And we all know that in order for the Irish soccer to recover, our team will have to cause a few great upsets by beating a few great teams. These victories themselves could be the catalyst to greater things.

All this talking about sporting heroics, the Irish football team and the World Cup in Qatar, got me thinking of the Rumble in the Jungle. In the same way as Qatar has paid for the World Cup (in winter) with its enormous oil wealth, Zaire's ruler, Mobuto in 1974, paid for the Rumble in the Jungle with Zaire's huge mineral wealth.

However, in the context of O'Neill and Keane, the interesting thing about the Rumble – one of the greatest sports upsets in history – is that it was conjured up by one of the greatest management teams the world has ever seen – Muhammad Ali and Angelo Dundee.

On paper Ali hadn't a chance.

He was older, slower and out of shape. Joe Frazier had hammered Ali. But Frazier was pulverised by Foreman. Foreman floored Frazier five times in one bout and yet Ali was saying he was going to win. He said he had a plan.

Foreman was a beast. He had the hardest punch in boxing. He was the champion. He was younger, heavier and in terrific form. At 24, he was eight years younger than Ali. He knocked opponents down for fun.

But like all great managers, Dundee spotted that Foreman's greatest strength was his weakness. Dundee knew that there was only one outside chance of victory for Ali. If Ali could just withstand the barrage, Foreman might just punch himself out and, when he was knackered, Ali could pounce.

But how could Ali take the punishment?

Ali and Dundee figured out that if he lay on the ropes, the ropes would dissipate the force of Foreman's blows, allowing Ali, in effect, to roll with the punches. Before the fight, Dundee insisted because of the heat that the ropes should be loosened. Nobody batted an eyelid. Rather than go toe to toe with Foreman, Ali lay back on the ropes, looking supremely confident. What he was actually doing was carrying out his plan to perfection. Ali would later call the strategy "rope-a-dope".

And that's what happened.

Foreman, the beast, punched and punched and punched. Ali kept on the ropes while taunting him with the famous, "Is that all you got George?"

By the 8th round, Foreman had punched himself out, Ali waited and waited and then famously decked him, conjuring up one of the biggest upsets in sporting history.

He won by making his opponent's strength his weakness.

This is what transformational business leaders do. The best example of this in Irish business is Ryanair. O'Leary and his team took an ailing business, devised a strategy, identified the competitors' weakness and ruthlessly exploited it.

Today Ryanair flies 80 million passengers, dwarfing BA's 28 million and O'Leary did this by deploying tactics and strategies that his opponents didn't anticipate. By the time they did, they were well behind the game. It doesn't mean they won't catch up, but for now, despite the recent travails and profit warnings, Ryanair is well ahead.

Given the similarities between business and sport, can you imagine if the first call O'Neill and Keane make isn't to Stephen Ireland but to Michael O'Leary? Who wouldn't pay to be a fly on the wall at that particular hangout?

I'm sure people would pay as much as Don King charged for ringside seats at the Rumble in the Jungle.

David McWilliams hosts Kilkenomics this weekend in Kilkenny. Tickets at www.kilkenomics.com

Irish Independent

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