A quick trawl through Twitter or LinkedIn shows that the importance of the environment is becoming increasingly understood – if not necessarily implemented – in sport, with conversations about psychological safety and the need to understand the correct levels of challenge and support to ensure your team bond and thrive, in abundance (spoiler alert: not everyone is at their best when both are high, although this is often the quadrant successful teams aim for).

The people, however, are arguably a more nuanced puzzle to crack and need to be viewed both as individuals and, crucially, as a team, if high performance is to be achieved. Just having the brightest and best in the room does not mean you will achieve alignment around a common vision or goal, or be able to work out the best path to get there. Which brings us back to another much discussed topic – diversity – but this time diversity of thought and experience, as well as of gender, age, and ethnicity.

‘Always be a Jedi’

Growing up working in advertising, I remember being struck by an open letter from Tracey Follows, then CSO of agency giant JWT, now Futurist, to her sons published one year on Mother’s Day. In this letter, she pleaded with them to ‘always be a Jedi’, explaining that the Jedi’s brilliance as a team was a combination of the way they used their differences – of backgrounds, creeds, views, and beliefs – whilst still rallying around a common cause. The stormtroopers, in contrast, are homogenous: they think, act, and look the same, and as such, were destined to never really win.

That is all very well in theory and when you have a myriad of planets across the galaxy to choose your team from, but the reality in sport at present, largely as a result of a host of historical factors, is that the candidate pools are often not as diverse as we would wish. Therefore, hiring for diversity often means hiring for potential – embracing, as our partners Right to Dream do so well, the premise that excellence can be found anywhere. It is opportunity that is often lacking, as well as the willingness to take a different approach to how, and who, you hire.

The risk of hiring experience over potential

Committing to hiring from a wider group – and aiming to screen out the advantage experience often masks – is one thing, actually doing it is another, and relies on an evidence-based approach that focuses on cultural fit, capabilities and transferable skills over what people have done and where they have worked.

To gain competitive advantage, things often need to be done in ways they have not before, which is less likely to come from a ‘traditional’ way of thinking. Yet outsiders are often seen as exactly that: not having the specific knowledge or experience to understand the sporting context as opposed to being viewed as a facilitator who can challenge the status quo, ask the stupid questions, and not acquiesce to the cultural norms.

I see myself as a prime example of this. I initially gravitated towards headhunting in the industry I came from, believing my knowledge of the advertising sector was my competitive advantage. But three years into co-running EPP, I now have no doubt that I have been able to add more to our business because I come from outside of sport than I ever could have had I shared the athlete’s lens brought by our Founder, Dave Slemen, or continued to work within my domain.

That’s not to say an element of experience isn’t necessary – a physiotherapist of a certain level still needs to bring both academic knowledge and applied practice to a role, but it’s not the only thing. Too often in recruitment conversations we see an over-reliance on technical skills over the harder to measure, but equally important, intangible skills that indicate how well someone will learn, and how far they have got to reaching their own potential, as well as their values, standards and unique lens.

This becomes increasingly true as roles grow in seniority. A couple of years ago, when working with the Football Association [FA] whilst they still had their specialist coaching model in place, we were involved with concurrent searches for a national head coach and specialist coach.

While there were overlaps in the criteria for the two roles, they diverged around the technical vs. leadership piece, with the national head coach having to have a much more defined, and articulated, leadership style including their ability to work with the wider body of the FA to run camps and schedules. That’s not to say the technical piece wasn’t important when considering candidates for this hire, but it had become something of a hygiene factor. Whilst one is clearly a stepping stone to the other, the question becomes how those ready to move up to head coach positions gain the proof required to show they can manage and lead, if experience is measured at the expense of potential.

A strength overplayed is a weakness

So how do you measure and hire for potential? To start with, you need to accept that no one is ever more than an 80 percent fit for any given role – briefs are theoretical, candidates are human – and if you are looking for perfection, that means searching for those who have done this role before and are happy to make a sideways move.

This is a flawed vision which not only overly relies on experience and, therefore, those who have been given the breaks thus far, but also means your hires will lack ambition or room to grow. Which is where an evidence-based approach comes in: to allow you to compare different types of people, with different views, and to assess how they might fit within the current team, what they bring versus where they are less strong, and therefore which 20 percent you can afford to under-index on and what skills and expertise needs to be prioritised. It also means recognising that a high-performing team is just that: it is never about just one individual, even at the very top.

Steve Cooper moving to Swansea City AFC from the FA is a good example of this. Having worked within the England national set-up, he lacked a recent recruitment lens compared to other candidates and had worked in an environment with a very different cadence. However, by working to set criteria, we were able to discuss these differences with the Chairman and Board and to see them as a part of a wider context aware that, like any candidate, he would have both strengths and weaknesses when compared to an idealistic brief. In doing this, and considering the team as a whole, it was clear that a strong Head of Recruitment would be a good partner for Steve, whereas another candidate may have required their team to have strengths elsewhere.

Job descriptions are by their nature siloed. But each siloed role is part of a bigger team, and those teams add up to the wider organisation: nearly every sports organisation we work with is an example of Complex Adaptive Systems theory in action. Therefore, people need to be viewed, and assessed, as part of this bigger picture and there needs to be an element of flex.

People are not perfect, humans are fallible, and all individuals bring a different approach as a result of their own experience, background, lens and values. Balancing a team means accepting that people aren’t going to behave in reality how you would like them to on paper and recognising that too many of the same strengths ultimately becomes a weakness.

Creating a coaching culture centred on development and learning

Hiring imperfect people also means creating that environment in which they can thrive. Giving them support and well-thought through personal KPIs and ensuring yours is a coaching culture centred on development and learning.

So, when looking for your 80 percent candidate, you need to ask questions of the team who will surround them. If you have a team that are very strong on a technical aspect, you could hire a leader who is technically not so strong but has brilliant softer skills and so can tie a team of experts together.

If, however, they are missing an element of practical experience, you may feel you need to prioritise this piece. The chances are though that someone who still identifies strongly as a technical practitioner might not have developed their leadership capability as fully yet.

In finding the candidate who is the best fit for the role against agreed criteria, and seeing their weaker points as well as their strengths, you give yourself the ability to check your priorities and create an environment in which they can start to bridge the gaps – or surround them with others who can. That might mean giving your new hire a coach or mentor or finding a way to get them additional practical experience. In doing so, you are recognising that no role can be viewed in isolation, and that the make-up of your high-performing team is dependent on all who are in it, and the environment you create, and not one high-profile hire.


This article was written in partnership with Leaders In Sport and first appeared on their website. To read the full range of insights we’ve collaborated on together, click here.