Three Culture Traits That
Business and Sports Can Trade

Colin Ellis
3 min readNov 30, 2022


The business and sport culture swap shop is now open

Over the course of 2022 I’ve been fortunate to work with all types of cultures in all types of places. Start ups, not for profits, government, engineering, retail, finance and FMCG to name but a few industries. I’ve also worked with some sports organisations and teams.

The latter are just catching up to the focus on culture as it has always played second fiddle to performance. Whilst performance has cultural connotations, it doesn’t always place the wellbeing of the individuals, and how they work together to maintain a sense of belonging and togetherness, at its centre. It’s about winning. Which is not a bad thing mind, when it’s approached in the right way.

Businesses, on the other hand, are placing a greater emphasis on culture than ever before. In a post-pandemic, talent poor market, employees have greater agency over their career choices and are actively looking for those organisations whose cultures match their purpose. That said, businesses still fail to address some of the big cultural issues that hold them back, which sports teams tend to do quite well.

So here are three cultural traits that business and sports can learn from each other.

What business can learn from sport:

  1. Winning is a good thing. In many organisations, for some reason, winning is seen as a bad thing. It’s seen as a combatant approach where the needs of people are disregarded. However, this would be winning at all costs, which is very definitely a bad thing. Most sports teams set out to win fairly and build a culture that values victory as the ultimate goal.
  2. Individual coaching is key. In order to win, every individual needs to be operating at their best. This requires a specific coaching plan, in some instances a dedicated coach and regular accountability to ensure that players are performing at their best. This isn’t a set and forget activity, it continually evolves, building strength, motivation and resilience and providing regular feedback on performance.
  3. No passengers. And if you don’t perform — despite the coaching that you’re receiving — then you’re out of the team. There’s no complicated process to follow; no involvement from HR; no written notes in case of litigation. Expectations are set and the individual is charged with meeting them. If they don’t, then they are coached and supported to do so, but ultimately if they aren’t able to contribute as expected they are dropped and moved on to somewhere else that may be a better fit for them.

What sport can learn from business:

  1. Be deliberate about culture. It’s not something that can be left to chance. Defining the conditions for team success — understanding each other as humans, agreeing behavioural expectations, talking about how you’ll support each other and develop a sense of camaraderie and so on — requires time and effort. Building a sense of belonging to achieve consistent success doesn’t happen by chance or turning up to training every day.
  2. Be patient, but continually evolve. Culture doesn’t change overnight. If someone new is asked to lead a team (regardless of whether it’s a team of coaches or a team of players), then they need to be given time to build the sense of belonging (as above) and incrementally add to it. Building a team culture takes between 3–18 months, and continual commitment, action and patience from everyone is required to achieve this.
  3. Support mental health. Sport is getting better at looking out for its team members, but business has invested more time and resources into listening to and helping its employees in times of self-doubt or mental distress. There’s still an expectation in some teams that athletes will turn up every day ‘on’ and ready to perform and this is not always the case. Demonstrating care for individuals at a time when they need it most will be repaid with increased resilience, loyalty and (eventually) performance.

Workplace culture (whatever that work may be) is still and always will be the difference between success and failure and all kinds of organisations need to look everywhere for inspiration, motivation and ideas.

What have you seen elsewhere that your team could benefit from?



Colin Ellis

Best-selling Author of Culture Fix | Keynote Speaker | Facilitator | Devoted Dad | Evertonian | Whisky Lover | Likes to laugh, a lot