What’s the difference between a Football Manager and a Sustainability Manager?

Sustainability is like football: a good game plan can help you win.

We think of sustainability like playing a football game. It’s complex with a combined need for collaboration, teamwork, progressive and strategic thinking. Your players need to know what direction to run in, who to pass to and try new strategies and ways of winning the game.

As a team, everyone has a role and vital part to play, on and off the field. There is an overall plan, and each game has a strategy. In football, the goal is to get the most goals in the net and ultimately win. In sustainability, it’s about establishing your goals, aims and ambitions together and working towards a building a more sustainable business, for both society & planet.

Setting a strategy that everyone’s involved in, playing to people’s strengths and knowing each player’s weaknesses, and having the right support (i.e. other companies, networks, sponsorships, consultants and tools). Ideally, each team member knows what they have to do to achieve the team’s goal. No individual can play football alone.

In football, like in sustainability, sometimes things don’t go according to plan. One game result may not be what was desired. Sometimes, the team needs to regroup and revisit the strategy. However, the responsibility when results fall short lies ultimately with the manager, not the players.

Imagine if players were running in all directions, performing random actions on their own? The team would not stand a chance to win! Same applies to your sustainability plan. Like in football, we need to understand our system and respect the rules of the game to have a chance to win. Like in football, tools are used to choose the best actions as part of a strategy to achieve success in our system.

Purpose

Football managers need to give players a sense of doing something for the greater good; just like sustainability managers need to give their colleagues a sense of purpose beyond maximising financial returns for the business. People are incentivised when they feel an emotional connection with a club or company and their teammates. If it’s just about money, then something is missing. Players and employees need to feel joy in what they are doing.

Sense of Urgency

Changing the underlying culture and approach of any sports team or business is among the hardest challenges for a manager. Culture is intangible, and when something is hard to define, it’s hard to address, improve, or measure. Depending on how you see the world, it can be maddening or exhilarating that there is no one-size-fits-all definition for sustainability. While no one can tell you what sustainability should mean for your company, this also creates the opportunity for dialogue.

A key strategy is to try and build a sense of urgency that will inspire people to move, and clear communication to get staff and directors buy-in. Then showing persistence and resilience to make change stick and reinforcing the approach through the executive team and Board.

The Underdogs

You cannot start long term planning without some early successes. That means immediately focusing on your strengths, and differentiating your strategy with each game or market that you operate in.

A sustainability manager’s entrance into a business is like an underdog football team playing away against one of the big clubs. Their goal should be to impress with the quality of their work, build momentum and a positive mood in their respective teams.

Survival Instinct

A sustainability manager entering a new business, or a football manager entering a complicated team, should ignore any ideas of sophistication or showing off, but focus on getting the job done.

A sustainability manager often inherits a “shoestring” budget relative to other divisions, like a football manager entering a team facing relegation. Too many corporate leaders fall prey to the latest fad or to a desire to separate themselves clearly from their predecessors or peers. And all too often the results are mediocre, if not downright disastrous. Better, perhaps, to stick to the basics, the tried and tested, which you know from experience will work. In any business, you must differentiate between hiring someone and getting them to perform. From fund managers to footballers, these individuals can make millions elsewhere, so you are paying what they think they are worth. But a manager cannot assume that they will immediately click – they must fit with the team’s culture or style of play.

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