Thursday, 10 September 2015

What Leaders can learn from Tennis

At the time of writing this newsletter, the fourth and final tennis Grand Slam of the year is on – the US Open. Whilst watching the brilliance, agility, pace, flexibility and commitment of the world’s best tennis players, I am struck by how this amazing game represents a brilliant metaphor for effective conversation in business. First of all, you can’t play tennis on your own. No matter how good you are, you need others to play with you. Secondly, there’s a very strong sense of ‘taking it in turns’ when it comes to serving, hitting the ball and waiting for the return. In a good conversation, you talk for a bit, then I talk for a bit. Thirdly, adaptability is key. Neither party always knows where the ball is going to land, but our role is to get it back when faced with a difficult or challenging return. Some rallies are long; others are very short. There’s pace, variety, agility and skill in every point. Each player focuses on the other person, their strategy, where the ball is heading, what their game plan might be and so on.

In my last newsletter I introduced the concept of ‘Reading the Room’. In other words, being able to gauge what is happening, the mood and the impact of our communication on others and make the right adjustments to create impact. The premise of this concept is easy; the consistent and continual application of it is a lot more difficult. I have spent time recently with folks who don’t even know that they don’t do this well. One of the most challenging behaviours to experience is the ‘it’s all about’. Every word, every conversation, every topic becomes an opportunity to talk about themselves. It’s enough to take the enamel off your teeth! Leaders who have ‘Executive Presence’ can walk in to any situation, gauge the mood, flex, adapt and ‘own’ the room naturally, easily and brilliantly. Others need to watch and learn.

But isn’t tennis also about winning? And beating the other person? Yes. But in multiple encounters everyone is beaten by others eventually, and it’s about respecting your opponent and paying very close attention to them and the development of their game. It’s also about building and practising your strengths, and continuing to work on those areas of your game that are less impactful. It’s the same with developing ‘presence’.  Leaders need to do all of this if they are to have powerful, effective, engaging conversations with their team, colleagues, customers and senior stakeholders. So, go and practise ‘Reading the Room’ today whilst I head out to work on my serve…….

Sarah has also written a new book ‘Executive Presence – Demonstrating Leadership in Times of Change and Uncertainty’.  Find this on