What leaders can learn from high-performance sport

A year ago, Marco Nijenmanting became a partner at Boer & Croon. At YESS, he is engaged in the selection of top managers. We spoke with him about his views on the personal development of people and the similarities between high-performance sport and leadership.

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You are very much into the personal development of people. If they do things that suit them, which they can do and in which they believe in, they are happier and perform better. In office jargon: "then they are in their power". Let's start with you. Have you achieved this yourself?

I certainly think so. My work gives me a lot of energy, I enjoy it and I have little trouble taking on new things. This indicates that I am doing a job that suits me. This is no coincidence, by the way. At the start of my career, I started looking for answers to questions like: who am I and what am I like, what are my values and my principles.

But also: what am I good at and what are my pitfalls and how can I best work on them. I also asked a lot of feedback from people around me. This showed that I am a good listener and analyser and that I can draw conclusions from a conversation with someone. And I know how to give feedback.

Many people said: you could be a good consultant or coach. Then I decided: I'm just going to do that, I'm just going to look for a job where all that comes together and where I feel at home, and I found that at a very small recruitment agency. That was a very important step, completely different from what all my friends and former fellow students were doing. They were all doing the biggest and coolest things at big corporate companies and I just cycled on my bike through Amsterdam to a small office and I was happy there. I wasn't making a lot of money, I didn't have a big lease car, but I was enjoying myself.

That is the essence of leadership: ultimately, the most inspiring and authentic leaders are people who are close to themselves, who know themselves well.

"A CEO of a company has a lot in common with a top athlete."

You have always been a fanatical and successful sportsman. You have participated in high-level athletics and have run marathons. What have you learned from the competences you need in top sport and how do you see them reflected in leadership?

In business you see that people who reach the top demand the maximum from themselves, both from their body and from their mind. Someone like Mark Rutte can lead the country during a pandemic because he is healthy and knows very well what he can and cannot do. That is also top-class sport.

A CEO of a company has a lot in common with a top athlete. You see that those two worlds come together, that the behaviour of those people is very similar. In top sport it is very important to separate main issues from side issues. Your time is your most important barrier, in everything. You only have so much time and within that time you can only do so much. You have to be able to set priorities and keep a good balance between your efforts and your rest. Taking rest is very important in order to stay afloat in the end: not to get injured in sports or burn out from your work.

That is something I have learned from training: my body can only take so much, if I start delivering more, I will break down, if I start working harder, I will suffer. You can learn from this by trial and error. Fortunately, in sport, trainers help you to achieve that. In business, managers should pay more attention to helping the young generation find that balance. That is also a matter of leadership.

Another similarity is a certain drive and ambition. Setting goals, making plans and devising routes to achieve them. That forces you to do two things. Firstly, to continuously reflect on your actions: what do I need to do to adjust them in order to deliver even better performance.

Secondly, do not accept everything that happens. Stay curious, keep thinking about other ways to achieve something. That's what you do in sports all the time, to improve your times, to fine-tune your training to how your body reacts to a certain effort. One person recovers a day after training, another two days. Then that person should have a different type of training load. This is essentially the same in leadership.

Just like in top sport, a CEO of a company is very visible. Every stitch that you drop is noticed. A football player at Ajax has a trainer who can help him not only physically but also mentally. Top managers cannot do without a good coach either. It could be someone from the supervisory board or a confidant, but you can also choose someone from outside the organisation.

When I graduated, everyone in my group of friends wanted to be the CEO of a listed company. Nowadays, many people prefer to become the CEO of a small start-up where they can do business in the lee, but not with their head on the chopping block.

You have been at Boer & Croon for a year now. Do you also notice that a high-performance sports mentality prevails here?

At Boer & Croon, you see that everyone has a lot of ambition, to grow, to improve and to move forward. It is an organisation that can and wants to change gear very quickly, and that is also what you need to do in high-performance sport.

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