Paul McErlean: In business, like sport, you have to show and not just tell

STANDING TALL: Big Kevin Walsh in his days managing Galway. Picture: Seamus Loughran

ON this very day last year, I was issued with my discharge letter and I left University College London Hospital after a week in one of its Covid wards.

When I had been admitted the previous week, after going straight to London for work reasons from an Austrian ski trip, there were only 20 confirmed Covid cases here. And it’s hard to believe that one year later we are still not out of this pandemic.

March 16 2020 was also our last official day in the office. We did not go back after the St Patrick’s Day break, and while we planned a phased return last September, it never happened. We still don’t know when we’ll be back, but hopefully it will be soon.

Our company’s financial year finishes at the end of January, so I now have a picture of the business impact of the pandemic for 2020/21.And given the considerable amount of work we do in the hospitality and retail sectors, I'm just relieved our business has held up so well.

Not surprisingly maybe, the very creditable performance has got me thinking about how we managed it. Obviously, the primary factor is people; we are blessed with very talented and committed people who have overcome major challenges to continue to do their jobs very well. How to sustain that is another question, and I have been given a few insights recently from a book by an old basketball team mate of mine.

It was way back in 1986 that big Kevin Walsh and I played representative basketball together. We travelled to Glasgow to play in the ‘home’ nations and, as was usually the case, we beat Wales and Scotland handily enough, but the big game, the championship-decider, was against England. The English had huge lads at 6’7’’ and 6’8’’ and were very well drilled. Kevin was our biggest man at 6’4’’ but he’d been that height since he was 13, when he also began to play midfield for his club’s senior football team in Connemara.

Kevin was, as they say in the US, a phenomenon. In his book ‘The Invisible Game’*, Kevin talks about learning his footwork for basketball and football from shepherding the family’s herd of cows into the field. From before he was 10 years of age, he was closing off space and urging the cows through the gate, a form of movement that was to reap great sporting benefit in later life.

Judging by the size of him, Kevin might have been lifting some of the cows too; he was as strong as a bull, even though he was only 16. The English big men didn’t know what to do with the big farmer from Galway, and although they won the game, they were pushed around and bullied under the boards like they’d probably never been before. We may have been beaten, but the English knew they’d been in a match. That’s the printable version of the story.

Kevin, of course, later went on to win two All-Irelands with Galway and three All-Stars and in the late 90s and early 2000s, he was maybe the top midfielder in the country. He has also had an illustrious career as a coach, taking Sligo through their best-ever period and more recently bringing Galway back from the dead and winning Connacht championships again.

I’m reading his book at the moment and I spoke to him on the phone last weekend for the first time in 25 years. It was a great chat about sport and coaching, something I’m now trying to do.

As always though, it’s hard not to think about good sporting coaching techniques transferring across to the world of business. Many of Kevin’s coaching principles and thoughts in the book are highly relevant to business because they deal with, for instance, strategy, culture, and the nurturing of talent through individualised management techniques.

Interestingly, the subtitle of Kevin’s book is ‘Maths, Minutes and Movement’. One of Kevin’s many valid points is that even the best, most influential players today might only spend 45 or 50 seconds on the ball in a 75-match. So, what are they doing for the rest of the time? How are they creating space when attacking or closing down space and shepherding their opponents into non-scoring positions when they are defending?

When reading those passages, I’m thinking about how best to convey that to my young footballers, but I also find myself applying it to business practice. How do you best keep your team together and operating successfully, especially when you have had little or no human contact with them in nearly a year?

Sometimes the simplest insights are the most powerful; Kevin said it last week near the end of our chat: ‘Paul, you have to show, not tell’. Leaders in business must show the way, not just talk about it. That’s what we need for the economy now - business people showing the way by setting an example to their teams and making investments and taking some risks to build our way out of this mess.

This time next year, I really hope to be making a better report for 2021/22 (and thanks to big Kevin’s insights, my lads are the reigning county champions!)…

*The Invisible Game: Maths, Minutes and Movement by Kevin Walsh (Hero Books)

:: Paul McErlean ( is managing director and founder of MCE Public Relations

:: Next week: Brendan Mulgrew

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