How to Strike a Balance Without Sitting on the Fence - And Other Lessons Businesses Can Learn From Football

22/11/2012 17:59 GMT | Updated 22/01/2013 10:12 GMT

Although I now spend most of my time as a sales director of the IT recruitment firm Catch, as a well-known former football referee, I'm still constantly asked my opinion on the latest row or controversy on the pitch. As you can imagine, I've been very busy lately.

In theory this means to-ing and fro-ing between a business and football mindset. But I'm becoming increasingly aware of the similarities between a good ref and a successful business professional.

For instance the weekend when the Mark Clattenburg affair was in full swing, everybody wanted to know what I thought about recording a ref's comments and instructions during a match. In case you've been living under a rock for the past couple of weeks, Clattenburg was accused of racially abusing a Chelsea player. If his words during the match had been recorded, his behaviour could have quickly been proven, one way or the other.

It struck me that it's not just in football that we need more transparency. In many businesses, people have become so used to saying what they think others want to hear, that they no longer know what's real themselves.

In the world of IT recruitment, both clients and recruiters are sometimes less than honest about what they need and can deliver, or often don't listen carefully. A client may renege on a promised salary at the last minute, or an agency exaggerates a candidate's skills. The problem is that, ultimately, neither party will get what they want and the relationship is likely to suffer as a consequence.

Hand in hand with this is the need to get rid of what is increasingly a blame culture, with not enough people having the integrity and honesty to take responsibility for their actions. I got used to making key decisions in front of 60,000 noisy fans in a stadium and millions watching on TV worldwide, with nowhere to hide when I got things wrong. So I probably notice more than most how a reluctance to take responsibility can adversely affect business if it becomes part of a company's culture.

At the same time, on the field it would have been easy to occasionally favour a home side, or perhaps a team that was losing badly. But obviously a good ref has to make decisions that are fair and equal to both parties. Just as it is good business to weigh the needs of clients against those of staff and other interested parties - and in recruitment, especially, to balance the needs of clients with those of candidates. But striking that balance doesn't always mean sitting on the fence.

The FA laws fit into a tiny booklet - there are only 17 in all. If you applied these to the letter, a game wouldn't be worth watching; they need to be used as guidelines. Just as in the workplace, employees need to be set boundaries but they also need to be given a free rein to enable them to learn and grow. Intervening at the right time requires discretion, integrity and good decision making skills. It's often said the best referees are those that are seen and not heard, and a good boss, discreetly helping his or her employees make progress with their career, may be held with higher regard than one who is regularly interfering.

More transparency, balance and the confidence to make decisions can really help to move a business forward. You might think that the only thing we can learn from football at the moment is how not to act - but, there are positive lessons to be learnt if you look beyond the obvious.