From school to pool and back again

Who would ever have thought that studying for an MBA at RSM would equip an alumnus to cope with the pressures of top-level water polo in the Netherlands? This is precisely the experience of Giuseppe (Peppe) Puglisi – by day he is the European marketing director at TP Vision, the television division of the Philips electronics company, and in his personal time he is head coach of the Amsterdam-based water polo team Het Y.


The lessons that he has learned in transferring skills and knowledge from one area into the other in terms of man management, motivation, formulating and executing strategy, make for highly entertaining, and informative, listening.

Peppe made the move to Philips following the completion of his Full-time MBA (in March 2015, starting in his current role in June 2015). He previously worked at Nikon (in charge of advertising and media for Europe, working on new brand positioning and launching the “I Am Nikon” campaign). He joined Het Y after moving to the Netherlands from his native Italy in 2008 after he identified the sport as a way to meet new people in a foreign country. After playing as a goalkeeper for three years he was asked to coach and play for the club’s second team, and is now the coach of the first team in the eredivisie, the Dutch premier league. ‘

After the MBA, I realised I was perhaps becoming a bit too old to play but I liked the motivation and management elements studied as part of the MBA, and I thought I could see some parallels between business theory and business and sporting practice,’ he says. ‘The one helps with the other.’

One example he cites to illustrate his point is the use of feedback in managing and motivating staff and players. ‘You need to give feedback in a structured way, judging the behaviour of the person in question and not the intention, striving to understand why a person is acting in a particular manner.’

‘For instance, our goalkeeper at Het Y is a challenge to manage. In the past, he has been very vocal towards me and the team, but as a goalkeeper myself I knew what he was feeling and understood him better than most. Working through feedback with him we have been able to transform the energy involved into a positive for team performance rather than a negative.’

The team’s approach to games has improved, as has team spirit, though actual results in terms of scoreline remain stubbornly similar to before. ‘But we are now all pulling in the same direction.’

Another management learning point he addresses is the role played by emotions. ‘I have learned never to talk about a game immediately afterwards,’ he confides. ‘You need to wait at least 24 hours to avoid the possibility of an over-emotional response.’ It is much more constructive, he believes, to discuss a match played on a Friday on the following Monday. He takes the lesson back into his work place. ‘Don’t let emotions get in the way when interacting with colleagues,’ he recommends.

However valid the point, some will find it hard to imagine such restraint being shown by managers in the often toxic environment of, say, professional football in England. Sir Alex Ferguson, former manager of Manchester United, is well known for his infamous “hair dryer” treatment of erring players and other staff rather than quiet feedback and group consensus.

Getting to the point

Brevity and succinctness in speech and communication represent another area of selfdiscovery for Peppe. ‘It is hard for an Italian to tone down, calm down and use one word instead of ten,’ he says self-deprecatingly. ‘But it is very important to be able to do so in sport. Before a game, you can speak for two to three minutes, maximum, before the attention of players starts to drift, and in the three breaks in a water polo match you have only a minute to talk about what the team needs to do.’

He specifically uses the business world’s STAR approach in this context: situation, target, action and result. ‘STAR is a classic MBA concept and it plays an active role in many fields,’ he states. ‘Stories follow this structure. Movies are made like this. We go through it before a game. Assess the Situation. Set a Target. Decide the Actions needed to achieve that target. Get a Result.’

Empowerment is another component of the motivational toolbox which works equally well in the workplace and in the water polo pool, he believes. ‘I find that it can be very effective to give clear responsibilities to my team at work, to make them part of the solution. People engage more in this situation. In the same way, I will ask my water polo players (there are seven in each period plus six substitutes) what they think is the best way to play. This is better than dictating what they should do second by second, minute by minute, move by move.’

In Peppe’s view of the worlds of work and sport, reaching a consensus-driven solution rather than imposing one from the top of a hierarchy is arguably the best route to take in managing and motivating team members. ‘It’s very typically Dutch...’ he concludes.

Visit the website of "Het Y" here

This article was first published in RSM Outlook summer 2016. You can download RSM Outlook here.

RSM Outlook , 2016 Summer RSM Outlook