“Imagine that you have to make a decision that will award one team £120 million and the other nothing. You have one second to make that decision in front of 82,000 screaming people.

Whatever your decision, half of those people will curse your name forever…”

This was the unenviable task facing referee Martin Atkinson when he officiated in the Championship play-off final between Crystal Palace and Watford at Wembley in 2013. There was contact between opposing players in extra time. Was it a penalty? Yes, said Atkinson. The resulting goal put Palace into the Premier League, a prize that comes with a nine-figure payday.

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Decision-making is both the most important and the hardest part of being a top-flight referee, says Pierluigi Collina (above, right), the most famous and accomplished of match officials.

Collina, who was talking ahead of a Q&A session at a Grant Thornton Inspiring Business event, was named Referee of the Year for six consecutive years and officiated at the final of the 1996 Olympics football tournament and the 2002 FIFA World Cup. Today, he is a Senior UEFA Executive in charge of refereeing standards across European football. 

Parallels with business

Being a referee is difficult, says Collina, because crucial decisions have to be made in the full glare of the media – a situation that many business leaders will appreciate.

Officials also see the game at ground level, through a thicket of legs and in real-time. Commentators and pundits, meanwhile, will typically review the action from 42 stadium cameras, slow-motion replays and high-definition graphics. They don’t have to make up their minds on the pitch, fatigued by keeping up with play for 90 minutes. It could be argued the same thing applies to decisions taken by a chief executive. There’s no crystal ball and hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Of course, a significant challenge for referees is coping with players’ behaviour: squabbling, protesting, pressurising and, of course, diving and feigning injury. You would hope that most boardrooms are slightly less challenging.

Collina says the majority of refereeing decisions are based on observation, but gut instinct and knowledge of the game also come into the equation.

Lessons from sport

The major reason for this degree of success is preparation. ‘The 90-minute spotlight on referees is a bit like actors when they go on stage; the performance is only a small part of the work they put in,’ says Collina.

‘At a Champions League match, for example, you don’t see a big difference between players and the referees because they are all such athletes. Referees follow a programme of training tailored to each match. They know everything about the players, the tactics and everything else that could happen during the game. The goal is to know as much as possible before kick-off. The worst thing is to be taken by surprise.’

This is why referees carry out video research – to understand how players execute set plays such as corners and free kicks. They know the drills and, importantly, are prepared for situations in which players block their opponents illegally.

In his role for UEFA, part of Collina’s job is to identify any foul play that goes unchallenged during a game and alert referees to help them spot it in the future.

Communication is more important than ever. It used to be the case that matches were officiated by a referee and two linesmen. Now, at major games, there are six officials: the standard trio bolstered by an official next to each goal and another between the team dugouts. They work together, communicating via radio headsets and, though fans and pundits would never know it, the information flow never stops.

Another important channel of communication is between the referee and the players. During his career Collina was a master of getting players to accept his decisions, even if they didn’t agree with them.

‘Just as in business you have to earn respect and be clear about decisions. Players have to understand what you have decided, even if they don’t like it,’ he says. ‘Body language, the expression on your face and your demeanour, are important. It means you don’t have to explain so much. When you talk, you should stick to simple, short words and sentences. Don’t go on and on unnecessarily.’

READ NEXT: We’re hosting a series of Live Lab events across the UK in 2016/17 to help identify how businesses can be part a vibrant economy in the UK. Find out more and get involved below at vibranteconomy.grantthornton.co.uk.

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