Lessons learnt from the Olympics and that one special trait
I don’t know about you but I was shattered just watching the Olympics, I don’t think those athletes realise how hard it is to stay up late and then get up and go to work the next morning. I wonder if they understand how nerve wracking it is watching as they tumble along a beam, shoot a clay or try and kick someone. There are obviously lots of lessons that we can take into our lives from these remarkable people on how they were selected, how they prepared, how they performed under pressure, how they handled disappointment and how they will come back. Our challenge will be to sort out the lessons that are really transferable to to our work and daily lives. We need to accept and understand that these are exceptional people preparing and performing in unique environments and that elite sport is a very hard, tough environment.
Every time we hear a post event interview of a medallist who was inspired by Steve Redgrave, Kelly Holmes or Tanni Grey-Thompson to start a journey that meant years later they became Olympians we need to remember those of us that were equally inspired but didn’t make it to this level. What is it about these people that made them champions? Of course we like easy answers, it was the drive of a tough childhood, the words of an inspirational teacher, the dream that started as a child and so on. A recent study published before the Olympics commissioned by UK Sport (the organisation tasked with improving our Olympic performance) highlighted the the range of elements that need to be in place to make a champion. These include factors that are genetic, physiological, psychological, capacity for practice, the support environment and even date of birth. As I read the report I was struck by how detailed the analysis is compared to those we use in business where often an outdated competency model with limited validity for identifying talent is used by largely untrained people to justify selections that maintain the status quo in organisations. If we are serious about recruiting and retaining the best people for our organisations we need to attempt to have a similar rigour to that of UK Sport in understanding the important factors.
Once we have the talent, what can we learn from Team GB about aligning the whole of the organisation to make sure that people can perform at their best. I was struck by an interview with Kate Richardson-Walsh, the GB hockey captain, after their semi final win against New Zealand where she spoke about how every member of the team is a leader. This is a similar approach to that of the All Blacks as outlined in James Kerr’s brilliant book ‘Legacy’. High Performance Teams and organisations are full of leaders who notice when there is something missing, decide to do something about it and have the courage to act. They do not wait for the ‘leader’ to give them instructions. The teams also have a great understanding of their external environment (they are ahead of best practice of other teams) and a unified purpose. The teams are also characterised by having quality conversations bringing performance issues to the surface. They also have effective relationships that focus on performance rather than whether or not they like someone. In fact a team like British Cycling seems to be constantly on the edge managing great talents who are demanding and occasionally ‘blow up’. However, this doesn’t effect performance because everyone seems to know that the motivation is to improve and be the best. Elite sport is rarely a comfortable environment but this is accepted by the people involved as the agreed approach to being successful. This all comes together as a high performance mindset that is always challenging and questioning.
How does this compare to your organisation? How comfortable are you with challenge, people taking real initiative, learning from external environments, managing positive conflict and aligning people around ways of working? The good news is that it’s never too late to start, although the youngest competitor at the games was Nepalese swimmer Gaurika Singh, who is just 13, the oldest was equestrian Julie Brougham from New Zealand, who is 62. The two remarkable individuals will have one key trait in common that is often overlooked in studies of elite talent and that without which nothing happens. This is a trait that everyone who reached the games either as an athlete or as an expert member of the support team will also have. This is also required in our organisations, in our children, in fact in an area of meaning. It’s simple but can also be rare. This is the trait of hard work.
Roy White is a Consultant at Impact UK. For more information on Impact's approach to high performance and health, check out our Going the Distance programme.