Look to sport for answers

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To improve performance, leaders should move away from hierarchy and focus on motivation – and to achieve that they could learn a lot from the world of sport.

Before the era of abundance came to an end in 2008, many organisations had been sailing on a wave of prosperity, believing that nothing could go wrong. Often there was no real analysis of how or why performance targets were met. Some leaders had become complacent in the way they ran their businesses. Those who anticipated the recession thrived. Those who didn’t struggled to survive. But there is a lot these leaders could have learnt from sport.

The knee-jerk reaction at the time was to focus on performance. But a high level of performance in any business depends upon its employees. Just as an athlete needs to feel part of a team to want it to win, the only way out of a slump for any company is the people in it wanting to pull it out.

That’s one of the reasons I retired from competitive swimming in 1992 and, three years later, established my company Lane4. Business leaders needed their teams to perform better but didn’t know how to guide them. They were too concerned with numbers to pay attention to what really mattered – motivating employees. Coaching wasn’t yet a buzzword among multinational organisations and I felt there was a lot they could learn from ‘my’ world. I wanted to bring the skills I had acquired as an elite sportsman to the office floor.

Our objective was to tackle the problem of under-performance by looking at what an organisation does, how they do it and how they need to improve what they do. The key was examining goal-setting and looking at how to break down strategy. We wanted to work with businesspeople as performers rather than hierarchical leaders and that is still our ethos today. This is where most heads of business fail.
In times of trouble, leaders tend to create bigger gaps between themselves and their employees, perhaps because they feel more responsible. They create a positional power out of hierarchy and become ‘parental’ in their approach, treating their workforce like children. This is the wrong attitude. The best leaders, just like the best sporting coaches, engage with their team.

All great leaders look at the purpose, the high-level meaning behind what they are trying to achieve, not just numbers. If my swimming coach had walked poolside when I was training for the Olympics and kept reminding me that I had to reach a 62-second speed, it would have been morale-crushing. Instead, he might remind me that I am in winter training, and that I am recovering from an injury and times are hard, but also that the Olympics are coming up soon and my purpose is to be a world-class swimmer. It is vital to drum home the meaning behind what your organisation is doing and how your workforce can play a part in that.

Take an event like the 2012 London Olympics. A total of 26 very different sports came together and were strongly connected throughout the entire event. There is something about this cross-functional approach that really created a sense of the leaders being ‘in service’ of their performers and that is the culture business leaders should be looking to create, not one where they are in power and know all the answers.

There are several elements of sports coaching and psychology that directors can benefit from. Firstly, use goals to create a line of sight behind the organisation’s purpose. Secondly, coaching should be used in its true sense, as an activity not a mind-set – not sitting a manager in a room for two hours and coaching them, but consistently thinking about how to improve performance.

Thirdly, help employees be more resilient: not the macho approach of telling them to stick with it and work harder, but the emotionally intelligent way of nurturing resilience by balancing wellbeing with performance. A manager must avoid burnout, much like an athlete.

Developing a learning mind-set is vital, too. In sport there is always a hunger to learn from different spheres. Being closed off to new ideas and ways of thinking is counterproductive in any business. Lastly, encourage and welcome feedback. Give people a voice and welcome their views so you don’t become a superficial company.

Combine all these elements and you have the recipe for your organisation to reach its full potential and build sustainable competitive advantage through individual and team development.

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About author

Adrian Moorhouse

Adrian Moorhouse

Adrian Moorhouse is an Olympic gold medallist swimmer and managing director of management consultancy Lane4. On 24 June, he delivered the Alec Rodger Memorial Lecture at Birkbeck, University of London, as part of Business Week.

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