Leadership lessons from Dame Kelly Holmes

Dame Kelly Holmes shares leadership lessons

Double Olympic champion Dame Kelly Holmes – who spoke at the IoD Annual Convention last September – founded a trust to help former athletes move into new careers, mentored disadvantaged youth and launched her own café business. She outlines the leadership lessons learnt from a life in elite sport, the military and business

I wasn’t at all academic at school. I’m a visual learner, not a textbook learner, and I couldn’t take anything in. I only came to life, became me, when I was out and about being sporty. Schools have a habit of putting you all in one box.

Sometimes it only takes one person to make a real difference to your life – and often you don’t know they’re doing it. For me it was my PE teacher. She got a grip of me and said, ‘You’re a good runner, you’re beating all the girls who are two years older than you, get a grip!’ She even called my mum and told her she should get me down to an athletics club. I never looked back.

Being in the military taught me about accepting people for who they are. I was 17 when I joined, and people came from all over the country, different backgrounds, different life experiences. I learnt to come out of my shell – I was quite quiet when I was younger, believe it or not. It taught me leadership and dogged determination.

Leadership isn’t always dictating. In the army, as a sergeant, whatever you say goes. But I learnt that if I want to get the best out of people I have to identify what their strength is and bring it out rather than just telling people to do something.

Athletics opened doors. [After retirement] I was in the fortunate position of having won two gold medals in a sport that was really high profile at the time. But during the 2008 Olympics I realised a lot of ex-athletes I’d met were quite lost. No work, no recognition – they didn’t know what to do next.

I formed a trust to help people transition into new careers. The skill-set they have – resilience, teamwork, communication – applies to more than just sport. At the time, I was patron OF lots of youth charities, so I thought: why not build a charity that puts the two together? I use these former athletes’ skills to help people with deprived backgrounds.

People who have been there and done it but aren’t authority figures make great mentors. Most of our young people are not in education, employment or training – they might be carers for their parents; they might have been on the brink of trouble with the authorities; it might be drugs.

Many sports are about planning, preparation and delivery. I won my two gold medals at a precise time – on 23 and 28 August 2004 – and had to be at my very best at that moment. There’s so much to think about: selection criteria, weekly training cycles, overcoming problems, adjusting your mindset when a barrier’s put in place – it all makes for a great skill-set for work.

A mentor and a coach are very different. A coach is there to take a talent and progress it in the right way to get the very best out of them. A mentor is someone who has the knowledge, expertise and experience to understand them. A mentor can be a shoulder to cry on, a counsellor, a sister, a brother; they deal with the emotional side of things.

I’ve been very open about my own struggles with depression. A lot of athletes – more than people will ever know – go through that.

I’ve always worked. I had a paper round for a sweet shop when I was young – now I’ve started a coffee house in the same building. I was trying to buy the building for 15 years before I got it. I’ve lived here all my life and I knew a café was needed in this area.

I am a control freak, so I took over as project manager of the demolition and build. I realised I had to [think] back to my athletics. I only became Olympic champion by having a team behind me – my physio, coach, training partner. It was the same when it came to structural engineers, planning departments and builders.

People I know who have been successful have taken risks. Either calculated ones or cases
of ‘If I don’t do it now, I’m never going to.’ I’ve had people trying to stop me doing things, people putting me down. I’d never have founded the trust or the café if I’d listened to certain people.

I admire Kelly Hoppen, the designer. She started out at 16, and she’s now in a multimillion-pound business. She’s very dynamic and knows what she wants in life. I love stories of people who might have given up, but had talent and drive and went for it, finally got there and people began to take note.

It doesn’t matter if people don’t agree with what you’re doing – your morals and your values are what matters.

I did the IoD Certificate in Company Direction. Again, I did not have an education at school. I find it extremely hard to read books and take in information – I am a very visual learner. But if I didn’t put myself through these things I would never be saying ‘I am challenging myself again’. I want to challenge myself. I want to learn… I don’t know how long away, but one day I hope that I can become a credible businesswoman.

Dame Kelly Holmes was a speaker at this year’s IoD Annual Convention


For more information on the IoD Certificate in Company Direction, click here

Dame Kelly Holmes CV

1970 Born in Pembury, Kent

1982 Joins Tonbridge Athletic Club

1987 Finally accepted by the army recruitment office in Tunbridge Wells, having made her mother take her there every year from the age of 15

1997 Devotes herself to athletics full time

2004 Wins gold medals in both the 800m and 1,500m events at the Olympics in Athens

2005 Becomes Dame Kelly Holmes in the New Year’s Honours List

2008 Founds the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust, which employs athletes transitioning from sport to mentor and transform the lives of disadvantaged young people

2009 Named the new president of Commonwealth Games England

2014 Opens Cafe 1809 – on the site of a sweet shop for which she once did a paper round – with a view to bringing a community hub to her home village of Hildenborough, Kent


About author

Nick Scott

Nick Scott

A former editor-in-chief of The Rake and deputy editor of the Australian edition of GQ, Nick has had features published in titles including Esquire, The Guardian, Observer Sport Monthly and Rolling Stone Australia and is a contributing editor to Director magazine. He has interviewed celebrities including Hugh Jackman, Daniel Craig and Elle Macpherson, as well as business people including Sir Richard Branson, Charles Middleton and Nick Giles and Michael Hayman MBE.

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