Adrian Moorhouse: What can business learn from sport?

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Adrian Moorhouse is an Olympic gold medallist and Managing Director of Lane4, which helps organisations build competitive advantage through individual and team development. He has been voted Best Leader in The Sunday Times contest Best Small Companies to Work For in 2007 and 2009.

Why did you decide to enter the world of business?

An athlete must feel part of a team to want it to win, and it’s the same in business. High level business performance relies on the attitude of its employees yet so many leaders don’t know how to inspire. They’re so concerned with numbers, they’ve forgotten how to motivate.

After retiring from competitive swimming in 1992 I began to draw increasing parallels between the lessons of sports performance and the needs of business. Back then, the concept of coaching wasn’t as common as it is now and I felt there was a lot businesses could learn from ‘my’ world. In 1995, I founded my company Lane4, bringing the skills I had acquired as an elite sportsman to the office floor.

What does Lane4 do?

Lane4 builds competitive advantage through individual and team development. We tackle the problem of under-performance by looking at what an organisation does, how they do it, and how they can improve what they do. We examine goal-setting and how to break down strategy. We work with businesspeople as performers rather than hierarchical leaders.

We implement coaching in its truest sense, as a mind-set not an activity – not sitting a manager in a room for two hours and talking at them, but thinking about how to holistically improve their performance each day.

What are some of the common mistakes you see amongst business leaders?

The past few years have been tough for British business and it is interesting to see the common habits leaders fall back on in times of trouble.

Leaders often seek to create more distance between themselves and their employees when the going gets tough. They create a positional power out of hierarchy and become parental in their approach, treating their workforce like children.

The best leaders don’t do this, like the best sporting coaches they engage with their teams when times are hard, they confide in them and share the problem at hand. They frame the long term mission not just the short-term financials. If my swimming coach had walked poolside when I was training for the Olympics and constantly told me that I had to reach a 62-second speed, it would have been morale-crushing. Instead, he would remind me that I am in winter training, that I am recovering from an injury, and that I am trying my best, but also that the Olympics are on the horizon and my purpose is to be a world-class swimmer.

It is vital to drum home the broader objective behind what your organisation is doing and how the workforce can play a meaningful part in achieving that.  Leaders should help their employees become more resilient and not through the macho approach of telling them to stick with it and work harder, but the emotionally intelligent way of nurturing resilience by balancing well-being with performance. A manager must avoid burn-out, just like an athlete.

I understand that Lane4 invited Team GB leaders to share their experiences of managing their teams at the London Olympics. What did your findings highlight with regards to how sport management can be applied to business?

Firstly, Team GB’s performance directors confidently identified the best possible athletes. In contrast, if we look at the world of business, confidence in the talent pipeline is extremely low. Less than 30% of European countries and only 15% of companies in North America and Asia are confident of the quality and quantity of talent in their pipelines. Team GB was 100% convinced of the team’s ability because they created an environment where athletes could develop through practice under pressure. In business, the time and availability for employees to hone their skills is naturally quite limited, compared to sport where athletes spend 90% of their time practicing compared to 10% performing. To apply this to business, for training to be successful, trainees need adequate resources and opportunities to apply their new skills and abilities in the workplace. They also need a learning mind-set. In sport there is always a hunger to learn from different sphere. Being closed off to new ways of thinking is counterproductive in any business.

How did Team GB identify and assess their talent?

A key theme that emerged from our work with Team GB was that current performance was not their only focus when identifying and assessing talent. They looked at personal characteristics such as desire to learn and resilience. To apply this to business, many leadership competency frameworks focus on current and past performances rather than future skills. In addition to prioritising current performance, it is important to focus on potential by recognising those factors believed to contribute towards potential, such as discipline and capacity for learning.

What can business leaders learn in terms of goal-setting from the Team GB leaders?

The Team GB leaders established a highly focused environment, by creating a clear vision for the team and helping individuals identify a line of sight with that vision. This is just as important in a business context. When business goals and strategies need to be met, whether its doubling revenue to implementing a new IT solution, leaders need to communicate the vision clearly and regularly to make sure that employees understand and care about it. Within Team GB personalised goals were developed for each team member. Athletes used the process of breaking an overall outcome goal into smaller chunks. This can easily be replicated in business, helping clarify and simplify what can be a difficult process of planning for future performance. An outcome goal is broken down into performance goals, and critical milestones can be achieved.

How was mutual trust utilised by Team GB’s leaders?

Mutual trust is a crucial factor for a high performing team. This is because honesty is a prerequisite for other behaviours which are essential for the overall performance of the team, such as sharing information, accepting feedback, having honest conversation and taking responsibility for one’s performance. This involves both trusting the intent of other team members as well as believing they will perform their roles effectively. Team GB members were encouraged to have honest conversations and accept feedback from other team members, coaches and leaders. In business honest conversations between team members should be encouraged and facilitated – give people a voice and welcome their views. Although a hard task and often shied away from, a team’s ability to have difficult conversations and bring conflict to a productive resolution can result in positive outcomes.

A number of common tensions may arise as a natural result of high performers working together within teams, impacting team performance. According to Lane4 research, team performance is not about everyone being equal. Star players are beneficial and push team performance to a higher level, while internal competition is considered beneficial for overall team performance.

Business can naturally be stressful. Is there any way to use this stress to increase one’s production?

Stress is part of life. Whether it’s organisational (e.g. being promoted or fired) or non-organisational (e.g. getting divorced or moving house), it has the potential to do extraordinary things to people. Research shows that while it might not feel like it at the time, change and upheaval can stimulate and drive performance. The secret to success lies in learning how to harness pressure and use it to your advantage before it turns into stress.

And while adversity may impair and destroy relationships, it can also extend or refine support networks and strengthen existing attachments with others. An effective strategy is to disclose one’s emotions rather than repressing them, this not only helps to make sense of what’s going on but boosts emotional and physical health. After struggling with change, people often report that they gain a number of benefits personally, becoming less selfish, physically and mentally stronger and more emotionally intelligent as well as finding an increased appreciation of life, with people often reporting that they gain a sense of perspective. Finally, people often fail to stop and think following a stressful experience. We would always encourage people to engage in reflection during and after the incident through the use of journals and discussion.

What can business learn from sport in terms of personal resilience?

The sporting ambition that Andy Murray showed in his thrilling Wimbledon victory over Novak Djokovic is especially significant. A journey which was fraught with set-backs, defeats and constant challenges, Murray demonstrated high levels of personal resilience throughout his career, time and again. He never stopped believing in his own abilities, despite being questioned by critics on his ability to win a grand-slam.

What in particular can we gain from the example of Andy Murray?

Murray maintained an impressive, steely determination. Having a strong, unfaltering belief in your own abilities will help you to deal with pressure at work and overcome challenges and adversity. Balancing self-belief with self-awareness is vital for developing a resilient, growth-orientated mind-set. Once famous for his volatility and emotional outbursts, his temper tantrums significantly reduced on court. Being able to keep your emotions in check when under pressure and in challenging situations is often difficult, but very important, in the workplace. Not only will losing control affect your own performance, it will also have a detrimental impact on your colleagues’ performance too. It is important to look at things rationally, focus on factors that are within your control and formulate a plan, in order to get back to where you want to be and improve on your past achievements.

After his Wimbledon defeat to Roger Federer in 2012, Murray faced the toughest moment of his career. Yet, within a few weeks of losing, Murray returned to Wimbledon for the 2012 Olympics and secured gold in the men’s singles. Rather than being overwhelmed by the stress and the pressure, Murray maintained his focus and regained his motivation quickly. Despite harsh media criticism that played up the lack of British success at Wimbledon, Murray proved what he was capable of. In business it is easy to feel demotivated by setbacks. By challenging the thinking that provoked the setback, looking at the setbacks with a positive attitude and seeing them as an opportunity for personal growth, you will bounce back with ease.

Throughout his life Murray has demonstrated firm determination, constantly maximising his training and opportunities, which led Murray to make the difficult decision to move to Spain when he was sixteen in order to train with Emilio Sanchez. Dedication to a goal is important regardless of the task. Without it an individual will never perform to best of their ability. The real test is when faced with adversity; think about how you can make sure that you stay on course and keep striving towards your goal

Any final thoughts on adversity in business?

Despite the appeal of thinking we can thrive in the face of adversity, it is important to remember that this is neither inevitable nor universal; it would be a mistake to assume that everybody will experience this. Failing to thrive is not a bad thing and should not lead to negative judgements towards those that don’t. People need to be sensitive to those who are experiencing adversity, especially during the early aftermath of a traumatic event.

Adrian Moorhouse is delivering the Alec Rodger Memorial Lecture at the School of Business, Economics and Informatics, Birkbeck, University of London, as part of Business Week on Tuesday 24 June, asking What Can Business Learn from Sport? For more information, visit: http://bit.ly/iodbw14

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2 Comments - Write a Comment

  1. This is an extremely well written and insightful article. Adrian appears to have captured the critical success factors associated with the success of British swimmers and coaches at the Commonwealth Games 2014. The excellent leadership from Bill Furniss and his team of coaches has shown that we have the ability to win at the highest level. Setting high standards, exposure to competition and a group of coaches with outstanding learning agility bodes well for the future.

  2. Very impressing article. It has brought insight clarity, to the position and belief, of how athletes and competition can inhance and relates backs to adversity and overcoming obstacles.

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