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High performance leadership

Monday 27 January 2020

At Managing Partners’ Forum third Leadership Summit, hosted by HSBC, Catherine Baker founder and principal of Sport and Beyond presented leadership lessons from high performance sport. This was followed by a Q&A session led by Paul Kelly Global Head of Cybersecurity Business Risk Assessment at HSBC.

A former lawyer, Baker’s work developing elite athletes and senior business leaders focuses on the crossover between high performance sport and business. Her presentation used examples from high performance sport to inspire delegates to reflect on their own leadership style, help them understand some of sport’s most effective leadership concepts and principles, and give them some takeaways from the sporting world to apply to their own organisations.

To set her talk in context, Baker used as an example the women’s Olympic hockey team coach, Danny Kerry, who led the GB women’s Olympic hockey team from sixth at Beijing to gold in Rio. After Beijing, Kerry worked on addressing his own failings in order to coach and inspire his team to victory.

3-D leadership

Baker addressed three dimensions of leadership (working outwards from self-development to organisational leadership): leading self, leading people and leading culture.

Leading self

Leadership requires self-awareness and strength of character. Legendary football coach Vince Lombardi, who said “Only by knowing yourself can you become an effective leader”.

Research by Stirling University identified five key character traits of elite athletes that enable them to outperform the competition and, subsequently, their colleagues in the workplace: confidence, focus, resilience, motivation and determination. Delegates were then given a couple of minutes to identify the three greatest strengths that they brought to their roles.

Self-awareness involves actively seeking feedback and acting on it. Just as Danny Kerry had worked on his leadership skills, Chris Hoy, having already won Olympic gold medals for cycling, was one of the first Olympic athletes to use a sports psychologist. A relentless desire to improve is a key component of the growth mindset that elite athletes and winning teams – in sport and business – share.

A growth mindset in business involves enabling self-awareness throughout the organisation, so that everyone understands their strengths and can articulate what they bring to the team.

Even the most successful athletes and coaches understand the importance of continuous training and learning. In respect of professional services, Baker emphasises the need to balance a relentless drive for improvement with the recognition and celebration of success – and the ability to take time out when necessary. She highlighted a conscious behaviour by champion tennis players: the ability to switch off briefly between points, shake off any mistakes and recalibrate. How many leaders give themselves downtime in the form of mini recovery zones between meetings and conference calls in order to drive sustainable high performance?

Finally, top athletes respond to pressure as a challenge rather than a threat. This is about remaining calm and rational rather than responding emotionally. Baker referenced the All Blacks’ approach and suggested two techniques for remaining in the moment, while retaining clarity: anchors and mantras. Anchors are simple replicable physical acts, while mantras are phrases. For example, paramedics use the mantra “Assess, adjust, act”

Leading people

Leading people requires clarity of purpose, and in sport, the ultimate purpose is to win. This is straightforward but Olympic athletes in particular need to maintain motivation by identifying and consistently articulating long-term goals. Baker referenced the GB women’s hockey team’s motivational goals as they worked to improve their performance from bronze in London to gold in Rio: create history; be the difference; and inspire the future. They were not just about winning. They wanted to create a legacy by performing in a way that would inspire girls to take up the sport.

Part of defining purpose is defining what success looks like – for the England football team it was being in the closing stages of every tournament they entered. If you extrapolate these examples into business, it is about defining your organisation’s overarching purpose and developing and articulating goals that resonate with everyone in the organisation.

Leading people successfully also means knowing when to relinquish control. For example, international rugby team coaches gradually transfer control to the captain and the team, culminating in ‘the captain’s run’ which is the last training session before a match. This is not about giving away leadership or accountability, but recognising that, as international ruby coach Wayne Smith said, “People will rise to a challenge if it’s their challenge”.

The challenge for business is putting in place structures, systems and processes to ensure that people have the capability to take on challenges. The GB women’s hockey team instituted ‘Thinking Thursdays’ – one day a week when the squad were split into two self-organising teams that played against each other while the coaches observed.

Communication is critical in both sport and business. Senior leaders in particular need to focus on the impact of non-verbal communication – body language and tone. For example, some leaders are seen as intimidating or unapproachable, even when what they say is positive.

In sport, coaches have very little time to communicate during a competition, so their messages have to be simple and clear. And motivation is crucial, so the process of feedback has to be frank yet supportive. The women’s hockey team introduced a traffic light system for reviews to highlight the overall message, but each player had a second player in the room to support them during feedback sessions. Public declarations of belief from managers, coaches and peers is another important form of mutual support that is also relevant to businesses and professional services.

Leading culture

A lot of firms invest significantly in articulating and disseminating their core values. Baker referenced the All Blacks, whose core purpose is the famous saying, “Leave the jersey in a better place” and their values, which they define as “The Way” – be welcoming, be passionate, play our best and play fair.

However, creating unity of purpose is more challenging for professional services that may have multiple offices and have undergone several mergers.

Put simply, a firm’s values should govern all it does, and everything done in its name. This means that every employee should understand the firm’s values and be able to give an example of how they are being applied.

Values are best reflected in standards of behaviour, which are a big focus for law firms right now. Sir Dave Brailsford, who led the British cycling team to victory in two Olympics and produced two British winners of the Tour de France created a winning behaviours app that riders used to monitor and score their own behaviours. This was about transforming values into action and maintaining standards of behaviour through both team discipline and self-awareness.

Finally, Baker used a quote from former Australian Chief of Defence General David J. Hurley “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept” as an overarching definition of a living culture which is adopted by many coaches and managers in high-performance sport and business leaders.

Leadership as an enabler

Paul Kelly of HSBC responded with an anecdote where he used the coaching continuum – tell, sell, ask, delegate – to achieve spectacular results as an Air Force engineer by asking his team what they needed to make things happen rather than telling them what to do. He believes that leadership is about enabling. By enabling others to achieve, you also get their buy-in to the outcomes and they strive for more. Kelly added that ultimately, in sport, the military and in business, all problems are human ones, so an important element of leadership is listening to people and enabling them to achieve great things. In that spirit, Kelly invited delegates to participate in an interactive discussion.

Joanna Goodman