Having attended ‘Leaders in Performance’ in October I wanted to share my reflections on the conference. We were treated to a vast array of international leaders from a variety of backgrounds, with sessions including ‘How to Make the Most of Talent’, ‘How Innovation can Flourish to Continually Improve Performance’ and ‘Where Now for the Next 1% in Performance’. I have picked out four key themes from across the discussions – they may sound a bit cliché but I have tried to single out the most practical and thought provoking points.
Troy Flanagan, High Performance Director for US Ski and Snowboard Association, demonstrated a 2% difference between 1st and 30th place so being innovative is essential to gaining tiny margins in performance. Therefore try to identify the biggest gains, where you can get maximum return for technical investment. Always ask yourself what problem will your work actually solve?
The same session featured Scott Drawer, who at the time was Deputy Director of Performance Solutions at the EIS and now is Athletic Performance Manager for the RFU. His suggestion; pick something others cannot or are not willing to do – this will give you a competitive advantage.
A particularly fascinating and humbling talk came from Professor the Lord Ara Darzi of Denham, Chairman of the Institute for Global Health Innovation, one of the world’s top surgeons specialising in robot assisted surgery. He explained how surgeons are viewed as elite performers, using similar tools as athletes including practice, mental rehearsal, sleep analysis and caffeine research. At his institute they view innovation as the key to pioneering new technology to assist in performance.
Both Australian Hockey’s Ric Charlesworth and AFL’s Alastair Clarkson in separate sessions referred to building cultures of ‘comforting the troubled and troubling the comfortable’.
A real highlight of the Conference was Bernard Petiot, VP Casting and Performance for Cirque Du Soleil. He talked about his challenge to harness the diversity of performers from over 45 different countries with backgrounds across sports, circus, gymnastics and acrobatics as well as musicians, clowns and actors to create a culture of creativity within the Cirque context. He is responsible for backing up this freedom of creativity with the resources to make it a reality. Their culture is built on foundations including a shared common goal, strong commitment, global trust and ‘sharing the pain’… overwhelming familiarities to elite sport!
Another striking example of culture building was Sam Presti, the General Manager of NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder. Not only did Sam go from intern to GM in five years but he has been an integral leader in building a franchise from nothing. NBA only arrived in Oklahoma in 2008 but now they are known to have some of the most devoted fans in the country. This successful culture is based on the close association with the community, with every new Thunder player taken to the site of the Oklahoma City bombing.
Scott Drawer gave simple but effective advice – take the admin away from the coach, this will in turn breed excitement about the work you do approach them about.
Communication was a key theme in the ‘Coaching and the Mental Game’ session with Paddy Upton (SA Cricket) and Ric Charlesworth (Australia Hockey). They discussed the requirement to build an environment in which ‘crucial conversations’ can happen – these are important, emotional and involve disagreement. Being able to communicate in this manner establishes mutual respect.
Sam Allardyce, Manager of West Ham United, emphasised the responsibility of the ‘team behind the team’ and the importance of communication within this. He suggested integrating and interchanging departments so that everyone knows each other’s roles. Staff should consider how to deliver both positive and negative feedback, although in his opinion it is the responsibility of the coach to introduce data to players as a learning tool.
It seems obvious given the title of the Conference that leadership would be a consistent theme throughout the discussions. The most prominent example in my opinion was Simon Timson, Director of Performance at UK Sport, discussed creating the structures for peak performance at Rio 2016. As part of creating the right environment Simon mentioned their philosophy of ‘Transformational Leadership’. This is a model of leadership in which four core behaviours of idealised influence, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation and individualised consideration affect the values, purpose and performance of those that follow. According to the key authors:
“Transformational leaders…are those who stimulate and inspire followers to both achieve extraordinary outcomes and, in the process, develop their own leadership capacity.”
Bass, B. M. & Riggio, R. E. (2008). Transformational Leadership. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
I thought it was particularly interesting that they identify a specific model of leadership to apply within their organisation, rather than presuming leadership takes place informally.