The Ingredients Of A High Performing Team


We are often brought in to try and help teams function better; work effectively together; become more productive; and ultimately achieve better results.  Do we wave a magic wand? No. But there are some key ingredients that can hugely increase the performance of a team. 

These are summarised below, and have been drawn from decades of academic research; insight from how high performing teams have applied the key principles; and our own observations working across sport, business and education.  Throughout this blog we make reference to a timely article that came out today, looking at the success at Saracens RUFC. 

1. Common Purpose and Clear Direction

Nothing bonds a team like a shared mission.  Two great illustrations of this:

  • JFK’s visit to the NASA space center in 1962; when he noticed a janitor carrying a broom, JFK walked over and said “Hi, I’m John Kennedy, What are you doing?” The janitor responded “Well Mr President, I’m helping put a man on the moon.”
  • The mantra of the successful GB Women’s Hockey Team at Rio: “Be the difference, create history, inspire the future.” 

Then you need a clear direction to get there.

2. Know your team

Within the team, each individual must have self-awareness and understanding of how they operate and what their strengths are.  And the team as a whole must understand this about each other. 

Allocate roles and tasks accordingly (shifting the balance towards leveraging people’s strengths)

3. Get the environment and culture right

  • It has to be set and demonstrated from the top, but equally team members need to be involved in setting and driving it in order to ensure buy-in.
  • Aim for ‘psychological safety’ – a group culture defined as a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.  Another way of putting this is a team climate characterised by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.

How can you do this?

Get the right approach: embed a growth mindset approach, which at its core is a belief that our talents and abilities can be cultivated and developed through hard work, persistence, effort, determination and good teaching/training.  A growth mindset drives a positive response to effort, challenges, mistakes and feedback, all leading towards development and improvement.  Embedding this requires more than just training on what it means, and will include areas such as: use of language; a relentless focus on improvement, development and learning; and systems, processes and reward based on this. 

Make sure you apply the concept in an intelligent and focused way. Ultimately it comes down to a focus on improvement. Listen to this from one of the three assistant coaches at Saracens, Alex Sanderson, talking about their recent successes: “I realised that the process of getting better and of seeing improvements every day in guys like Jamie George and Owen Farrell was a bigger buzz than winning the ultimate prizes, that many people see as your defining achievements as a coach.”

Take the right attitude towards conflict: for example, approach conflict as collaborators, not as adversaries, and replace blame with curiosity.  And remember you are dealing human to human. The Saracens coaches have this year changed the focus of the team’s play.  The coaches talked about the process they went through on this: they spend hours every week, talking, agreeing, disagreeing and arguing, all with the aim of generating ideas.”

Agree a set of Values, Attitudes and Behaviours that will govern the way you operate.  Support team members to live by them, but if they can’t, remove them from your team. 

Saracens and beyond

Josh Shaw, another of the Saracens coaches, has just finished his Masters degree in coaching science.  His thesis was on the influence of a good culture on high performance.  He said this: “I wanted to look if there is a connection between culture, caring for people, looking after the individual, or whether we are doing something here that is a load of nonsense and if you have a load of good players, just go out and get on with it. It turns out we are on the right lines.”

And the final word will go to Alex Sanderson: “We don’t mind copying but we are creative in what we do.  It is about understanding how to get better. Is there a fresh way of doing things? Is there a different angle we can put on the things we are good at? You have to be aware of getting better. If you are not you will plateau and your fire has gone.”

Yes! Sustainable High Performance at Work

Last week I was incredibly privileged to be invited into the Bank of England as a guest speaker.  The focus of my talk was on sustainable high performance, with case studies from elite sport and other high performing areas to illustrate the concepts and strategies that I talked about.

The audience (a particular section of the Bank) was large, diverse, and engaged in the talk really well. Made up of people who strive, work hard and aim to do a brilliant job, they were keen to understand how to ensure this is sustainable. 

I was invited in to give the talk by a senior member of staff who I knew from my days as a lawyer. We had trained together at Magic Circle Firm Linklaters, a place where the weekends and countless late nights created a special bond between those of us who started off our working lives there. 

At the end of my talk, this friend came up to me and said: “Wow, you have certainly found your calling.”

What a wonderful thing to hear, and it prompted me to reflect on the talk I had just given, and how it related to our journey at Sport and Beyond.

Having had discussions with the lead individual at the Bank, I had tailored my talk to pick out three key areas: (i) knowing and leveraging your strengths; (ii) continuous improvement and purposeful practice; and (iii) keeping an open mind when identifying and developing talent.

Knowing and Leveraging your strengths

One of the key factors behind success in sport is that you must ‘suit’ your sport, and within that your discipline, and your position.  As Sir Chris Hoy famously said, you’ve got to love the sport, but the sport has to love you too. 

How often do we reflect on this for ourselves? “What roles suit me best at work?” “What are my natural strengths?” “Where do I add real value?” At this point in my talk I ask the audience to think about what their three greatest strengths are, and to share these with their neighbour. It is always fascinating to see how the dynamic in the room works after this question – is it quiet, do people start talking immediately etc? The next step is to emphasise and illustrate how leveraging those strengths in the workplace can be what drives real high performance. Yes we should all be aware of one or two key limiters, but time spent developing and building our strengths will have a much greater return on investment. It also leads to a more engaged workforce, and so higher levels of productivity and, importantly, retention. 

How you provide an environment and culture that facilitates this is the next question, something I went on to consider in my talk.  But my friend’s comment above made me reflect how fortunate I have been to be working in an area that really suits my strengths.  I was an ok lawyer, but fundamentally I was always much more interested in what made people tick, and the impact that attitudes and behaviours have on performance.

Continuous Improvement and Purposeful Practice

The next area I talked about was continuous improvement and purposeful practice. In this section I talk about the clarity that an elite sports coach has, in that their job, each and every day, is to help their athletes be as good as they can be.  The same goes for the athlete - their job, each and every day, is to get better.  This is what Johanna Konta, semi-finalist at this year’s Wimbledon and a player who has had the fastest rise ever up the WTA rankings, has said: “What I love about being a professional tennis player is that I get the chance to work hard every day in pursuit of getting better.” 

For most of us our jobs don’t provide such easily measurable parameters, however. But a lot of success at elite level is driven by an understanding that you are never the finished article, that you can always improve and get better.  We should not expect ourselves to be perfect. Athletes talk a lot about mastery, and the process, and focusing on this can really help to ensure that progress is sustainable and not too pressurised. This links in well with the concept of growth mindset, something that I then go on to dissect, and something that we have talked about in previous blogs here at Sport and Beyond.

Linked to the concept of continuous improvement is that of purposeful practice. An athlete doesn’t just go out and practice in a random way; practice is focused, with a particular aim in mind. It involves pushing themselves. And there is usually rigorous, and immediate feedback.  Athletes tend to be brilliant at asking for and welcoming feedback as they know this is what they need to improve.

At Sport and Beyond we try to live by these concepts as well. For me talking at the Bank of England was a part of my ‘purposeful practice.’ The venue was amazing, I was a little scared beforehand, and was very much pushing myself out of my comfort zone. I do a lot of speaking, it is one of my key strengths, and I want to make sure that I continue to improve.  I sought feedback straight away, and along with comments such as “I thought your session was delivered superbly… was a rich and engaging session” I received a couple which contained constructive criticism, which I will take on board.

Keeping an open mind when you are looking to identify talent and be the best.

For the final area I started off explaining the relative age effect bias that sport has recently woken up to.  This relates to selection periods based on calendar or school years, and the adverse impact this can have both for players, and for the team/squad/sport as a whole.  I also discussed ‘first impressions’ and how wrong they can be, using a great story that Michael Atherton tells of the two ‘Smiths’.

I then went on to refer to some great case studies within sport where keeping an open and enquiring mind has led to huge success.  Examples include Saracens rugby (whose coaches make summer learning trips each year, purposefully outside of their rugby union bubble), and Sir Dave Brailsford’s focus on creating the right teams with the right mixes, which for Team Sky involved him bringing in Tim Kerrison, a former rower, rowing coach and swimming coach, with no experience of cycling! British swimming have done something similar with Nigel Redman, whose credentials lay firmly within rugby.

Again, after the talk I reflected on our team at Sport and Beyond.  Our weekly team meetings are noisy, often quite challenging, and full of opinions and views.  We are all very different, and all approach things from very different angles. But we share a common goal, which is to grow Sport and Beyond into a business which can help as many people as possible reach their potential, and we all know and trust that that is everyone’s aim. So the diversity of background, perspective and approach is welcomed, rather than being a concern.

As ever with our blogs, we would be delighted to receive any thoughts or comments this piece might prompt, and we trust and hope that everyone is enjoying a good summer. 

Embedding Confidence

If I was to ask you “What are the 3 greatest strengths that you bring to the workplace” what would your answer be? Go on, have a think…..

For me, it’s the ability to inspire people, a positive attitude, and the energy that I bring to all I do.  But if you had asked me that question a few years ago, I would have really struggled to know what to say.

Many of us find it hard to recognise and then articulate our strengths. Perhaps we don’t see them as strengths as they are just things that we find easy.  Or perhaps we haven’t sat down and distilled down what it is that sets us apart from others at work; what are the areas where we add real value.

In addition to the general training programmes that we run for our clients, we have a fairly strong female narrative running through our business. We have worked on female initiatives and programmes with clients ranging from international law firms, via large corporates such as BT, through to female sports coaches. And what is fascinating for us is how strong the link is between issues women might have in the corporate world, and issues they might have in the world of coaching. In both ‘worlds’ there is a huge focus at the moment on barriers to progression. 

For both sectors, entry barriers have been for the large part removed, and opportunities are there for all. So what is it that’s stopping women progressing through the ranks as they should be, and fulfilling their potential? Well, each sector, and within that each specific area (ie within the business world - commerce, professional services, entrepreneurs etc) has its own challenges and issues. But a common factor, which comes up time and again, not just in research but in our own experiences straddling the different industries, is confidence.  Of the women themselves.

So that’s the challenge. How do we then support people in solving it? We find that the most effective starting point to begin to grow and increase that confidence is our ‘know your strengths’ piece. You can’t build someone’s confidence by just telling them to be confident, or telling them that they are great.  They need to have a sufficient level of self-awareness and understanding to be able to appreciate what their strengths are, and how they can leverage those to become truly excellent at what they do.  Independent research carried out across a selection of corporates has shown that women tend to fall down in three areas: the ability to recognise their strengths; the ability to articulate their strengths; and building good, strong networks.  On this last point, women often think that an ability to do a job well is enough to get you recognised and promoted appropriately.  However, it is vital to build supportive networks, not just because it can enhance your chances of progression and promotion, but because it can have a significant impact on your development. 

The other area that we find is key for women across the sectors is in terms of mindset. Specifically how concepts such as growth mindset, stretch zone, and resilience, can help women to relish challenges and development opportunities, and learn from situations where things go wrong.  A better understanding of these, and tools and techniques to apply and embed them, can make a huge difference to how women drive and perceive their development.

There is a huge focus at the moment in sport on growing the numbers of female coaches, and helping them to develop and ‘stick at’ their coaching.  So we are delighted to be launching our Programme, designed specifically at female coaches, Embedding Confidence in Your Coaching.  As part of the roll-out of this course we will be running a 1-day Conference on 6th September at the National Badminton Centre in Milton Keynes, in conjunction with the Female Coaching Network.  Please do get in touch to find out more by emailing

For those in business who would like to find out more about our female specific programmes (where we also offer the chance to hear the inspirational thoughts on world class female athletes) please get in touch to find our more by emailing

Emotions in the Workplace - Why they matter

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Whilst there is compelling evidence that emotional intelligence (when understood properly) is very relevant to the workplace, many people struggle to understand this in practical terms. 

Two key challenges for many of our clients around emotional intelligence are: “what does it actually mean?” and “how can I understand the link between emotional intelligence as a concept, and how it might affect my performance at work?.”

In this blog we will use three scenarios to highlight the importance of emotional intelligence, and in so doing point out some key areas that make a difference. The scenarios relate to:

  • managing your staff;
  • sales; and
  • presentations.

With each of these scenarios, we will pick out some key facets of emotional intelligence that are relevant, in order to help you see, in a practical sense, the potential impact on the outcome.

Before diving in, it’s important to note that there is no set definition of what emotional intelligence is. At Sport and Beyond we tend to focus on two main concepts to help bring clarity. The first is an ‘anchor’: emotions drive thoughts, thoughts drive behaviour, and behaviour drives performance. This is why it matters. The second is a definition that seems to create most resonance with our clients: an ability to understand and control your emotions and those emotions of the people you are working with and manage your relationships accordingly.

Managing Your Staff – An Appraisal Meeting

You are a manager, and are about to sit down with one of your reports for their half-yearly appraisal meeting.  If you do your job well, you should have taken the time in advance of the session to prepare: looked at any relevant documentation; thought about your aims for the session; what questions you are going to ask etc.  But have you also taken the time in advance to think about the ‘emotional’ side of things? If you haven’t, all your carefully prepared plans could go out of the window, and the outcome could be very far from what you have hoped.

What do we mean by this? 

Let’s start with you.  What are your levels of empathy like? This is your ability to see the world from someone else’s point of view. If low, you might struggle to see the situation from the other person’s shoes.  Perhaps you gave them a hard time in the last appraisal.  This might have knocked their confidence, and they might be coming to the session feeling pretty nervous. Good empathy levels would enable you to realise and appreciate this, and so set a better and more constructive ‘environment’ for the meeting. What about your levels of emotion expression? This is how fluent you are at communicating your emotions.  If you sit low down the scale on this facet, you might come across as aloof and cold. Equally, if you sit high up on the scale on this facet, your face might give away your emotions too easily, having an adverse effect on the meeting.

What about the person you are appraising?  If their levels of self-esteem are very high, they might come across as over-confident, and not be particularly interested in any suggestions you might have for self-development.  If their levels are very low, you may have to adapt your style to ensure you are doing all you can to give them the necessary confidence-build that they require.  If their impulse control isn’t that great, they might blurt something out that in retrospect they wish they hadn’t. If, as a manager, you can recognise that that was down to poor impulse control, that might be something you can help them with.

Sales – Meeting a Prospective new client/customer

So you’re fairly new into your sales role, and you are meeting with a prospective new client/customer. Your levels of stress management could be very relevant to how you perform in the meeting.  Equally, your levels of optimism could make a difference – if you are very optimistic, yes you might come across as confident, but you might not have prepared as well as you should have done.  If you tend to sit lower down on the optimism scale, you may well have taken a much more thorough approach to the meeting. Where you sit on the emotion regulation scale could also have a big impact: this is your ability to control your own internal feelings and emotional states.

Looking outward, your levels of emotion perception are key. How good are you at recognising emotions in others? Can you see that the person you are meeting with is particularly upset/anxious/happy/overjoyed today, and if so, how are you going to adapt your style accordingly. Let’s say that they are having a bad day, and feeling particularly anxious about something. If you go in all guns blazing, full of the joys etc, and don’t ‘dial down’ your approach, you might put them off completely. 


How can emotional intelligence impact on your performance when giving a key presentation?  One of the key facets here will be emotion perception; how good are you at picking up on what you are feeling? Can you recognise that you are nervous? Can you recognise that you are feeling the pressure, and desperate to do a good job? Only by picking up on this can you start to deal with it (and there are some great tools that can help you to deal with these emotions).  Stress management might again be relevant, as might your levels of social awareness – how you are able to perceive and adapt to the ‘feeling’ and atmosphere in the room.  Knowing what your levels of self-motivation are could also be relevant – will it be better for you to have some kind of external motivation to get on with the preparation for the presentation, or are you someone who has good internal drive?


Hopefully these scenarios help to give some practical context to the importance and relevance of emotional intelligence in the work place, and highlight how it can be such a game changer.

If you’d like to find out more about how we can help, please do get in touch at or on 01904 737007. 

Duty of Care – Why Should We Care?

Duty of Care – Why Should We Care?

Those who work within sport will be aware of the Duty of Care in Sport Report, led by Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson, that was published last month. Those who do not work in sport probably less so. However, it is relevant for all of us.  In this blog I am going to outline why we should all care about the future of professional athletes (ie sportspeople) once they stop competing, and what the central tensions are around this duty of care. In doing so, I am writing with two ‘hats’ on; as an Independent Director on the Board of a National Governing Body (Parkour UK, the ‘newest’ sport to gain official recognition by the Sports Councils of the United Kingdom), and as someone whose day job partly involves working with athletes as they leave their sport and move on to pastures new.

A question for you all to set the context: my children and I were discussing Anthony Joshua’s amazing victory last Sunday morning.  We then moved on to the huge sacrifices he had made to achieve his win, and how long a boxing career he might have. We ended up trying to name as many sports as we could where age/physical condition were not a key determinant of longevity of career. Have a go yourself – we came up with only snooker, darts and less arguably, golf. 

Why it matters

You might remember that great speech that ‘Smithy’ (James Cordon) made at the 2010 Sports Personality of the Year Awards, on being presented with the spoof Coach of the Year Award.  He used his thank you speech to shoot down as many famous sportspeople as he could, basically claiming that they take public funds to just ‘run around’ or take part in ‘sitting down’ sports.  Great comedy, but near the bone?  

The duty of care towards professional athletes is a big issue in sport at the moment, not just due to some of the more high-profile issues around selection, bullying and sexism, but also around the issue of what happens to athletes when they stop competing.  What responsibility does ‘sport’ have to put time and resource into developing athletes as people as well as competitors, and supporting and preparing them for life after sport?

For me, there are three main reasons why we should care:

  • The financial contribution that so many of us make to athlete funding;
  • The current and enormous inactivity/public health challenge our country faces; and
  • The benefits that professional athletes can bring to society, post their careers.

Our pockets

How many of you pay taxes? How many of you buy national lottery tickets? In doing so, you are funding many of our athletes, in particular the elite Olympic and Paralympic athletes.   It has been estimated that each medal in Rio cost £5.5m of public funding (and figures show that our cost per medal is much more efficient than many of our competitor nations). Are you interested in knowing how your money is spent? Not just in terms of the athlete’s career, but also in terms of what benefits athletes can bring once they stop competing?


Which brings me on to public health and inactivity.  It is well recognised that one of the biggest challenges our country is currently facing relates to physical inactivity. 1 in 6 deaths results from inactivity.  In spite of the government spending millions on public health campaigns, overall Brits do less than 30 minutes exercise (including walking at a normal pace) in a week. Think of the burden this places on the NHS.

I can’t argue that there is a direct link between success at the elite sports level, and greater levels of physical activity.  In fact, there is much evidence pointing the other way.  However, I can contend that there could be. That, with a good system in place to leverage the success at the elite level, and the health benefits that good exercise levels bring, improvements could be made.  This is particularly the case for women and girls.  Whilst Sport England’s incredibly successful ‘This Girl Can’ campaign has focused on the ‘all shapes and sizes’ aspect of taking part, elite female athletes can drive the message that to be strong and athletic is good; a strong body is generally a healthy one, and not something to be ashamed of.  There are many female athletes promoting exercise and nutrition, such as Jess Ennis-Hill’s link with Vitality Move.  Imagine a system that supported many more ex-athletes to do ‘something good’ around activity, and helped them build the requisite skill-set. Central to the inactivity challenge is work in primary schools – did you know that every UK-Sport funded athlete in the last Olympic Cycle was tasked to give 6 days to school visits, to inspire schoolchildren?  Again, whilst an automatic link can’t be assumed between these visits, and uptake in activity, if these visits are monitored, evaluated, refined and improved accordingly, they should be able to have some impact. I have seen with my own eyes the impact these athletes can have on girls in particular who hadn’t previously thought that running around and being active was cool.

Benefits to Society

Which brings me on to my final point, the wider benefits to society that athletes can support and drive. For this argument, I will point you in the direction of a piece by Emma Atkins, Chief Executive of the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust. Emma discusses the potential of retiring athletes to be an asset to society beyond sport, both in terms of social value, but also in terms of impact on the economy from the attitudes and mindset that athletes bring to what they do.  Do take a quick look at this before reading on.

We know from the programmes that we deliver in business, how much of a difference embedding these attitudes and mindsets can have to the performance of an organisation. 

The Challenges

So there are some compelling reasons why we should care about what happens to athletes when they retire from their sport, particularly those who benefit from public funding.

Let’s just take a quick look at it from the athletes’ perspective as well. A common misconception is that most athletes are ‘sorted’ when they leave their sport; that they have made enough money and don’t need to work again.  Well, the reality is that most athletes, when they retire, need to find another career.  Only a very small percentage, the high profile ones we read about and watch, can afford from a financial point of view to rest on their laurels. Most athletes, even those who have been successful, won medals and trophies, and retired after a full career, need to earn a crust like the rest of us.  That’s without even starting on the athletes who suffer career-ending injuries, often when they are just getting going; those who lose their funding as they don’t quite make the grade; those who don’t get picked or kept on by their sport/club. And yet, to get to the level they have been competing at, and achieve the glory not just for themselves and their teams but often for their huge number of fans, and sometimes even for their country, they have had to make huge sacrifices.  Sacrifices not just in their personal lives, but in terms of their education and all-round development. Not just that, but how many of you are in a career where you will no longer be able to ‘compete’ once you get to your mid-thirties – where that is the ceiling for you, and where you will need to start all over again, from the bottom, in a new career?

There are two key challenges, as I see it, to progress in this area; of a duty of care towards professional athletes to help set them up for their next stage of life.

Disparate group

The first issue is that we are not talking about a homogenous group.  You can’t lump all ‘athletes’ together in the same boat. Some sports require early specialisation (for example tennis, swimming); some sports have an even younger retirement age than others (think gymnasts); some athletes will maintain their education alongside their sport for longer than others (with for example rowers at the opposite end of the spectrum from many other sports).  Some sports are within the UK Sport system (Olympic and Paralympic sports); others have their own bodies that support them (for example the Rugby Players’ Association (RPA) and the Professional Cricketers’ Association (PCA)).  Within each sport, the range of issues and individuals that they are dealing with will be huge.  The range of stakeholders is also large and disparate, adding another layer of complexity.

Current Performance v Future Life

For me this is key. We hear it all the time from our work with athletes, and it is something which you can understand, from all perspectives.  Imagine you are the Performance Director of a sport. You have been tasked with delivering x number of medals at a big championships coming up, and your job is on the line.  If you have an athlete who comes to you and says I need to have the day off to [finish my dissertation/gain work experience/volunteer somewhere] what’s your first priority going to be as the Performance Director? The Championships. And if you feel that giving that particular athlete that day off could jeopardise the chances of success, what are you going to say, even if you know that that might not be in the long term interests of the athlete?

Many athletes already have access to really good support that can help them (the Performance Lifestyle teams at the English Institute of Sport (EIS) being a key example).  But are they encouraged to take it up? Do they understand the benefits of thinking about the future, whilst competing, or do they take a ‘leave it til it’s relevant’ approach (and we know from many athletes that that is exactly what happens).

So the challenge is to provide an environment where thinking about the future becomes the norm for athletes whilst still competing.  Where peers, and others within your performance environment, look at you askance if you are not doing so. Where others within the system, from the Board through to the performance director and coaches, not only encourage athletes to do so, but understand the benefits that this can bring.  And this is where it gets interesting…..

There is huge amounts of anecdotal evidence from athletes on how thinking about their futures, continuing their education, taking on some part time work (where possible) actually improves their performance as an athlete. Reasons given range from less stress and worry about the next step, a healthier perspective, improved thinking skills, and so on.  Not just in individual sports, but in team sports. Rugby Union is particularly good at this, driven by the great work the RPA does, built on even further by some of the clubs such as Saracens, who even hold weekly philosophy workshops for their players! Yes, Saracens feel a duty to help players think about their careers post sport, but they are also doing these things due to the link that they can see between these, and performance on the pitch. 

Compelling evidence, driven by rigorous research and insight, could help drive this change of mindset in a very significant way. 

To sum up this context, I am going to turn to an Article that Michael Atherton, ex England cricket captain and now a broadcaster and journalist, recently wrote in the Times.  He was discussing the retirement, aged 25, of Indian cricketer Zafar Ansari, after only five months of playing for his country. Ansari had said, shortly after he had been called up on an England tour for the first time: “Cricket is not the end for me. My life is not directed towards it. Cricket is a part of my life.” But as Atherton goes on to say, once upon a time it would have been easier to combine an interesting working life with sport, but the game is now more demanding of its players.  For cricket, read sport in general – the success our athletes achieve, and the level of professionalism that requires, occurs at the expense of broader welfare.

So that is why the Duty of Care piece is so important, and how significant the challenges are for the system as a whole.  But then sport does love a challenge……

What can Amazon teach us about a high performing culture and environment?

Why (no 1)

In their corporate governance review for 2016, Grant Thornton reported on the FRC’s publication: “Corporate Culture and the Role of Boards.” This report was the result of an 18-month collaborative project to engage companies, investors and a wide range of stakeholders in considering culture. The report urged companies not to wait for a crisis before reflecting on their culture, and to focus on culture as a driver of long-term value. Grant Thornton reported that 86% of companies mentioned culture in their 2016 annual reports. 

Culture is a big ‘thing’ in sporting organisations at the moment.  In the past, Sir Dave Brailsford has said this: “You can’t get performance on a continuous basis over a long period of time through fear.” Whatever the real story at British Cycling, recent events have cast an important spotlight on the high performance culture.


What exactly do we mean by the ‘culture’ in/of an organisation? This is the view of Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, as set out in Amazon’s 2017 SEC filing:

“This year, Amazon became the fastest company ever to reach $100 billion in annual sales. Also this year, Amazon Web Services is reaching $10 billion in annual sales … doing so at a pace even faster than Amazon achieved that milestone.

What’s going on here? Both were planted as tiny seeds and both have grown organically without significant acquisitions into meaningful and large businesses, quickly. Superficially, the two could hardly be more different….. Under the surface, the two are not so different after all. They share a distinctive organizational culture that cares deeply about and acts with conviction on a small number of principles…. A word about corporate cultures: for better or for worse, they are enduring, stable, hard to change. They can be a source of advantage or disadvantage. You can write down your corporate culture, but when you do so, you’re discovering it, uncovering it – not creating it. It is created slowly over time by the people and by events – by the stories of past success and failure that become a deep part of the company lore. If it’s a distinctive culture, it will fit certain people like a custom-made glove. The reason cultures are so stable in time is because people self-select. Someone energized by competitive zeal may select and be happy in one culture, while someone who loves to pioneer and invent may choose another. The world, thankfully, is full of many high-performing, highly distinctive corporate cultures. We never claim that our approach is the right one – just that it’s ours – and over the last two decades, we’ve collected a large group of like-minded people. Folks who find our approach energizing and meaningful.”

Whilst Bezos refers to a culture that’s created over time, a study by Jim Collins, the well-known business consultant, places the leader of an organisation at the centre. Collins set out to discover what made some companies move from being good to being great. What enabled them to make that leap, and stay there? Collins and his team embarked on a 5 year study, selecting 11 companies whose stock returns had skyrocketed relative to other companies in their industry, and who had maintained this edge for at least 15 years.  They matched each company to another one in the same industry that had similar resources but did not make the leap. They also studied a third group of companies that had made the leap but could not sustain it. What distinguished the thriving companies from the others? Several important factors, as Collins reports in his book Good to Great, but one that was absolutely key in every case was the type of leader who led the company into greatness.  They were not larger than life, charismatic types who oozed ego and self-proclaimed talent. They were self-effacing people who constantly asked questions and had the ability to confront the most brutal answers- in other words those who were able to look failure in the face, even their own, while maintaining faith that they would succeed in the end.  They believe in human development. They are not constantly trying to prove they’re better than others, but they are constantly trying to improve.

Conversely, looking at the famous failure of Enron in 2001, many commentators put this down to a failure of mindset.  Enron was talent-obsessed, creating a culture that worshipped talent, and so forcing employees to look and act extraordinarily talented. It basically forced them into a mindset unable to admit mistakes, and so unable to learn from them.  

Interestingly, Bezos added this to the end of his statement above: One area where I think we are especially distinctive is failure. I believe we are the best place in the world to fail (we have plenty of practice!), and failure and invention are inseparable twins. To invent you have to experiment, and if you know in advance that it’s going to work, it’s not an experiment. Most large organizations embrace the idea of invention, but are not willing to suffer the string of failed experiments necessary to get there.

Why (no. 2)

We see it working as follows: organisations generally have a goal; an ambition. A destination that they are aiming for. This requires getting it right at three levels: strategy and structure; environment and culture; and people.  Sticking with Collins’ work, let’s use his analogy of a bus.  So to get to the destination, (i) you have to get the right people on the bus.  For us, more important than existing skillset is people with the right attitude and mindset, and a good diversity of thought and perspective. (ii) The right culture and environment is then key, to make sure you get the best out your people, and help them to help you as on organisation achieve your aims.  So what will the look and feel of your bus be, and what behaviours will you facilitate and encourage? Will your bus be steamlined, all sharp edges and cutting edge materials? Or will it be a green and environmentally friendly bus? (iii) Finally, your strategy and structure.  What road is your bus going to take? The fast motorway, or the slower country road? And what do you need to have in place to take that road?

Back to Sport

It’s important to remember that the piece around culture and environment isn’t soft and fluffy.  On the contrary, it is a key factor in driving success.  All UK Sport funded sports are looking at this now, and none of them will be doing so at the expense of winning medals.

What about rugby union, a sport where we have had an incredibly successful time post the World Cup. These, apparently, are Eddie Jones’ Standards for Building a Sustainable Performance of Excellence:

  • High work ethic always;
  • Passion for detail;
  • Get the right staff;
  • Create a learning environment;
  • Rules – make them very clear and understood;
  • Meetings – no longer than 15 minutes;
  • Communication – clear and concise;
  • Evaluation – clear criteria, no grey areas.

Imagine what his bus would look like?!


Getting this right can drive your organisation to achieve its goals.  And research is increasingly showing how key it is, across sectors. 

We’d love to hear from you if you’d like to find out how we can help. Please do get in touch on

What does a mobile phone advert have to do with women’s sport?

Some of you may have heard the latest government radio advert, aimed at stopping us all using our mobile phones in the car. It is a great example of behaviour change theory.


Theory alert……A quick recap on the behaviour change model that we apply. Based on the work by Dan and Chip Heath, in order to successfully bring about change, three different elements need to be in place.  You need to:

direct the rider;

motivate the elephant; and

shape the path.

In simple terms, the rider equates to the rational side of human beings and the elephant equates to our emotional side. No matter how much the rider might be aware of what the outcome needs to be, and what their behaviour should be, if their elephant is not motivated to get there, it’s not going to happen. Similarly, no matter how motivated the elephant is to get to the destination, and ‘behave well’, if the rider doesn’t know how to get there, it will simply be churning up the ground in the same spot.  Even where both rider and elephant are ready to get going, if the terrain is obstructive, getting to the destination will be extremely hard, meaning the rider and elephant are more likely to give up.

The advert…..So how does this apply to the radio advert.  This is where it gets clever. The advert starts by appealing to our elephant. The first thing mentioned is that the penalty for mobile phone use has gone up to 6 points. And a maximum fine of £2000.  Almost as an afterthought, the real danger, the fact that we might kill someone, is mentioned.  Why this approach? Because the advert is focusing on the emotional ‘hook’ that is immediately relevant to us, the one that we can relate to.  Losing £2000 and getting 6 points is tangible, and immediately disadvantageous. The prospect of killing someone is more remote, harder to relate to, and less tangible, despite the fact that that is the exact and tragic outcome the advert is seeking to avoid. 

The next step of the advert is genius.  It is a clear example of directing the rider. We all know we shouldn’t be using our phones in the car, but are we clear on methods to avoid doing so? What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity.  So the advert gives us a clear direction – put your phone in your glove compartment.  It even goes as far as to rename the glove compartment your phone compartment.  Simples. 

The final area, shaping the path, is provided by the constant repeating of this advert.  This strand of the model is aimed at making the good behaviour easier to carry out, and the ‘bad’ behaviour harder to carry out. Think back to the days of early cashpoints – did you ever take your money and leave your card in the cashpoint? Well done if you didn’t, but enough people did to make the banks frustrated. So they took a simple step to shape the path – you can no longer take your cash out, until you have removed your card! Part of shaping the path is helping people to build habits, and constantly repeating this advert, on a radio channel, that many drivers listen to, will help shape that path.

And the link to women’s sport…..There are so many wonderful initiatives going on in women’s sport at the moment.  A few of them are highlighted below, with an explanation as to how behaviour change theory is relevant:

  • England Netball’s Back to Netball campaign – Shaping the Path for women wanting to return to netball. This also works to Motivate the Elephant, as it creates a ‘herd’ of women taking part, encouraging others to want to join – behaviour is contagious, and an elephant likes to follow a herd.


  • #SheRallies – the new LTA female coaching campaign, backed by Judy Murray, to help ‘activate’ many more women into tennis.  The campaign’s focus is to train up a series of ‘activators’ across the country, who can work to activate more women and girls into tennis.  Part of this will be looking at what works already (we call this ‘finding the bright spots, and it is a key element of Directing the Rider) and part of it will be giving the activators clear instructions and guidance on what they need to be doing (scripting some critical moves for the Rider).


  • SportsCoachUK’s Reach campaign – again, a campaign that has been created to raise awareness and inspire more women to get into coaching as well as encourage current women coaches to develop their skills. These campaigns serve to Motivate the Elephant, both of the coaches and activators (they want to join this herd) but also of the end recipients – women and girls.  Their elephant is more likely to be motivated if they are being encouraged into sport and physical activity by someone in their community, who is like them, and understands their lives and needs.


  • Women’s Sport Trust #BeAGameChangerAwards – a great example of finding and rewarding the Bright Spots (Directing the Rider) and Motivating the Elephant (an annual get together and celebration of all those working hard in this space – who wouldn’t want to join this herd?)


  • Viewing figures – do you know one of the main reasons why the GB Women’s hockey final at Rio was watched by so many people? Because it came on the tv directly after a big football match, which many people were watching in the pub.  Lots of pubs flicked their coverage over to the hockey, and bingo – a captive audience. A great example of Shaping the Path – tweaking the environment to encourage the behaviour that you want.  This concept is being repeated in so many sports, from cricket through to rugby, with initiatives aimed at two key areas: (i) making it more appealing for women and families to attend sporting events; and (ii) encouraging more attendance in general at women’s sport events. 

There is much that still needs to be done to continue the momentum behind the upswing in all areas of women’s sport in general, but these examples show how careful planning, and a strategic approach, can reap rewards.  If anyone would like to find out more about our behaviour change model, and how it can drive the success of your initiatives, please do get in touch

We have also had strong confirmation of a Shaping the Path effect in our training delivery, through the overwhelmingly positive responses to our female only courses, both in the coaching sphere, and in our female leadership programmes.  Again, to find out more, and see how these courses (aimed specifically at building confidence and impact) can drive the performance of women who work in sport, please do get in touch

Building your confidence to drive your performance

This piece was originally produced for CYBG as part of their International Women’s Week focus.

In 2015, the England Women’s Football team, known as the Lionesses, came home with a bronze medal from the World Cup in Canada. A huge achievement for the team, surpassing all expectations. Marianne Spacey was (and still is) the Assistant Coach of the team, a successful woman in what has been very much a male-dominated world. She has given this advice: “Believe in yourself, have an aptitude to learn and go knocking on doors to keep putting yourself into positions where you can get better.”

But how good are we as women at doing this? These are some of the statements that we have heard from women we have worked with, across both business and sport.

“I know I can do a good job, I just wish I had more confidence in myself.”

“The men I work with just seem to have this belief that they can do things.  And they are stronger at communicating this. I don’t have that and it’s frustrating as I feel like it’s holding me back.”

“I need to build up my confidence so that I can do a better job for my team – they need to have belief and confidence in me, so I need to have it in myself.” 

As a training and consulting company, the main benefit we aim to bring for the client organisations we work with is to drive high performance.  For many of the women we work with, this means helping them to build, and communicate, their confidence.  Let’s unpick some of the key areas that go into this.

Know yourself

“Before you can be someone, you need to know who you are.”

I can’t stress how important this is.  Whilst my first qualification was as a tennis coach, I then went on to work as a corporate lawyer for 13 years. The legal fraternity is not perhaps renowned for being the most self-aware set of people. However, doing a work-focused behavioural profile, which then prompted me to spend some proper time to understand my strengths and the way I operate at work, was a revelation.  My areas of best contribution are working with and through people, and achieving results. I am not particularly motivated by rules and procedures, or the need to feel secure.  Understanding this gave me a much better picture of ‘who I am’ at work, what my strengths are, and where I should be focusing my energies.  Whilst still in law, this meant a focus on client relationships and then training. It then led me to set up Sport and Beyond, where our entire focus is on developing people into high performers. 

This is why the first step of so much that we do at Sport and Beyond is a behavioural profile (we use the Thomas International suite of profiles as they are robust, accessible and extremely reliable).  It drives the first of our three key outcomes for clients: UNDERSTAND.

Build confidence

So how does this then drive an increase in confidence, and what other follow on steps can help?

Leveraging your strengths

Once you understand your strengths, leveraging them and building on them will enable you to perform at a higher level, and so build your confidence.  The belief in spending learning and development time on building on your strengths, rather than focusing too much on your weaknesses, is gaining greater currency within business. Of course it has been a central tenet within sport for a long time.  At Sport and Beyond we particularly love this quote from newly appointed England cricket captain, Joe Root: talking about the 12 month period where his performance really moved up a gear, he said: “Peter [ex-England coach] definitely got the best out of me, along with the rest of the coaching team.  When I came back from Australia I realised that a lot of the time I was trying to work on things I was not good at, putting all my energy into that rather than spending more time strengthening the stuff I am good at.”

Peter Drucker, renowned management consultant and author, applies this to business in the following way.  He has said that we should waste as little effort as possible on improving areas of low competence. It takes far more energy and work to improve from competence to mediocrity than it takes to improve from first-rate performance to excellence – and yet most people in most organisations concentrate on making incompetent performers into mediocre ones.

Don’t use this as an excuse to ignore your key ‘limiters’ of course. Yes, it’s important to concentrate on any areas of weakness that are holding us back. But don’t try and fix all of them, and try and shift the balance from too much focus on these to more focus on building up your areas of strength. This drives the second of our key outcomes for clients: FOCUS

What and Why

Often we lack confidence and are nervous about something but we are not sure why.  It might be a presentation we have to give. Or it might be nerves before a big meeting. Sure it’s a big meeting, but have you analysed why you are actually nervous?

The What and Why process helps many of our clients.  What is it that you are nervous about, and why.  So yes, it might be nerves before the big meeting, but what in particular are you worried about? Is it that you might not present your points well? Or is it that they won’t listen? Or won’t agree with you? Or something else? Once you’ve drilled down, then we can work on dealing with the concern, and building confidence around it.


“Just because it’s common sense doesn’t mean that it’s common practice.” 

Sometimes the simple things are worth repeating, over and over again.  Whatever you are doing in life, the more prepared you are, the more confident you can feel going into it.  This doesn’t mean that you have to have all the answers (which is impossible) but it does mean that you have planned and prepared for the task in hand.


“You draw from your experiences. You draw from your failures. And every day is a learning day.” 

Those of you reading this with many years of working life under your belt can smile at this point. One of the great things about getting older is the experience that you have gained. However, there is a proviso to this. You have to use that experience wisely, and make sure that you continually learn from it.  Don’t rest on your laurels. The quote above is from Victoria Pendleton, the Olympic gold-medal winning cyclist who gave herself a year to convert to being a jump jockey, speaking the week before her (successful) big race.

Challenge yourself

“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

Having that growth mindset, a willingness to challenge yourself and accept that you might fail, is a whole topic in itself, but is key to building up confidence.

Try and view challenging tasks as an opportunity to learn and grow. Aim to succeed at the task, and in any event you will learn from it and grow stronger as a result.  Think of the ever growing chasm between those who have this attitude, and those who don’t.  Others don’t try new challenges, so they do not learn and they don’t grow.  That makes them even more fearful of new challenges, because they lack the experience or success in taking on new challenges.  Meanwhile, the others are growing stronger all the time.  Even if they have a setback on a challenge, they still learn and grow.

Mia Hamm, one of the greatest female soccer players, has said: “All my life I’ve been playing up, meaning I’ve challenged myself with players older, bigger, more skilful, more experienced. In short, better than me….Each day I attempted to play up to their level….and I was improving faster than I ever dreamed possible. “

This mindset, and approach, feeds into our final outcome for clients: EXCEL.

Threats to confidence

So what can knock our confidence? What can challenge our ability to feel confident in who we are and what we do?  It’s important to consider what these areas might be, so that you can deal with them and drive forward.  For each and every person it differs but common themes include:

  • levels of self-esteem;
  • others around you;
  • lack of experience;
  • too high expectations;
  • lack of a strategy; and
  • focusing too much on what has gone wrong.
  • Acknowledging what it is that’s holding back your confidence, gives you the power to then address it.

I will give the final word to Eleanor Roosevelt as this sums up something that we also see time and again with women – when under pressure, the goods are produced.

“A woman is like a tea bag: you never know how strong she is until you put her in hot water.”


Emotional Intelligence Podcasts

Listed below are the ConnectedCoaches Emotional Intelligence podcasts with contributions from Sport and Beyond.

As with our blogs, we hope you enjoy listening to the podcasts and welcome your comments and thoughts. 

1. Emotional Intelligence is integral to becoming a great coach

Understanding the concept of emotional intelligence (EI) can help coaches boost performance levels and grow and sustain participation in sport. So get your brain in gear as we explore what it is and how developing your EI will help you get the best out of your athletes.

2. The inside story: The value of Self awareness as a tool for improvement

A little introspection can go a long way. By exploring your emotions and understanding your inner self, you WILL improve your coaching. The benefits of practising self-awareness and getting some valuable ‘insider knowledge’ are such that you really cannot afford to ignore this advice from ConnectedCoaches content champion Catherine Baker.

3. Dealing with feelings: The importance of getting your heard around emotion perception

Emotion perception is a key component of emotional intelligence. In the third chapter of the series with behavioural expert and ConnectedCoaches content champion Catherine Baker, we explore the inner world of emotions, and discover how recognising and managing them in yourself and others can significantly improve your coaching.

4. How to develop behavioural agility in your coaching to get the best out of yourself and your coaches

In part four of the series on emotional intelligence, we look at recognising when to dial up and dial down your emotions because this can be key to getting the best out of your performers.

5. Smells like Team spirit: How to create a winning culture through the use of Emotional Intelligence

Developing a positive team environment, with tight social bonds between players and coaching staff, is instrumental to sustained success. In part five of the emotional intelligence series with ConnectedCoaches content champion Catherine Baker we explore the important role empathy, relationships and social awareness play in establishing the perfect club climate.