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. 

Catherine BAKERComment