We wanted to explore the idea that business can learn a lot from sport. Following on from Chris Froome’s outstanding Tour de France victory earlier this summer, we look specifically at Sir David Brailsford’s approach to the sport of competitive cycling. Specifically Team SKY. What is his ‘style’? What is his ‘approach’? How does he ‘prepare’? Is he an exception in terms of leadership or just blessed to have a team of the finest riders that money can buy? Maybe that’s it. He just got lucky this year?
The Tour de France for those readers less familiar is, essentially, 21 days of unadulterated cycling hell. It takes place over 23 days (yes, just two rest days!) and covers c.3,500 kilometers. Competitors ride on average 130km in a day go to sleep and do it all over again – day after day! You get the idea. In many ways, Brailsford’s approach is very similar in style to Sir Clive Woodward’s approach to winning the Rugby World Cup a few years back. Both shared the same vision, both had the same work ethic and, crucially, both shared the same pain staking approach to the detail. Both men are incredibly driven and incredibly determined. Both only think ‘win’ and both go the extra mile to ensure success. Yet only one year ago in 2014 Team SKY had a truly disastrous Tour. So what went so right this year? What did Brailsford do so differently in 2015? In short he really did not change anything.
Brailsford has a system that is designed around “incremental change”. Everything that he does is based on this. He looks at behaviours in minute detail just as he looks at every other part of the ‘business’ in minute detail. In fact, he went so far as to develop a ‘winning behaviours’ app! Incredible (and extreme) though this may sound it is centred around his belief in getting the ‘culture’ right. In his view, great teams need the right culture. Sounds familiar does it not? But to what lengths does he go to ensure that this culture is the one that he wants? Well, he brings in an external Performance Scientist by the name of Simon Jones. He was brought in to ask searching questions and move the entire leadership team out of their comfort zones. Note that Simon was external. “It was threatening in some ways, but I loved the challenge. New ideas began to flow” Brailsford explained after the Tour. This takes a fair amount of innate security in oneself both personally and from a leadership perspective to potentially become very exposed. Brailsford is certain that “successful teams emerge from emotionally robust cultures”. He goes on to explain that the “human side of teamwork is vital; it’s not just about power and outage”.
With the help of Simon Jones, Brailsford developed other ‘behaviours’ which he strongly believes helped his leadership. For example, he never criticises the team. He constantly seeks out “marginal gains”. He seeks and gives continuous and constructive feedback. He always looks to learn. He actively listens. Perhaps most telling of all is that he pro-actively looks to solve problems for his team-mates. He explains this in a little more detail: “I can’t tell you how important that last one is (pro-activity). People say: ‘You could have helped me’. The response is invariably: ‘If you’d asked, I would have’. That isn’t enough. They shouldn’t need to ask. Proactivity is the difference between a good and a great team”.
Perhaps more companies could be deploying such ideology? Should more organisations be embracing these kinds of additional efforts? Maybe less should be pushed onto the HR department as it’s ‘human stuff’? Maybe the top table should get amongst their teams more and get closer to those that ‘run’ their businesses? Brailsford is a control freak for sure but his ‘methods’ clearly work. He explains that he has a profile of everyone and ‘where they are at’. He gets close to people so that they trust him and, in turn, open up to him. For him, this is the very essence of leadership. He explains that “this is how you change a culture. It’s about small steps. When you challenge someone to be perfect, you only really give them the option of failing because human beings are flawed. I don’t talk about perfection. I talk about progression”. His philosophy is one where you take the time with people so that everyone knows that they have to get their behaviours right. He explains that it is “like a filter, preventing damaging actions before they even happen”. Teams with poor morale have moaners who in turn moan to others thus destroying the central core of any team. Brailsford calls this ‘cancerous’ and he’s not wrong. However, he explains that “once you get momentum, ‘small changes stick” and this is the tipping point where good teams can change to become great teams. At the end of the day Brailsford’s approach is really rather simple but it involves more work. In truth, it probably requires more time, more effort and more care. ‘Incremental change’ is a about making small changes that create dramatic improvement. It’s about small steps. He explains that “you need to break it down into really small goals and get people to work in little groups to motivate each other”. After all, few people like change, so doing it slowly could be a highly effective way of pushing it through – bit by bit.
The technology giant Apple Inc. also works with a similar ethos. They are where they are and staying there due, in no small part, to their philosophy of “incremental, iterative innovation” (iPhone 4, 5, 6, etc.). They keep chipping away at their product innovation so that they can continue to roll out market winning products year after year. Many companies simply fail to do this because they are not obsessive about incremental gains. Go too fast at the start of your run and what happens? You burn out and the slower starters end up going past you! These hugely successful companies, just like Brailsford, stick to the notion that a more extreme and aggressive approach might be faster, but is ultimately unsustainable. Blackberry and Nokia could be cases in point?
So where does this leave us? Perhaps companies can take a closer look at ‘incremental change’. Perhaps, if they also break things down and spend a bit more time, they will harvest a far greater yield over the medium term? Of course, most companies do not consist of just eight hugely motivated cyclists of world repute and a bunch of support staff. Many are far larger and much more complex. But that would be missing the point here. It’s about rolling these ideas out across the wider leadership team so that a ‘winning culture’ emerges. To do that you need to be close to those that you lead or manage, you need to be visible. By doing this organisations greatly increase their chances of ensuring that ‘proactivity’ becomes the byword. A ‘go to’ attitude rather than a ‘protectionist’ attitude (individual bonuses tend to have that effect). One thing’s for sure. Sir David Brailsford is never afraid to be bold. He shows great courage in actively seeking out change. He is happy to bring in external people who will ruthlessly expose his flaws if that is what helps to create ‘incremental change’ for the team. That takes a lot of self-confidence. Perhaps more companies need to embrace external coaches at the top table? Maybe this can help companies create ‘winning cultures’ which in turn can be a catalyst for ‘incremental change’. Perhaps 360 degree appraisals should be utilized more than they are? Sure, they are tough things to go through, but there is no faster way of getting to know what your employees really think.
So maybe the Commercial Real Estate sector can take a closer look at the likes of Sir Clive Woodward and Sir David Brailsford’s innovative and detailed techniques? You never know, there may even be a Knighthood in it!
All quotes taken from an article written by Rachel Sylvester and published in the The Times on July 28th 2015