Sport offers valuable lesson for work life

Kate Hesson. Photo: ODT files.
Kate Hesson. Photo: ODT files.

Kate Hesson  shares what businesses can learn from high performance athletes.

In her last article for this column, Sarah Cross discussed different styles of coaching and promoted it as a cost-effective and impactful way of building organisational capability.

I am going to take this concept a step further and discuss what businesses can learn from high performance athletes to help create their own high performance culture - one that is better, faster and stronger - and most importantly, sustainable.

No matter what size an organisation is, and no matter what business area it operates in, one of the key challenges facing its leaders is how to access and engage the hidden talent of its people.

A high performance culture aims to achieve this by creating people who:

Accept and identify the goals and values of their organisation.

Are loyal in terms of their desire to remain working for their organisation.

Are motivated to apply discretionary effort to work more productively, at a consistent level.

Discretionary effort is the prize leaders want to win, as it represents the gap between what their people are capable of doing (as determined by their knowledge, skills, abilities/competencies) and the effort they usually apply in response to instructions from their leaders.

Traditionally, methods such as these are used to encourage high performance in organisations:

Priority given to internal recruitment and promotion based on merit.

Clear career progression for all employees (including succession planning, secondments, temporary assignments).

Employee recruitment and selection targeted at flexibility and capacity for learning, et cetera.

Performance-based pay.

However, these types of methods focus mainly on a person’s mental capacity, not on their emotional intelligence or personal values.

Based on research of high performance athletes that was applied in the corporate world, a more holistic approach is needed for people to reach a sustained state of high performance. So we can reach the peak of the performance pyramid (see the illustration).

In their well-known 2001 Harvard Business Review article ‘‘The Making of a Corporate Athlete’’, Jim Loehr (performance psychologist) and Tony Schwartz (founder of the Energy Project) noted ‘‘if there is one quality that executives seek for themselves and their employees, it is sustained high performance in the face of ever-increasing pressure and rapid change. But the source of such performance is as elusive as the fountain of youth’’.

They brought an elite athlete preparation and training protocol to business leaders, which dramatically improved work performance, as well as enhanced their personal health and happiness.

Messrs Loehr and Schwartz created an integrated theory of performance management addressing the body, the emotions, the mind and the spirit based on a hierarchy shown in the performance pyramid.

Each of its levels profoundly influences the others and failure to address any one of them compromises performance. You become off balance.

Regular physical activity is needed to form a strong foundation of resilience. Positive self-talk, mindset and uplifting music are tools used to build emotional capacity.

Professional learning development plus meditation and productivity hacks help increase mental capacity.

Giving people time and guidance to find their ‘‘why’’ and purpose in their work was part of enhancing their spiritual capacity.

If you want to build your own performance pyramid, you can start by asking the following questions:

  • What makes you excited, what are you good at? Do you want to be on the wing dodging or in the scrum pushing forward?
  • What are your natural talents? Would you be good as a strategic game tactician? Perhaps you are more of a motivating cheer leader?
  • What discipline should you really be in? For example, are you like a sprinter or a marathon runner?
  • Are you a ‘‘solo athlete’’ or a ‘‘team player’’? Do you prefer to guard the goal by yourself or play in the centre making lots of connections?
  • What times of the day do you give your best performance? Do you like to attack a challenge fresh in the morning or prepare well before you play an evening match?
  • When do you take a break from the training and what is your recovery time? Are you taking a break with your team-mates or recovering in your own space?
  • How do you deal with setbacks? Do you replay old games in your head to see where you went wrong or do you tackle the next game like it’s your first?
  • What do you need from a coach? Do you want them to lead by example or to support you to find your own ways?
  • Above all, what motivates you to get out of bed in the morning and perform to the best of your physical and mental abilities? Is it the thought of a gold medal or are you happy just taking part?

Now think about the people in your organisation. Do you know what motivates them? Do you know how you can motivate them better?

Remember that the one thing that ensures that you succeed in business - in whatever industry, wherever they are in the world - is people.

What do you need, and what does your team need, to sustain a high performance culture? Adopting coaching as a style of learning and development in your team is one way this can be done.

Professional athletes benefit from having coaches; so, too, could corporate athletes. There are many different types of coaching structures.

For example, some elite athletes (comparable to business leaders) have one-on-one coaches who are exclusive to them. Teams may have one coach to support all the players.

At the elite level, there will be a head coach along with technical assistant coaches. A clever coach who does not have that backup will ensure there is a good group of senior players who can help coach the younger ones.

Captains (like chief executives) are often expected to perform a coaching role, especially on the field in the middle of a game when coaches are not available to direct the team.

In this sense, coaching is a style of development that all leaders and potential leaders are taught to build capacity within a team, a form of succession planning.

As helpful as coaching may be, in my view, high performance in business leaders cannot be reached or sustained if we focus solely on their behaviour at work.

Their relationships with their loved ones need to be nurtured so that they are supported throughout the journey of high performance on and off the field (i.e., workplace).

High performance athletes, like business leaders, often operate in isolation. They have few peers within their own workplace but they may not want to discuss their work stresses at home.

Many have 24/7 professional commitments that take them away from home or enjoyable personal pursuits.

This is all the more reason why the organisations for which they work should prioritise their wellbeing and value their connections with their loved ones.

I advocate for an even more holistic approach than Messrs Loehr and Schwartz’s performance pyramid - encouraging people to build their physical, emotional, mental and spiritual capacities, from within themselves, inside and outside an organisation.

That is the best way to unlock their full high performance potential.

• Kate Hesson is director of Hesson Consultancy.

 

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