Gold Medal Performance – Beyond Talent Management Richard Cross

Gold Medal Performance  –  Beyond Talent Management   Richard Cross

CEO‘s calls the shots; leaders ‘coach’ their teams; there are game plans to win sales bids, companies need to have the ‘best players’ and inspirational leaders to ‘play to win;’ against ‘rivals’. Many aspects of Talent Management, such as leadership, team working, performance management, mentoring and coaching, feature in sport albeit in a much more immediate, intense, visible, objective and pivotal fashion.  More than an inspirational metaphor or heroic story of success, the clinical yet emotional arena of elite performance in sport exemplifies best practices concerning how people fulfil their potential, achieve their dreams, and make the most of their talents. In the ruthless ‘meritocracy’ of sports mistakes are magnified. Under intense scrutiny there is no hiding place for poor performance or talent that crumbles under pressure.

This case study   based on research using the Saville Consulting Wave® psychologically profiling World Champion level performers and their coaches examines what sets elite sports Talent  apart from those who are merely ‘very good’. Seven lessons Talent Management  can learn from  Head Coaches and  how Sports pushes people to the boundary of their potential  are highlighted.

An Elite Sports Take on Talent

Talent rules in sport and a massive investment is made on the part of all concerned. Just as rugby players come in all shapes and sizes there does not appear to be one uniform world champion cocktail of ingredients. Related to this there are a package of external factors that contribute to elite performance including, mentors, quality of coaches and coaching, backing from sponsors, technical equipment, and provision of top class training facilities. Yet Talent is irrelevant unless it’s deployed in its most appropriate context and at the right time. Different sports place different emphasis on the physiological, personality attributes and talents required to be effective. Regarding ‘work related talents’ skiing and motor sports require  individuals with extraordinary composure and incredible focus. Others such as swimming, running and rowing prioritise a meticulous outlook. Rugby and team sports on the other hand require an emphasis on decision making, leadership, an ability to set aside differences to ‘work in partnership with others as well as cope with uncertainty when the game plan fails to survive ‘engagement with the enemy.’

Notwithstanding these differences six key areas have emerged that set elite Sporting Talent, those who compete and win on a global world-class level apart from those who are ‘very good’. These are a vision to action mentality, an essential self-belief, a questioning and learning disposition, a passionate but principled perspective, networking power and positioning, and last but not least given their lack of commercial experience a startlingly strong entrepreneurial ethos.

The Talents that give Elite sports performers the Edge

Vision to Action Values

First and foremost they have a compelling vision combined with a desire to learn and need to deliver. Within the bigger picture, they are able to visualise what the end game will look like. They learn experientially, which is not to say they don’t like reading. They also translate the big picture into action, by prioritising goals, narrowing focus and meeting deadlines and minimising distractions to achievement. They take a long-term outlook –essential if you want to achieve gold at the Olympics. Typically their compelling personal vision  helps them ‘through the dark times to the light of dawn’.

Essential Self-belief

Highly talented people have a strong sense of their place and worth. They take control and responsibility for their own destiny. They do not depend on others for this, so in that sense they are independent. They have a positive mind-set, are optimistic by nature and respond well to new challenges. Finally, they are persistent. They see things through to the end and bounce back from setbacks stronger than before. Uncertainty for them affords ambiguity and opportunity. It might be true that ‘nothing succeeds as much as success’, but ‘nothing is quite as contagious as optimism’.

A Questioning and Learning Disposition

Top performers are driven by high standards; the most talented amongst them have something extra. They  are insightful, analytical and non-compliant: insightful in that they are quick to get to the core of a problem; are constantly looking for ways to improve things; and are analytical in that they frequently ask probing questions. This natural curiosity seems a particular feature of top talent across sports ,business and entertainment. Questions persuade. They also place you in control of a conversation. Non-compliant means successful people don’t automatically follow the rules. They often test them to the limits and take calculated risks and sometimes operate at the edge. They can be procedural when it counts.  But they tend not to accept the status quo. Yet they are not rebels without a cause, their strong personal vision acts as a focal point for their drive. Principles govern the extent to which they ‘win at all costs’. Generally, but not always  they are highly receptive. They are learning oriented, adaptable, open to feedback, and part of the ‘action faction’.

Passionate and Principled

To be talented is to believe in yourself and what you’re doing. Talent involves inspiring – not evangelising – others with your own passion. It also leads the talented person to re-evaluate their game against the next level of performance. Passion fuels enterprise and a striving nature. People with passion are seen as competitive, energising, dynamic, driven and inspirational. In sports it leads to an ‘anabolic state’ conducive to high performance. Passion is further complemented by principles and ethics. In ancient Greek culture the term ‘arête’ was bound up with the notion of excellence and living up to one’s full potential. Arête is defined as  courage and strength in the face of adversity; the ideal by which people became the best they could be. Linked to their abundance of passion, many particularly World Champions articulated ‘becoming the best they can be’ as a common core construct. Excellence derives from their total belief in and commitment to their profession. It’s their calling.

Networking Power & Positioning

Talented people develop a diverse network on their path to victory. It’s not just what, but who, they know. They are only as good as the support network and ‘team’  of mentors and coaches behind them. Typically the combination of their networking ability with the questioning outlook enables them to spot connections and identify opportunities which others don’t. Generally, but not always they are modest about their own achievements. They have a low need for praise and don’t enjoy the limelight (although they often find themselves in it).Most network well and are lively in social situations. The value of their network can be measured in quality rather than volume. It’s often a learning community, or safe haven from pressure which is based on mutual trust and reputation. Most have a stable of impressive mentors − people with a reputation in their field and trusted advisors. Often they were encouraged early on by someone they respected’. Typically it was a teacher or coach, and occasionally a relative or parent, who endorsed their talent and contributed to a sense of purpose. At other times it was a hero who provided a key and enduring inspiration. Many cited the serendipitous influence at turning points in their career of quality mentors who acted as catalysts, radically accelerating their career progress, believing in them and simply asking penetrating questions about what they wanted to achieve and what they were truly passionate about.

The Entrepreneurial Ethos

Sport might be viewed by Lord Sebastian Coe as a hidden social worker and this was certainly the case for many where participation in sport had a transformational impact on their lives.  However perhaps an equally significant legacy of participation in  sport that has arisen out of the research  is that it seems to unleash and develop entrepreneurial talent. It isn’t just name recognition, that ‘winning smile’ or being a member of the Olympic Club (though that helps) that propels talented athletes forward after their ‘retirement’.  Serial World Champions and a high proportion of those who perform at elite level develop talents that are identical to top entrepreneurs. There is a dark side; Professor Volkov studying ex sportsmen in Russia found that after the downfall of communism they had to find alternative employment. The gym and the street market became the origin of local capitalism. The willpower, determination self-discipline and team spirit of ex sportsman led him to coin a new term; ’the violent entrepreneur’. Of course now these people are upper-layer managers they stylize themselves as the  ‘business elite.’

It was initially a revelation for some athletes that despite limited experience of the commercial world a significantly high percentage of elite  performers came across as ‘natural born entrepreneurs’. Across the six dimensions  (see table one) that drive entrepreneurial success identified by Professor  David Hall the pattern with many was a ‘full house’ where they rated themselves consistently  higher than the management norm across all six factors. Below for example is an profile  of a female World Champion who has had no commercial experience apart from working in a bar. What both entrepreneurs and sports champions have in common   is that they are moulded by the courage of their convictions. They have the ability and are able to take a leap of faith; the difference in success can be as simple as determination and persistence. The successful entrepreneur is typically cited as someone able to get up again and again when knocked back. The same might be said of those wanting to succeed at World Champion level. They have to be single-minded and above all persevere against many odds. This links to Economist Schumpeter’s classical definition of  entrepreneurs as those ‘who create at the point of their own self destruction’. It’s also evident that there is a mythical quality associated with a World Champion. These are people who on  their journey take talent  to the limit.

Table One -The Six Entrepreneurial Factors

(based on the Entrecode®. Model)


Getting in the zone means the optimal state of mind and achievement drive to create success.  Far more important than mechanistic, plans the most important factor is the obsessive commitment, passion and compelling  vision of the individual.   Put simply this means getting their mind and bodies focused and coordinated and showing energy to make things happen. Self-belief  inner drive and action orientation are all essential.

Seeing Possibilities is about how entrepreneurs view the world, take in information and create insights. Here it’s all about focussing on the big picture not low level issues, options thinking  and being ‘savvy’, confidently using intuition and experience to make judgements.

Creating Superior Opportunities  is about identifying client problems that need to be solved and leveraging solutions to transform business results or problem seeking. This requires the ability to make connections from different sources, through synthesis and spotting pattern that results in problem solving through commercial solutions that create  distinctive opportunities and delight customers. This area is generally  the lowest one for most sports stars  – the expression ‘winning ugly’ springs to mind.


Staying in the Zone is about prioritising, sequencing and focussing energy on a specific target. A useful analogy is to think of goal directed energy as a laser beam locked onto a specific target. This goal directed energy is a key process that links vision and dreams to results. This is about focus, being single minded and not been distracted, having a positive mind-set  in responding positively to new challenges, being self-determined  taking firm , unwavering control  of shaping their own destiny and showing persistence seeing things to the end and in recovering from inevitable  setbacks.

Opening Up to the World is concerned with building networks, and forming relationships to enable the business to develop. Entrepreneurs share a real passion for what they are trying to achieve and are highly inspirational. Through purposeful networking (though in some cases accidental) they develop appropriate networks to establish useful business relationships. They are skilled at creating partnerships. And are highly skilled at negotiating, generating sales and building strong commercial partnerships.

Building Capability is concerned with focusing efforts on building the capacity of the business or organisation.  This entails  building up the  team by coordinating and motivating the right people, experiential learning through pragmatic experimentation and experience  and staying on track through investing effort into maintaining performance and Kaisen, continuous improvement.

In so doing adversity and failure become learning experiences, setbacks  that shape their success as opposed to in the corporate business world where failure is the career ‘kiss of death’. In summary success does not come overnight,  personal sacrifices have to be made, investment is essential, and performance must be coached, managed, and improved. As Arsène Wenger, Arsenal  football manager highlighted after watching a poor English performance “Very  good players without a very good coach doesn’t work and a very good coach without very good players doesn’t work, either.” It’s rare to have one without the other.

Seven Lessons from  Head Coaches

Sports as a metaphor for business can be overplayed if taken to the extreme. Though sport nowadays is a business some limitations have to be acknowledged..-The corporate world is certainly more complex and culturally diverse. Nonetheless the World of Sports at elite level as a distinctly passionate people business that runs on talent has much to offer. More evident than any other business, every success is an outcome of processes that deliver unequivocal results, every week. The scoreboard is out there in real time for all to see, and you are only as good as your last performance, front line players and pipeline or as the analogy they use’ ‘conveyor belt’ of talent. If teams cannot move on from poor performance, the Head Coach will be moved out and the team relegated. Professional Sport has as many performance metrics and KPI’s as most businesses. ……only they can’t be creatively or otherwise fudged. They work in real time.

Kevin Roberts, CEO worldwide of Saatchi & Saatchi, a keen fan of the sports who has researched Peak Performance believes inspiration eclipses both management and leadership. “In business and in life it is inspiration that gets you to peak performance,” he says. “It is inspiration that keeps you there.” In the world of sports this inspiration is provided by the Head Coach or Performance Directors. These people have that Jack Welch (who acknowledges the debt to sport for giving him self-confidence  and  desire to compete) winning attitude in creating change, delivering results and maximising talent. Putting it simply to paraphrase the CEO of US rugby Nigel Melville, smart athletes need smarter coaches. Head coaches have full commitment to the role. You’ve seen it in some CEO’s – a never-ending, consuming interest in their business, which can wear out even the most dedicated subordinate. They have a driving ambition and an enterprising dynamism that places them in the top one or two per cent of the population in these characteristics. Accompanying this drive, there is less than average empathy. They are not particularly attentive or receptive to others’ ideas and feedback. They are not that tolerant of those who don’t match up to their standards. They have a ‛win at all costs’ mentality. This inner strength enables them to manage and gain commitment and respect from  highly focused sports stars, who would walk all over weaker people. Like top entrepreneurs they also sail close to the wind. They have to test rules to the limit in search of that extra margin. If they don’t, their competitors will. The question is not just about winning. These people dare to dream and inspire others in achieving their dreams. Their outlook is neatly captured by Bill Sweetenham, Australian Coach responsible for transforming Britain’s swimming: ‘The greatest fear I have when I coach an athlete is that one day they will look back and think: I could have done better.”.

Lesson One: Do the Basics Brilliantly

It’s obvious but it’s often overlooked. Coaches nowadays work in cooperation with a range of sports science experts in biomechanics, performance psychology, physiology and sports medicine.  Yet what is common across all sports is that as Sweetenham summarises ’ the basics  must be taught exceptionally well, in preference to exceptional skills basically well. He believes you should never put skill acquisition ahead of skill perfection. ‘’If you move on all the time you will end up with an athlete with a lot of poor skills instead of an athlete with a few great skills.” In business  Neil Rackham, the guru of sales training makes a similar point when it came to advanced sales training. In his experience the most effective and experienced sales people and managers would always prefer to go back to review  the basics of  their questioning,  listening, interactive and negotiating skills. Similarly Floyd Woodrow (Coach to Olympic Athletes and top CEOs) who at one time was responsible for one of the world’s most exhaustive selection processes at the SAS emphasises   ‘When we talk about basics we must then identify what they actually are. I sometimes hear “I just do the basics well” from top professionals but they can’t articulate what the basics are. It is the same in the business world: what are the basic elements you need to do as an individual, team or organisation to ensure that you are competitive? Please believe me when I say that success has a strategy and failure is not an accident. If I ever see a sportsperson or business person in difficulty it is because they are not doing basic things well.’

What are the basics of Talent Management in your organisation and are you getting the most out of who you’ve already got? Why not?

Lesson two: the Need for  Self-belief.

Sports is a paragon of virtue when it comes to self-belief. It would be fair to say that sometimes the plans we make in business are not all based on the facts, but to a degree self-delusion and  wishful thinking  are baked into them… this is not always bad. David Kirk (ex-All Black captain, once a Coach and a Captain of industry CEO in Australia ) says, ’from time to time, the level of self-belief the Springboks (South Africans if you don’t know Rugby!) have flies in the face of the facts, but that’s what makes it such a valuable attribute. If you believe, regardless of the evidence, that you are good enough to win, then you will win.’  Wenger, summarises the galvanising effect of self–belief for top talent : “All great successes, all great lives, have involved the coincidence of aptitude, talent, but also the luck of meeting people who have believed in you. At some point in your life, you need someone who will tap you on your shoulder and say, I believe in you’’.  One immediate insight is that CEO’s need a boost of sporting self-belief, will to win and ability to redefine the Talent Management game. CEOs it appears according to some studies, are worrying about the  ‘War for Talent’.  As an example more recently the World Economic Forum, committed to improving the state of the world, as a harbinger of an impending talent crisis has highlighted a gloom and doom scenario associated with talent mobility.

What sports organisation, performance director, entrepreneur or coach would tolerate such myopic and generic negativity from the consultancy demons? None.  Would Head Coaches with their entrepreneurial orientation  turn the situation round to their advantage and make their company or club an attractive one to join?  Yes. They might even  take a  serious ‘Moneyballs’ or ‘Wengerballs’ approach to Talent Management. They would consider  ‘ talent swapping’, and  externally seek out a “superior” player in a key position to replace a struggling player. Alternatively they could like Manchester City loan out some of their players. Others might excel with ‘misfits’ and ‘cast-offs’ and take risks on ‘unproven but promising talent.’ They’d set up innovative academies, their scouts would be sent to far flung parts of the globe in search of Talent.

What is the game you are playing? Redefine your own game-plan and strategy relative to the dynamics of your industry on your terms. Look at what your competitors are doing. Look at what the best in the world are doing. Critique what you are doing. Do it better, do it differently, play your own game and believe in your people, always.

Lesson three: Thrive on Change- relish Uncertainty

First and foremost thriving on change, relishing not just coping with uncertainty is critical. Those who prefer predictability and ‘more of the same’ don’t last long as Head Coaches. As with others who “carry the can”, effective Head Coaches have a capacity to deal with uncertainty and change without passing it onto their players. They see opportunity where others see problems (even if they see the problems, too) – so a losing streak can be turned to advantage, for example. It becomes an opportunity to strengthen the squad, to change tactics, to renegotiate a budget. They compare favourably to CEOs and Sales Managers who are at their best when in a crisis – and who use crises to bring about change. Head Coaches do the same. A losing streak is a crisis, and Head Coaches use such a circumstance as an opportunity to reinvent the team. New strategy, new tactics or new players – whatever it takes to win.

What’s the  track record, strengths and weaknesses  of your Talent Management squad and back up team in assessing and developing Talent? Where is the real or constructed crisis?

Lesson Four: Set the Direction –Force the pace

In our profiling of Head Coaches, we have found them like those they coach to be highly “strategic” – more so even than CEOs. The difference is they set the direction for their organisations and drive everyone towards it. This direction becomes shared and underpins all the operations. The team is all. Head Coaches can capture and hold onto the bigger picture and the longer term perspective while managing to focus on the tactics to win a particular game.  They can set the direction as well as, not at the expense of forcing the pace. When they are winning today they are planning how to win tomorrow. As an example Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester United coach at 69 (and that reinforces a finding is that genuine talent doesn’t fade away with age)  doesn’t just pay lip service to youth development and overall continuity. A master of ‘refreshing’ his team season after season, Ferguson continually adds to and subtracts from his squad players of a remarkable calibre. Mediocre people by contrast hire in their own self-image or compromise. Elite athletes too know that you only improve by playing against superior players. The best Head Coaches consequently  challenge players to perform. They are both Talent Magnates and Talent Magnets. – they have a deep and intimate  knowledge of talent in their territory without the need to resort to technology. People want to work for them because of their reputation. They know when to hire young talent, how to attract and justify game-changers, when to  retire fading talent, when down but not out talent has a value, and  how to use  talent on it’s last legs. They take players out of their comfort zone.

What’s the talent proposition of your top team? How many have Talent Magnate and Magnets have you in your organisation? Do you rely on Talent Scouts or  conventional Headhunters?

Lesson Five: absorb pressure-deliver results

Time is at a premium in business. It’s the same in any professional sport. The down-time between games or events to remedy tactical weaknesses, to build skills in players and to examine the strengths and weaknesses of the next opponents is incredibly tight. It is akin to a crisis in business, only one that goes on week after week. The short term can become the master of the strategic and whoever said that the long term is only a number of short terms added together looks more and more insightful than ever. It falls to the Head Coach to build an organization for the future while managing the pressure to achieve results in the short term.

And, in sports, results are very black and white. With few games or events  drawn,  team  or individuals either win or lose—so the gong or gun barrel of success and failure stare the Head Coach in the eyes each and every week. It explains why, in post-match reviews or interviews, every Head Coach looks for something to build on from even the most humiliating defeat. The pressure of the media adds to the already highly charged atmosphere.. Few businessman run the risk of having performance analyzed by the public, pundits, peers or occasionally players in such a critical fashion. Successful Head  Coaches must manage the pressure of today’s game, and do so without passing it onto the players. To deal with this, Head Coaches, by and large, are highly self-assured and self-determining. They are their own people. Many of them operate like Fabio Capello, current England Soccer Manager, with a strong right hand man, or trusted colleagues whom they use to manage the stress.

In other words smart Head Coaches do not purport to be (even though they might be made out to be) messiahs who single-handedly transform the fortunes of the organization. They come in pairs or trios who trust each other and collaborate through in some examples ‘creative abrasion’. Above all Head Coaches and their team have to be honest when they review performance.

How realis the pressure those responsible for Talent Management face? Who are the inner Talent Management Circle-those that care with a passion? How is Talent Management evaluated? Who pays the price for ineffective Talent Management?

Lesson six:  inculcate by example a personal Improvement orientation

At a personal level Head Coaches are improvement oriented for themselves and their team. They review to improve. Sport is coach driven. There is no room for a coach who believes they know it all or have seen it all before. Top coaches are driven to look for answers that point their team upwards as far as expectations of excellence are concerned. As individuals they are always reviewing what they are doing because they are always trying to figure out ways of improving themselves, the team or the organization. Some Coaches characterize this as a quest. Even if things are going well there are still things you need to learn about. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Complacency is not intheir vocabulary.

If you want to change your game, you need people who will change and raise  their game. How convinced are you with your heart that the talent you are recruiting is exceptional and will add value to your work community and organisation?

Lesson seven: be meticulous when it matters and honest about performance

As for Head Coaches having obsessional attention to detail, some are hailed as scientific in approach and many, but not all, appear to be as technocratic as American Football Coaches in relying on analytics. What they have in common is a systematic management process that is ‘meticulous when it matters.’ Most Head Coaches catch the right detail, rather than get caught up in detail, they pay attention to detail others don’t consider. In summary they think and act strategically but as noted earlier  build it on the basics that  are continuously drilled in as a starting point for success. They have what used to be called helicopter vision. When it’s important they can and will unrelentingly  and unambiguously zero in on the detail.

What would Head Coaches think of your top talent if they reviewed replays of them in customer or internal meetings?  Would a replay of a board meeting be as cringeworthy of The Office? If a reality TV programme were to follow preparation for an Operations Review what would that say about the extent to which excuses were made for poor performance?  If networking really is key to individual  success in  your business when was the last time any social networking analysis was undertaken of pivotal players in your organisation? When was the last time your top account managers had basic sales training and video analysis of their performance?


A major contribution from learning about Head Coaches, and those in elite sports, is how passion and raw talent are harnessed so that people fulfil their dreams and potential. This environment has strong parallels to the business world of the future characterized by John Seely Brown and former Mckinsey Consultant, John Hagel as one based on productive friction and dynamic specialization where people make their passions their professions.

The  initial research outlined here  supports their thesis that ‘the people that continue to achieve new levels of performance within a particular domain demonstrate a remarkable ability.’ As they note about extreme athletes, ‘they are constantly probing beyond current levels of performance but they deeply understand existing limits for themselves and those they collaborate with. It is precisely this careful balancing act that enables them to take appropriate risks (the benefit of low compliance) and successfully discover new approaches that define new levels of performance.’ As they say, ‘by making the most of what they have, they are constantly striving to find ways to reach new levels of performance.’ And as they highlight,’ isn’t this precisely the definition of success in a world of mounting performance pressure – making the fullest possible use of the resources available to us while never accepting the limits imposed by those resources?’

Effective Head Coaches and elite sports stars adapt to new  rules, the interpretation of’ the rules of the game,’ or become footnotes in sporting history. Unless businesses underpin their Talent Management approach with people of similar dispositions and high expectations   they will become also-rans. As Ken Read the Canadian skier behind their successful On the podium strategy at Vancouver observes  “To become a winner in high performance sport, it takes an all-consuming, relentless effort − the real task being to be the best we can be.”



Thanks to Professor Peter Saville and Tom Hopton of Saville Consulting, with whom I collaborated on their book Talent: Psychologists Personality Test Elite People, as well as Bob Wilson and the Willow Foundation for inspiring the research in support of their charity

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