Two part blog

I have just recently read an article on Yuri Gagarin the first cosmonaut in space. It outlined his bravery in being the first man into space and also that he wrote a “last letter” to his wife before he took off. His letter explained the following: He asked Valentina his wife “to not raise their daughter’s as little princesses but as real people, and to feel free to remarry if his mission proved fatal, “my letter seems like a final will but I don’t think so I hope you will never see this letter and I feel shame later for a moment of weakness”.

I was taken back to a moment in time when the team I was with were asked if they wanted to write a last letter to their wives, girlfriends, parents etc. It was a stark reminder of the potential consequences of the task ahead. I remember one of my friends telling me that the first time he was in combat it was an adventure but this time he was a little more nervous. He asked me if I was going to write a letter. I said no I am not going to as I have said everything I need to and this is a distraction which I believed at the time and still do. It means for me that it is even more important to tell people what you think when you can because sometimes you may not have the opportunity to write them a letter.

On that more sombre note I read an excellent article in Sunday times about a journalist who was injured in a horse riding accident. Her determination to walk again is exceptional, a powerful story of inner belief and wanting to be around positive people who give energy rather than take it away. It is always a good thing/way to start the day by asking the team that you have around you. “Are you and energy giver or taker, what do you bring to the team that is going to enable us to solve problems today? That does not mean that you can’t point out problem areas, it means that you are looking to solve/mitigate those problems areas and concentrate on winning.

My daughter who is studying sports coaching and development is currently undertaking a study on mental toughness. She is going to visit the Special Air Service to look at the recovery of individuals who are injured. What she will find is that the problem with the vast majority of people who are injured as soldiers is stopping them from recovering too soon. The majority want to come back to work in the shortest possible time frame and accelerate their recovery due to the positivity of their minds and the culture that surrounds them.

I am currently in the executive lounge in Abu Dhabi having breakfast and being very well taken care of. I am waiting for a VIP to arrive and I am going to look after him here and in a number of other locations in the Middle East. I would not normally undertake this type of task and it has been awhile since I last conducted one but it has been fun to dust of certain tactics and procedures and refresh some basic skills. The last two weeks have been like a training camp and I am training very hard, no alcohol, eating well. I think I will ensure that every few months I undergo this type of training regime. I almost wrote if time permits, when the real truth will always be if I am determined enough to commit to it.

My youngest daughter is going on a sailing adventure shortly, working with tall ships for her D of E awards. I am inspired by both of my daughter’s ability to find time to work and play hard. Each doing it in their own inimitable way and both being successful at it. It is so important to spend a little bit of time in the NOW and enjoy the things around you.

As some of you no doubt know Richard Cross and I have debated the subject of mental toughness and elite performance in previous blogs and had a day together a couple of weeks ago discussing different ways of identifying strengths and weaknesses in those who wish to perform at a high level.

This will be a two part blog Analysing Elite Performance- One Fine Hereford debrief of a day by Richard Cross Returning to my roots as a behavioural scientist the other week I had a splendid and searching debrief at Chrysalis worldwide’s Hereford base. There I basically interrogated Floyd using the Repertory Grid Technique. En route I reflected on the initial notes on elite leadership forwarded in advance. Specifically I recalled my own start point when I’d first met Floyd. It was the autumn of 2008. Earlier that Olympic summer I’d been trained by Matt Beechey, a world champion rower who had just missed out on Beijing. It was epic training, and recovering from a fairly serious pituitary tumour operation the previous year I’d soared in weight. When I started I couldn’t run on a treadmill or row more than 1000 metres and through a combination of motivation, respect and the energising quality of a champion I managed to start the first steps on the road to recovery. Through conversation Matt suggested I meet Floyd and with the structured serendipity of an intermediary Jezz Moore at Leander we met up and I profiled Floyd for the research I was undertaking on Talent. I’ve mentioned before- the work for the Willow Foundation and if anyone wants to see an elite performer in action take a look at Bob Wilson. Nearly 70 he’s about to cycle to each of the 20 Premier League clubs plus Scotland’s Hampden. Looking back since then what I have most appreciated is Matt’s role in toughening me up and getting me back in shape. What a great sport. Back to our less esoteric research – here’s a hint of some of the areas we discussed and I have contextualised our discussions into the emerging framework Floyd uses to identify elite performance.


It’s always good before starting on a journey to take stock and ask some fundamentals or basic questions. The first I noted on a slide of Floyd’s was ‘Who am I? ‘Now this sounds existential but it’s worth asking. I recall George Kelly founder of the repertory grid who said back in the 1950’s. ‘You are not the victim of your autobiography though you may enslave yourself by adhering to an unalterable view of what it means thereby you may fixate on your present.’ Added to that it prompted me to recall how back in the 90’s I was involved in researching and evaluating World Class Companies. As I mentioned in a previous post we added four key questions for anyone wanting to understand the secrets of continuous and breakthrough improvement. These were 1. What do I do? (Closely related to identity of course) 2. How do I do it?( well if we had it documented we would know) 3 How well do I do it? (All adjectives were deployed here) And the finale (which with its requirement for benchmarking blew most people and organisations out of the water) 4. How well do I do it against the best? To my mind at least responding to these questions reinforces the point that much as we might want to believe in the genius of success or a fixed notion of talent; in order to be world class as an individual or organisation there is a prerequisite for core processes to deliver continuous and breakthrough improvement. The fundamentals or basics must be in place.. Working with Roger Sugden one of the country’s leading behavioural psychologists who had served his apprenticeship working for Neil Rackham the Professor of Professional Selling and observing elite performance in sales we were both continually amazed by how many companies wanted to run before they could walk. Rather than put in the hard yards of robust and sustainable processes they wanted to force fit trendy techniques such as the balanced score card or a Japanese technique of Policy deployment used by Sony and others called in Japanese Hoshin Kanri. So in other words at an organisational level as well as individual level the best in the world do the basics brilliantly. They still do. Whilst I did six sigma twenty years ago my experience has always been that it’s easy to measure the wrong thing and basic processes are often those that are taken for granted. We forget that underpinning Practice there is always Process of some sorts ….and processes can always be improved if you really, really want to put the hard ‘mapping yards and measurement in’. Granted it’s not exciting, it’s essential. What follows then are some of notes from our discussion, well my grilling of Floyd and our initial analysis of the data so far on the ‘basics of elite performance.’

They’ve been grouped in four steps as identified and summarised by Floyd for a recent presentation. STEP ONE: THE START POINT The START POINT – where else! This covers the Context- an individual’s Experience & Expertise they’re ‘proven’ (or not) track record and how Competent they are both technically and tactically. It examines how healthy they are. It examines their Connections (What was it E.M.Forster wrote in Howard’s end- only connect)– and an individual’s reputation. There’s a Russian saying ‘tell me who’s your friend and I’ll tell you who you are.’ And working with a company called Trampoline systems who apply science and complex algorithms to social networks I was once able to develop a remarkably accurate picture of key influencers in an organisation. Rob Cross is another pioneer who shows how “Informal social networks are the hidden source of power and influence and the real pathways for getting things done in any organization.’ Avid readers of the blog might also recall we discussed the magic of mentors in a previous post. I’m still getting back in touch with my first fifteen and it’s a great idea! Intriguingly I’m also finding the idea of reverse mentoring (have a younger mentor) as useful to give up the safe space we’re used to in order to move beyond our comfort zone. This area also addresses an individual’s historical and preferred Culture as well as their Ethos particularly their attitude to Risk and Learning. Here I recall the post ‘reframing failure and success’ There Floyd discussed how he has seen many talented people get to the top of their profession without ever committing to risk in any way. ‘They carefully maintain the status quo, align with the correct people and achieve in some cases high status. This type of person is needed within companies alongside the intuition of the entrepreneur to maintain stability. They will though limit themselves by not experiencing what it is to be in the pressure zone, they will never fully achieve their potential nor will the company they serve.’ I have got plenty of first hand high ammunition and examples of that one that I could write a case study! We also discussed how failing was often a prerequisite to learning. Part of the start point is an individual’s Mental Resilience – how does their mind cope under pressure. Included as well is the alignment of their Communications Style. Here we need to go beyond a focus on individuals to realise that value is created or nullified in our interactions with others. It is dependent on how an individual understands others, fits in with teams, organisations and stakeholders. A well-oiled machine is frictionless. But from my association with some of the world’s top researchers at Palo Alto an awful lot of the fun that leads to new ideas lies in creative abrasion and friendly collision rather than collusion. An individual’s success comes from an organic life, not a well-oiled machine. Like it or not the need for networking and political skills is key to effectiveness in most areas of life.

STEP TWO: THE VISION The Need for a North star We all need a North Star! As Floyd emphasises,’ what’s required is a clear and unambiguous statement of intent so that you can see and describe and know when you have arrived.’ Aligning and engaging with others is key: It’s no use having the Ledru Rollin approach. As leader of the 1848 revolution he was supposed to say when he saw the mob ‘ Eh! Je suis leur chef, il fallait bien les suivre. ‘ (Ah well! I am their leader, I really ought to follow them.) Our research shows that even though they may not be captains of their teams or individual performers world champions are reliant on a number of others. They must be leaders. On any quest you need to take individuals, teams and organisations with you. Pushing a boulder up a hill like the mythical character Sisyphus is hard work and there’s always a risk that at the point of your success it falls back down on you. What’s essential too is Courage. Hard leadership decisions must be made to achieve a vision. The ability to adapt, direct, organise through adversity and continue to lead others is essential at an elite level. Remember the origins of the word if you studied Latin come from cor, the heart a common metaphor for inner strength. .And if you remember your French it encompasses heart and spirit. In that sense courage can be about asking that tough question: ‘Am I being true to who I am?’ It can also be at a certain point trusting your instincts and stepping up to that next level. There’s another quality linked to courage best exemplified by heroic Polar explorer Shackleton. As he defined it ‘ Optimism is high moral courage.’ In that sense underlying courage is optimism that allows a person to dream an impossible dream or to pursue an improbable goal. It involves a willingness and determination to deal with great difficulties and radiate confidence. For example one of the themes in the surviving diaries kept by several men during the Endurance expedition was the remarkable constancy of Shackleton’s positive outlook and the courage and strength which his men drew from it. These men wanted to follow Shackleton because he lived the words? As expert Warren Bennis has noted ‘all exemplary leaders are purveyors of hope and optimism.’

STEP THREE: LIVING IN THE PRESSURE ZONE OPERATING IN THE ARENA However elite leaders need to be more than ‘dealers in hope’ to survive the pressure zone and operate in the arena. They must be Analytical and Rational. Solid foundations are essential. To build these foundations an analytical and rational perspective is required combining intellectual rigour and awareness and providing for contingency As General Moltke said no plan survives engagement with the enemy. This requires Flexiblity Simply because no plan survives the enemy you need to be able to respond to the needs and urgency of a given situation or crisis point at the appropriate level. This needs Intuitive and Insightful Judgement. For a crisis in ‘the fog of war’ you need to rely on an intuitive approach. There is no time to look at the manual or rule book. Besides there’s nothing in the rule book that probably corresponds to the situation you are confronting! As the saying go’s necessity is the mother of invention so you need to be Inventive. Furthermore you can’t neglect the hallmark of superior performance be you musician, athlete or entrepreneur you must be adept at Staying in the Flow- keeping focussed when it matters the most.

STEP FOUR: COMMITMENT It’s fine to theorise but action and deeds are the test This takes us to Taking Action. What you say feel, think and do are the same thing. We all know in the business world when actions don’t match words or people ’ don’t ‘walk the talk’ to quote Carl Weick. It leads to inertia and BOHICA (Bend over here it comes again) another fad or initiative to torment the workforce. Change is rarely easy as the French proverb says, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Generally change succeeds in a crisis where it’s adapt or die – in which case people need Supporting. Providing support and development for all team members, empowering, involving, principled, challenging. It’s about creating a mutually challenging of authentic dialogue rather than happy families environment. Well that’s my interpretation. If we could change when we had control that would be a special place to be, constantly evolving keeping ahead of the competition, nature is very unfair to those that do not evolve. It is not the strongest or fastest that survive but the most flexible.


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