The warrior spirit

A fantastic couple of weeks of learning and working with some very talented sportsmen/women and coaches alongside captains of industry.

I continue to learn many things, much of which I wish that I had been exposed to at a much earlier age.

Over the last week I have worked alongside the England under 17 Cricket team. They have been a revelation in how young people are able to achieve the highest standards of performance not only in their skill/technique and tactics but also in learning how to help one another, give and receive honest feedback, push themselves mentally, physically and achieve their goals.  I watched everyone one of them go beyond what they believed was possible and come out smiling at the other end.

The week has been inspirational and hugely motivating for me. The dedication of the coaches I have been working with has been exceptional and forces you to raise your own game.  It is rare that I am in an environment which has all the elements required for elite performance across the board.

The camp was broken down into two phases. Each phase although different in content follows a similar sequence, that of two days of skills training, one day of pressure training and then a day of testing.  This theme of training has been a constant throughout all of the teaching I have done over the last 25 yrs.  You must enable people to have a basic skill level and tactical understanding of the skill that you expect them to perform under pressure (skill training where you can make as many mistakes as you require to learn); you must then enable them to understand that skill in difficult circumstances so that they get to hone that skill and tactical knowledge even better (pressure training where the skill is put into practice).  They are then tested in a situation as close to the real thing as possible (testing).  If possible we have made the training they undergo more difficult than the real thing.

As an example to the dedication of these young men I have seen a number push themselves to the edge mentally, physically and not cut corners or give in. I have seen two of them have nosebleeds in a session and refuse to come off until they have finished the session.  I have watched them undertake tests where they need to make a run on the last ball, hit the stumps or take a wicket and step up and do so.  I have watched them face 90 miles an hour balls, be hit and step up to take the next ball without out murmur.  A remarkable week.

I have also done some work recently with some professional rugby teams and I met an international rugby coach who exceeded my expectations, which were high in the first place.  One aspect of my work with all the teams I come across is that we have to get players in any sport to take responsibility for their actions/behaviors on the pitch.  If this is done well the team will have real leadership which I feel will in turn assist the team to stick to a game plan or adapt as necessary to the game situation they are in.  PLAYER ACCOUNTABILITY

Sad to see Johnny Wilkinson leave international rugby, he is undoubtedly one of the most professional athletes in the World. An individual that truly pushed himself mentally and physically to attain the highest standards.  I admire his ability to stay focused despite the injuries he sustained and media pressure.  I am disappointed he was not able to finish his career with a flourish at the World cup.  Please read below one of his statements of intent.

  1. Today you must do more than is required of you.
  2. Never think you have done enough or that your job is finished.
  3. There is always something that can be done. Something that can help to ensure victory.
  4. You can’t let others be responsible for getting you started.
  5. You must be a self-starter.
  6. You must process that spark or individual initiative that sets the leader apart from the led.
  7. Self-motivation is the key to being one step ahead of everyone else and standing head and shoulders above the crowd.
  8. Once you get going don’t stop.
  9. Always be on the look out for the chance to do something better.
  10. Never stop trying.
  11. Fill yourself with the warrior spirit and send that warrior into action.

The commercial leadership work has been very interesting.  The need for resilient leadership next year will be significant.   The crisis in the financial sectors has not really been understood and I think that a number of leaders will need to be extremely resilient not just now but for the foreseeable future.  They will also need to ensure that their teams are also resilient.

My last day of work this year now finds me at a football club to watch the training and speak to a few players.  Both of the young footballers I currently coach have been given contracts, one of which fly’s to Spain to start what will be a promising career.

I have just finished working with the club, head coach and Chief Executive, it was so refreshing to see a football team that has all of the building blocks in place, honesty to assess their current situation and know that they have the potential to move up to the next division if they tweak a few elements.

Next year starts with a bang, I am off to Bangladesh and India with the under 19 and the under 17 cricket teams respectively.  It will be great to see them deal with difficult conditions and a tough environment.  Following those visits, I will be back to the Middle East for some work with Britam.

The launch of BRS – Britam Recruitment Services will take place on the first of Jan.  We hope to run the first courses in Feb to assist people to move into second careers and I have already been involved in getting people into placements in commercial businesses rather than the normal security roles.

I have also been involved in assisting people to prepare for various interviews of late and it is so pleasing to see them realise that they actually have all of the tools and skills necessary to get these demanding commercial roles.  Have a wonderful Christmas and New Year:  Excellence is not a single act

One thought on “The warrior spirit

  1. Floyd, Many thanks for your other blogs over the course of 2011. As much of my time over the past 6-8 months has been spent working in far-flung places such as Algeria, KL and North Dakota your blogs have always been well received not only as a source of inspiration but also as a reminder of home with your references to English cricket, rugby etc.

    I recently came across the following article by Mark de Rond who studies people by living with them under the same conditions – trying to understand how and why their world makes sense (to them). His research described below focused specifically on the experience of being human in high-performance environments. His time spent with Cambridge University boat crew provides insights into the challenges of creating an elite team from a group of elite individuals.

    Have a very Merry Christmas and wonderful New Year.

    The Relevance of Rowing for Business, Mark de Rond
    Professional Manager, Volume 17, Issue 5, September 2008

    The celebrated Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race is both a public spectacle and a long-standing trial of strength between two rival universities. Over a quarter of a million spectators watch the race from the banks of the Thames, while a guestimated 120 million TV viewers follow the twists and turns, triumphs and tragedies of this private match, held each year between late March and early April. The first Oxbridge race took place in 1829 and, with the exception of the first and second World War years, the race has been held continuously since 1856.

    It is on that four mile and 374 yard length of tidal river, between Putney and Mortlake, that the outer limits of human performance are explored, where two student crews row alongside each other until one of them decides it can no longer win. It is the ultimate varsity race.

    What is the enduring appeal of this extreme sporting challenge? Is it that the protagonists represent two of the world’s oldest and grandest institutions – the intellectual homes of Nobel laureates, philosophers, mathematicians and politicians? Is it the secrecy surrounding crew selection and race preparation? Or is the enduring appeal of this British sporting institution due to the sharp contrasts it throws up: at once passionately amateur and yet holding to professional standards, exhibiting mutual respect yet intense rivalry too, where it’s all about taking part but where the pain of losing is both physical and mental, and laid bare for all to see?

    Comparisons

    Differences between Cambridge University rowing and business are easy to spot. Not all teams have as clear and unchangeable an objective as the Cambridge University Boat Club (CUBC). Founded in 1828, it exists for one reason only: to defeat Oxford in the annual Boat Race. Moreover, not all business teams can cherry-pick their membership. CUBC begins its season with around 40 keen athletes, from which it needs to select one crew of eight, plus a coxswain. Also, physical training has a degree of transparency not often found in business. Whereas everyone involved can see what weights you are lifting and how fast you are on a rowing machine, in typical business teams it is rather more difficult to isolate individual contributions.

    Nevertheless, rowing contains some surprising similarities. Firstly, it requires a superb sense of coordination – something that remains relevant irrespective of whether you are doing the same thing (as in rowing) or are engaged in different, but complementary, activities. If, for example, the success of one’s work depends upon the input of others (as it so often does), the better coordinated the team is, the more efficient and successful it should be.

    Secondly, Cambridge oarsmen – just like members of business team – are intelligent individuals, impatient of jargon or ‘management speak’. They easily see through any attempt at manipulation. Thirdly, rowing is an environment in which cooperation and competition co-exist in a necessary but socially often awkward relationship.

    And, finally, rowing crews and business teams alike suffer from the Ringelmann Effect. Based on a set of experiments conducted in the 1880s and 1970s, Ringelmann and subsequent researchers discovered the inverse relationship between team size and individual effort due to a combination of increased coordination costs and social loafing. In other words, as more and more individuals are added to a team, the contribution of each individual team member decreases as they find it increasingly more difficult to coordinate their efforts with others and easier to get away with suboptimal performance.

    Six parallels

    But there may be further parallels between crews and teams. Here are six that we think are most relevant to the workplace:

    1. What makes them good makes them difficult too. Cambridge oarsmen express individuality in wishing to remain on the coaches’ radar screens but togetherness in building team spirit. They are strong-minded yet rife with self-doubt, masculine yet unafraid of male intimacy, extraordinary in some ways yet so very ordinary in others too, ever prey to thinking that they can do always what they can do sometimes. For what makes them good makes them difficult: they are smart, which makes them have near-perfect faith in their intuitions; they are quick thinkers, meaning that they can be bad listeners; they are intolerant of failure, theirs as well as that of everyone else; they take an extraordinary level of performance as given; they will rarely admit to being wrong, and have little idea of the sort of impact their attitude has on others. As with most generalizations there are many exceptions to this characterization. But by and large Cambridge rowers are alphas, painstakingly cultivated yet a raw and instinctive cast of alpha males in a Dead Poets Society world.

    How then do you craft a high performance team from a dysfunctional group of high performing individuals? It’s never going to be easy, though the following suggestions may help: don’t fall into the trap of cow-towing to these individuals (after all, everyone else does); confront them, if need be, with concrete examples or ‘hard’ data on their performance; be patient and empathetic as they argue their case (which may include blaming circumstances, or others, for their failure to perform), but be resolute. Remind them regularly of why this team exists and what you expect of them in very specific terms.

    2. To collaborate effectively may require you to give up what you know has worked for you in the past. As with many organisations, the Cambridge squad is composed of various nationalities. This is relevant to the extent that rowing styles differ across the globe – from Canada to the US and Germany to Great Britain. These differences can be slight but, given the degree of coordination required in a crew, important. What this effectively means is that one is asking decorated oarsmen to give up a technique they know made them go fast in the past, and to adapt to that quintessential Cambridge style – something which takes some time getting used to. This can create much insecurity as rowers who might have been top dogs in their respective national squads are now slowing down their crews.

    3. High performance crews, like business teams, are often characterised by tensions. However awkward this may feel at times, it does not mean they are dysfunctional. Far from it. And here is why. In most teams competition and cooperation co-exist, as do trust and vigilance, control and autonomy, unilateral and democratic decision-making, confrontation and compromise. The only way for rowers to compete effectively for a seat in the Blue Boat (or the crew that races Oxford) is to cooperate seamlessly with the very same individuals they are competing with.

    Take the example of seat-racing as a selection tool. Here two crews of four race each other over a 1500 metre course. After finishing times are noted, two individuals (one from each crew) will swap places. The crews race each other again over the same course. Again, two individuals swap places after which the crews are raced once more. This process continues until the coaches are satisfied that they have been able to isolate the contributions of each rower to a crew. What this means, of course, is that oarsmen can only make their crews go fast by coordinating perfectly with those they were competing with only minutes ago. And what is true in rowing is often true in business too: competition must still weed out the inefficient and keep the fire at the heels of those involved. Yet cooperation is imperative to achieve organisational objectives. It too can improve efficiency in distributing information. Control likewise ensures efficiency even as autonomy may make organisations more creative. Trust is good but dangerous in the absence of vigilance. Thus these tensions must coexist. They are an ordinary characteristic of extraordinarily healthy teams, though sources of considerable anxiety.

    4. Conflict occurs even as people agree on what’s important and why, and try hard to coordinate their efforts with others. It sometimes takes the shape of disagreements on how particular goals are best achieved, or it results from simple misunderstandings. What is striking is the degree to which crew and team members alike often resort to questioning each other’s intentions when faced with conflict. Behavioural science suggests that this is partly because we tend to think that our views of the world are more common than they actually are, or that we often believe ourselves to have access to an objective reality that those around us, if only they were more rational or clairvoyant, would have too. And yet experience tells us there are few things more destructive or alienating than for one’s intentions to be called into question. Our work with the Cambridge squad suggests that reality is actually often more benign than they think it is, leaving them with few justifications for paranoia. Imagine how much more efficient organisations would be if only they were to accept that the intentions of others are more often good than bad?

    5. Individual performance is only ever meaningful in the context of a specific crew or team. What is interesting is the degree to which the performance of individual rowers can fluctuate depending on (i) who else they row with, and (ii) whether the seat they’ve been assigned caters to – or minimises – their self-concept. Some oarsmen, for example, dislike rowing with people they don’t rate, causing them to subtly under-perform. Or they fail to give their best if they feel undervalued by having been placed in, say, the middle section of the boat rather than the more technically demanding stern and bow sections.
    These issues raise dilemmas for coaches and managers alike. After all, should one cater to someone’s ego to get the best out of him or her? Can this be done successfully without setting a precedent? Or should one fight that ego in the interest of fairness to the rest of the group?

    6. Sometimes it makes sense to sacrifice technical ability to gain social skills in the interest of team performance.This would seem counter-intuitive in a sport as technically demanding as rowing. However, a socially gifted individual may help provide the glue to keep the crew together and thus minimise the Ringelmann Effect.

    For example, the 2007 Cambridge crew included one oarsman who was included in the crew not based on his individual technical skills but because he seemed able to get a higher level of performance out of the rest of the crew. His affable personality was able to defuse conflict and help the crew gel socially.

    There exists an interesting parallel of this in the management literature. In 2005, the Harvard Business Review carried an article provocatively entitled ‘Competent Jerks, Lovable Fools, and the Formation of Social Networks’. In it, the authors examined trade-off decisions made by managers when recruiting: does competence trump likeability, or vice versa? Unsurprisingly, most responded that it would be considered unprofessional not to hire the most competent for the job. However, in practice, managers more often sided with likeability as a criterion, suggesting that personal feelings play an important role in forming job-oriented relationships.

    Of course this tradeoff relationship is contextual. If one requires brain-surgery, one should care infinitely more about competence than likeability. And a team of only likeable individuals may get little accomplished. However, it might make sense occasionally to trade one technically competent individual for one that is socially more gifted (even if technically less competent) if that improves the cohesiveness of the team.

    Will social cohesiveness ensure team success? No it won’t. However, it will allow you to get the most out of each of the individuals involved – and that’s no mean feat.

    The process of training and selecting the teams that will compete in 2009 begins soon. They will face six months of intensive coaching to mould them into a winning crew with just one chance to get it right on the day. Luckily, business teams get more than one opportunity to show what they are made of and pull together to achieve success.

    (See also: http://sms.cam.ac.uk/media/537167 )

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