Hitting the target: Leadership Lessons from Team GB

What can we learn from Britain’s sporting success?
Team GB

Mezzana Partner have supported athletes and coaches at 15 Olympic and Paralympic Games since 1992. We’ve worked with Team GB, UK Sport and a host of Olympic and Paralympic sports including canoeing, hockey, archery, rowing and wheelchair basketball so we have a first-hand experience of what works.

Here are the insights we think you can most readily apply to leadership and the world of work:

Be clear about your strategy and don’t try to please everyone

UK Sport’s strategy is clearly focused on success at the Olympic and Paralympic Games. This approach means that some sports like basketball and volleyball don’t receive elite level funding because they are unlikely to win medals, despite their popularity and high levels of participation. Some see this approach as ruthless or short-sighted, but the evidence is that it’s contributed to GB winning more medals at each of the last five Olympic Games, and winning more medals in more events than any other country in Rio 2016.

The implication for leaders?

You need to be clear about your strategy and realize that it won’t please everyone. There will be critics, and some may have valid alternatives. But you need to have the courage to commit, as well as staying honest about the evidence for your strategy’s success.

Here’s a view from outside Britain link >

Think about how you will get the results you want

Some argue that it’s just about the money. It’s true that Team GB is well funded, and one estimate put the cost of each British Olympic medal at £5.5 million. That’s more than Canada (£3 million per medal) but much less than Australia (about £9 million per medal). It’s important to understand how the money is allocated. UK Sport invests money from the National Lottery on the basis of its Mission programme, which Jonathan helped develop and implement back in 2005. This holistic framework makes sure the sports focus on long-term athlete development, on ensuring there are robust systems, and on developing a performance-focused climate. Funding is tied to a sport’s ability to demonstrate that it has the right processes in place to deliver the outcomes it wants.

The implication for leaders?

You’ve got to think holistically about your enterprise. “Soft stuff” like culture, stakeholder relationships and attitude are just as important as having the right hardware. Be clear about the ‘how’, not just the ‘what.’

Here’s a great summary of what else besides money makes the difference for Team GB  link >

Step back and ask “what else?”

Everything we’ve described here about Britain’s sporting success is bounded by an assumption that national sporting success is important. Many don’t agree with this assumption and criticize the cost of the Olympics and Paralympics, especially for cities like Rio that suffer from huge social inequalities and economic recession. It’s certainly an uncomfortable juxtaposition to consider Rio’s sprawling favelas as the backdrop to people obsessing over lap times around an athletic track.

We’ll leave it to you to form your own view on the merit of elite sport, and focus instead on the strategic principle of stepping back and asking the question ‘what else could we do, and are we in the right business?’ This is perhaps the most important leadership insight of all, because without it you may find yourself running very fast but in the wrong direction.

Here’s one answer from Australia, considering investment in arts and literature instead of sport link >

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