22nd Mar 2012
Ahead of Steve Backley's keynote speech at TrainingZone Live, we caught up with him and his business partner, fellow Olympian Roger Black to talk training, leadership and the upcoming games.
What are the main leadership lessons businesses can learn from the world of olympics?
SB: It’s a very open question - if I was forced to pick one, in my mind it is the clarity issue. I believe that none of us ever really have enough clarity as to what exactly it is that we're going in pursuit of. It’s that whole motivation thing. I tend to find myself talking about that more than any other of the traits that translate across from Olympic performance. Looking back into sport the people who are most successful are the ones who can stay focused making the decisions for the right reasons that are aligned to the outcomes that they are intending; that is the biggest challenge for us all because of the potential for distraction. Coming from sport to business where the business world is far less black and white, I feel there is an even greater need for creating that clarity, keep the vision communicated across the whole team and make sure that the efforts are aligned accordingly.
RB: Leadership is an interesting word isn't it? I think that if you look at leadership in business, you automatically think great leaders in industry, people like Richard Branson, and in sport you tend to think of captains and managers. There is a lot of leadership within a rugby or football team (well, maybe not England football), but it's very clear when there's leadership on the pitch. Athletics is quite different to that because you tend to deal with individuals who are doing different things, so the leadership in my sport tends to be in very small groups. I think ultimately for top performers, leadership is about accountability, ownership and taking responsibility.
What are the main team-building lessons businesses can learn from the world of olympics?
SB: It isn't that sport has all the answers, the point is that the way sport is presented, very inspirational and very easy to understand, gives us a context to discuss and it resonates more clearly - we can use it as a point of reference in a way that allows us to look at challenges back in the workplace and take them on board with a greater understanding. Quite often it's not about 'this is what we did and this how we did it', quite often it's the opposite, these are the mistakes we made, this is what we did about it. And we can use the world of Olympics to show that.
"The main lesson from sport is you have to sometimes suppress your individual needs to be part of a truly effective team" - Roger Black
RB: There is no doubt that team work is a huge part of Olympic performance and sporting performance. There are many facets to team work. I think there are a few big ones though; I think the main one in sport is that most Olympians have got quite big egos and that can be quite a challenge within the team. Most people have been the best throughout their whole lives and used to achieving, so a challenge is getting people together and as a team that can be a challenge. The team I was part of was very successful, and that was because we really were able to be part of a true team because we were able to put our egos to one side. It's a very difficult thing to do - the difference between a group of individuals coming together and being called and actually being a team is very different. So I think the main lesson from sport is you have to sometimes suppress your individual needs to be part of a truly effective team.
Do you think the world of sport can learn something from the world of business as well as vice versa?
SB: The way I see it, great performance is great performance. Whether that's on the sports field or in the workplace. Great leadership is great leadership. There is no surprise that many of the great leaders fall into different leadership roles outside of sport sometimes, and across different industries and within business.
RB: Absolutely. Using applied business thinking in sport happens regularly. The England rugby team in 2003 worked closely with business coaches. It's not one-way traffic - I think both parties have to recognise that there are differences. When we were athletes our goals and what we were judged on were very clear. Business is much more of a fluid thing. So what sport can learn from business is to be more flexible.
What have you learned moving from your previous profession into what you do now?
SB: Bundles. About myself, about business, about others, about influencing others, about stuff I did as an athlete without knowing it. You start digging into performance, you find the layers. Things make sense when you have a chance to reflect back on previous decisions, and you look at them with some perspective and a new understanding. That's been the fascinating thing, to go through that process of learning and development.
RB: We're learning all the time. When you talk about decision making and team work in sport - can I apply that to my business team? I can, but maybe I don't always get it right. I think you're always learning.
What do you think the upcoming challenges are for successful organisational development?
SB: It’s important that there's a culture of giving employees accountability: as a part of team GB, a javelin thrower and a cyclist are at completely different ends of the physical spectrum, they’ll train differently, they might not even meet each other, but yet their brand and their business, if you like, is judged at the end of the day, and each of those individuals performs under a culture that is consistent with each other and that's because of the Olympics, and I think that's part of the challenge if you look at that kind of silo-ed structure. Then I think there’s also things like retaining people, becoming more fluid and optimising talent, but fundamentally, we need to work out what we are passionate about and believe that we can achieve, regardless of the industry.
RB: I think one of the key challenges and it’s why we’re in business as speakers at conferences is it’s harder with fragmentation to get people to really know their team mates. In sport you tend to spend every day with your team mates pursuing a goal, whereas in business you don’t actually spend that much time together. You’re on that same team but you’re not actually physically together, day in day out. I suppose the challenge is getting people to have face-to-face contact in a world where you don’t really need it.
Who is going to benefit most from the Olympic legacy?
RB: I hope the answer to that is the nation as a whole, and that we will look back for generations and think 'wasn't that fantastic?' - that in itself would be a great legacy. I would hope that it's the younger generation, kids who experience the Olympics, I hope it inspires them not just to do sport but embrace what the Olympics stands for. It would be nice to think that it will give the British economy a kick start although that might be wishful thinking.
"We need to work out what we are passionate about and believe that we can achieve, regardless of the industry" - Steve Backley
SB: When you say those words to people, they tend to think of the stadia, the transport links, the shopping centre, infrastructure, the development of a much needed part of London, but I think a much bigger part of the legacy is the non-tangible side and I think the biggest benefit will be to a sporting generation who aspire to a greater physical and emotional wellbeing as a result of striving and believing that they can achieve what they want to achieve.
GB's gold medal haul in 2008 was the highest in a century with 19 in total. Can we better that this time around?
RB: If you look at who could win gold medals, the list is very long - but the problem is it's the Olympics. Could win gold and will win gold is a very different thing. All I would say is that I don't think we could sit in a more positive position than we are now. If you look at what the rowers are doing and the cyclists are doing, the athletes and the swimmers are doing, we have a lot of chances, so I think we'll do very well. But I don't know if we'll do more than 19 because you don't know who is out there and who you're competing against.
SB: If you believe the statisticians, the answer is probably not or about the same, so to better it is a big challenge. The factor not thrown into the stats is the home advantage, and there is always the potential for a home advantage, and when you walk out into the stadium in your country’s vest, you stand a little bit taller, a little bit prouder and have a little bit more motivation. Given where we are now, we're about the same as where we were in Beijing but add in the home advantage so I think we will get 20 golds. I think that would be a huge success.
About Jon Kennard
Jon Kennard is a freelance writer and social media manager, and former editor of TrainingZone.co.uk.