Reflections on the World Athletics Championship in Doha

jozef-opdeweegh-ceo-miami

Last week, the eyes of the world’s press turned to Doha and its hosting of the World Athletics Championships.  Here in the UK interest was intense. Dinah Asher Smith’s victory in the 200 meters was a masterclass of controlled and specialised technique, but it was Katerina Johnson Thompson’s Gold in Heptathlon that caught my eye.

The Heptathlon is one of the ultimate trials of all-round athletic ability.  From shotput to sprinting, the discipline tests speed, strength and stamina, as well as the mental ability to hold it all together over two days of competition. In contrast to Asher Smith’s 20 seconds of brilliance, Johnson Thompson’s victory required a balance of skills, none of them world beating on their own, but which collectively others could not match.

Since returning to the UK as CEO of Connect Group, I’ve been impressed by a similar quality in our news and magazine distribution business. Handling an average of 5 million copies every day, it delivers to 27,000 outlets from superstores to corner shops, collecting unsold copies for recycling, processing data to forecast demand, taking customer calls, invoicing…   and all of it achieved in the tightest of time windows. The physical logistics is only half the story; I recall being astounded to learn that by noon our publishers can typically view their sales figures from the day before, right down to that corner shop I mentioned.

And yet, if we examine the unique skills of news wholesaling, what we find is that success more resembles a heptathlon than a sprint.  What underpins our competitiveness is in not so much that we are very best at physical or even time sensitive delivery, nor are we peerless leaders in information management, invoicing or customer services.  Rather, we are good at all these things, and it is this optimum combination of our arguably sub-optimal parts, which make us world class at what we do. 

That’s not to say, there isn’t room for improvement. As with athletics, standards move on, expectations increase; the competition is always at our shoulders.  As leaders and strategists, the lesson from this week’s heptathlon in Doha, is that we must take a holistic view, considering the impact of each initiative in its wider context – ensuring the strength we build in one area, doesn’t sap our speed or stamina in another.  

It strikes me that the metaphor of ‘leader as coach’ is never more apt than in complex and well-established organisations – not least because, the catalogue of good companies brought down by supposedly transformative projects should give us pause for thought.  But that pause must never lead to indecision. 

The danger in managing this type of complexity is that answers can tend towards those that start with ‘But…’  As professionals we must accept that all decisions involve some risk, including the choice to leave matters alone. Risk can feel uncomfortable, threatening even, but a  failure to commit is the surest way to ensure the competition will soon be pressing at your heels. 

Making progress, while limiting our exposure requires that we draw on analysis as well as experience; creativity balanced by objective measures – and occasionally some counter intuitive thinking. Standard operating procedures, for example, might appear to be a restrictor to change – but we should view them more as athletes see solid technique. For only when we have sound and consistent foundations, can we test, and most importantly measure, the impact of changes we might introduce. In a world where all the parts are different, it’s tough to know what works, what doesn’t, or what to do next. 

If I were to add one more ingredient, it would be to encourage, -and be seen to exercise -appropriate humility. For no one can be right all the time and not every idea will be a success. Occasionally – though hopefully not too often – we must hold up our hands and learn from the experience. It is not being wrong that we should fear, it is being too proud to change course when the evidence is clear. 

Returning to Doha, in the time I’ve drafted this piece the UK teams have won silver medals in both the sprint relays – pipped, I might add, by the Americans if not the Belgians! 

The relay of course is all about passing the baton, with success being more than the sum of the parts. That’s a subject for another day, but it reminds me that harnessing the commitment of our teams to a bold but measurable strategy, is the best way to exceeding our expectations. 

 

Jos Opdeweegh

 

Nurturing talent – and navigating the road to success.

A few weeks ago, I gave an interview in which I reflected on the importance of building talent across our company, the need for structures that facilitate career progression, and most of all, a supportive culture which allows talent to thrive by learning from our mistakes as well as our successes.  There are compelling reasons, I said, for investing in talent, and on that point, I guess few business leaders would disagree. But as with many organisational challenges, while the way ahead might be obvious, sticking to the path isn’t always so straight forward.

Let’s start with some guiding principles.

Talent is vital to making good decisions.  With talented people, and talented teams, we not only perform better today, but we enhance our strategic vision and tactical planning. The short-term advantage and the sustainability of that success go hand in hand.  Look at any successful sports team and you’ll see their stars on the field – with the occasional genius among them – but always on the bench are the next generation, pushing for places, eager to learn, encouraged by their mentors.

Talent thrives best in open and supportive cultures.  For colleagues to flourish they need to know that in taking the next step they’ll receive support, some space for learning, and the confidence to know they can be themselves.  That last point is important – because true talent management isn’t about the rote learning of skills and procedures, it’s about nurturing a diversity of unique and valuable contributions to the overall goal. 

And lastly, talent is a responsibility we all share.  Sure, the People Teams often take a lead in coordinating training and development programmes and the like – and rightly so.  But for talent to truly thrive, we need leaders at all levels to see that bringing on the next generation is part of what make for a  sustainably better business. Finding opportunities to give some trust, providing tools and resources, as well as spotting the talent gaps – and occasional blockages –  are just as vital a skill for managers as hitting their sales or cost targets.

But if that much is straightforward – what is it that gets in the way?

Fear of failure is perhaps the biggest constraint, especially if it leads to us avoiding risks.  For without some unpredictability – to ourselves as well as the organisation – progress isn’t possible. Effective leaders learn from mistakes and making them is a key part of a continuous improvement ethos.  So we need a culture that empowers us to make decisions, and an environment that helps enhance the quality of the choices we make. Inclusive, interactive teams help to grow talent by sharing perspectives and considering possibilities – in so doing.  While individuals can thrive, the outcomes can be shared by others too. Putting it another way, constructive risk taking isn’t about jumping blindly off cliffs – it’s about weighing up the options and then acting with focus and commitment.  

Resistance to change is an obstacle too.  Indeed, it is often the biggest blocker to talent, and one of the most cited reasons why ambitious people leave otherwise good organisations.  If ideas and ingenuity are stymied, then stagnation and attrition surely follow – and guess what, talented people can smell it a mile off! The result is a drain on knowledge and a creativity void that ends in a vicious circle of yet more fear and failure.  Like with risk, embracing change doesn’t mean an unquestioning drive to revolution; positive change blends evolution with bold decisions that move us forward at pace. By working this way, we nurture talent in tandem with the opportunities we pursue.   

And lastly, we need clear measures of success.  For without these it’s all too easy to misrepresent progress or excuse the lack of it. Of course, nurturing talent isn’t as objective as math, but neither is it some enigmatic quality that resists common sense assessment. That’s why we need talent driven KPIs throughout the organisation, working to agreed outcomes and focusing resolutely on their achievement.  

So how best do we navigate our way to success? 

In my own organisation today, we have core values that keep us on track. We’re creating a culture of diversity and inclusion, where colleagues can be themselves at work, and the opportunity to develop their careers is encouraged and celebrated.  Our values of trust, fairness, creativity and openness are a sort of compass, guiding our decisions to ensure we make the most of our individual and collective potential.

And we’re backing this up with investment in training and communications, despite a pressure for savings in tough markets. For me, this is part of our duty as leaders; we have a responsibility to all our stakeholders – be they colleagues, customers, shareholders or lenders –  to ensure the organisation is fit for the future, and that’s not something we can put on hold. Nurturing talent is fundamental to building a sustainably better business, and if at times it can feel like a complex jigsaw, we should remember that it’s when the parts come together that the bigger picture emerges. 

As the first measures of our progress I expect to see succession routes for all key roles, with training plans for our high potential colleagues, and a map of the talent gaps we need to fill. Alongside this should be a more empowered culture with broad levels of authority, sharing success but also learning from its mistakes through post mortem analysis based on a zero-blame approach.  In truth, there are many more indicators we should expect: cross functional working, creative thinking, reduced duplication… I could go on.

But isn’t it also true that genuine progress needs to be widespread and self-evident?  Just as we can all recognise talent in sport or science or the arts, so too we instinctively know when it’s present in the workplace.  The ultimate goal is therefore that nurturing talent becomes part of our DNA, a virtue we pass from one generation to another, with care for its continuity, and a sense of creating something bigger than ourselves.