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Is culture the next ‘marginal gain’? Part 1

Posted: Mon, 04 Dec 2017 09:57

Is culture the next ‘marginal gain’? Part 1

Having seen the development of the UK's elite sport system first hand over the past 15-20 years, there is no doubt it has become a world-leading example of how to create a winning system.

Over the last five Olympic cycles, the creation of full time athletes; development of an Institute system; the impact of sport science and medicine; introduction of research and technology; the implementation of coach development programmes and the selection of athletes through talent identification programmes have all resulted in an incremental improvement in medal success.

These developments have been termed many things: marginal gains, 1%ers, or the components of 'what it takes to win'. Each cycle has added even greater impact and in Rio, with a generation of athletes who have had the benefit of this elite sport system throughout their career, Team GB achieved their best ever results.

Since then, a number of sports have faced issues with their culture, indeed I had to face the same challenge. The system is working together and organisations are looking at themselves to see how they can better create a culture, in which athletes and coaches feel comfortable to strive for success, whilst not sacrificing the physical and mental wellbeing of their staff and athletes. If successful, this could be the next 'marginal gain' that results in even greater success.

If all of the athletes are standing on the start line, feeling confident, comfortable, not worried about the future and ready to compete, then there is no reason the unprecedented success can't continue.

How can this change in culture be achieved? If culture is defined as 'the way things are done around here', it is a result of the behaviour of all people within an organisation. As leaders, I don't believe we can tell people 'the culture of this organisation is X.' – it emerges from everyone's behaviours.

However, what we can do is ensure that all are aware, and understand, what we do and how we do it. One way to represent this is through the podium to cultural success, which highlights the areas for common understanding.

The crucial aspect of this, is the constant two-way communication for this to be understood – not just passed on. I have made mistakes before when explaining a new vision and mission and assuming everyone was immediately on board.

The whole organisation should understand what they are trying to achieve in terms of purpose, vision and mission and more importantly how this relates to their individual objectives. For an athlete, this means knowing how they will be measured, against what markers, when, how often and the impact if they don't meet their targets. Many mistakes tend to be made when an athlete isn't clear when or why they are dropped, de-selected or the goalposts move.

For coaches, they need to be clear, with the authority to make performance decisions to best achieve the results, whilst knowing how this will be received and accepted. I have never met an athlete or staff member who likes being dropped, but hopefully there is comprehensive feedback on why.

Secondly, it is vital to have clarity on how this should be communicated. What is the history, background of the company? How does it want to be viewed? Are there corporate values and how are they lived? If there is a value of honesty, the feedback needs to be clear; but has it been agreed that this can be brutally honest or is empathy required? Is the Identity of the organisation a ruthless 'win at all costs within the rules', or is it, 'be the best you can be and trust the results will come'? One isn't necessarily better than the other, but it should be at least agreed and understood, so that it doesn't come as a shock.

The final part of the process is to ensure this is lived out every day – if anyone sees behaviours that run contrary to those agreed, there needs to be immediate follow up, again to match the values and identity in a form that is accepted.

The implementation and explanation of this model takes much more time than available in this blog, but I hope it provides food for thought.

Richard Parker is the former CEO of BBSA.

Tags: Featured, Sport, Policy, London 2012, Olympics, Paralympics, UK Sport, Elite Sport, Leadership

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