Building the Team
According to the adage, “there is no I in team”.
According to Mark de Rond and his study of high performing teams in sport and business (“What Elite Athletes and Coaches Really Know About High Performance”), there plainly is an I in team, and if we ignore that we annul the individual. So, knowing that very little is ever achieved in isolation, how do we reconcile this conflict and build the best team?
That is the process I am going through right now in taking up the role of High Performance Director with Triathlon New Zealand – an collective with a proud history of success, but also with a need to keep pace with a fast moving competitive world. Since the very first triathlon world championships in 1989, when Erin Baker and Rick Wells won gold and bronze respectively, to Hamish Carter and Bevan Docherty taking gold and silver in the Athens Olympics, Kiwis have frequented the podium; yet with the European dominance of the London Olympics, there is consciously ground to be made up.
The first step for me as “team leader” is to ensure I have an authentic passion for the mission I am taking on. This sounds obvious, but the aim of being the best in the world is not a “job” – it is indeed a mission, to be lived and breathed, and most importantly to be believed in. That belief and passion comes through when you read the stories of Branson (“Screw It, Let’s Do It”), Clough (“Walking on Water”), or “Boy Racer” Cavendish. In my case, even as a Pom, it is the power of the silver fern, the legacy of Docherty, Baker, John Walker and Percy Cerutty, and what they call here the No8 Wire spirit of resourceful determination that is compelling!
And that leads straight to step two – undoubtedly my crucial next step: “employing” the right people. This is about engaging a groundswell of similarly authentic passionate people. That is definitely not to say that I am seeking disciples, as for me they must challenge and innovate in their own right. Remember the English or French in the 2007 or 2011 Rugby World Cups, coaching apparently in disarray, but both narrowly losing finals? As Director of Sport at Millfield, I had the great pleasure of working with some of the best coaches in their field, who would challenge every day, with ideas from left, right and centre – not from any template, but always striving forward. Successful teams are not necessarily about bonhomie, but about pushing boundaries.
So, I find I must understand what it is I’m looking for in the people – and then let this “team” set our vision. Sound the wrong way round? I often cross-check myself about that – because I’m the “leader”, surely I must set agenda? Well, we have a direction, and an impression (maybe a Turner or a Monet), but experience tells me it is important not to ink in the details as “the people” will bring ideas I have never even thought of. Some will ask about the big picture; some about details; and collectively they will transform the impression in to vibrant life.
That vibrant life is the vision of step four: It becomes a palpable, compelling culture of success – the “New Zealand Tri Blacks” as the best pro racing team in the triathlon world! We will find quick wins, “low hanging fruit”, whatever you want to call it, and celebrate those successes, as they build in to momentum. As Performance Director of British Triathlon, this was winning world duathlon titles in 2001, starting the ball for triple gold in triathlon a few years later. And he plan must remain flexible, though the goal is unerring.
Of course, realising the vision will not happen overnight, with twists, turns and speed bumps; hence the need to ensure personal passion at step one and the criticality of step two. As Jim Collins’ treatises in from “Good to Great”, despite the vision, if you have the wrong people you will still produce mediocre results. So, the next – the roll-out – step either borrows from what (the now Sir) Dave Brailsford calls “compassionate ruthlessness” or embraces “patience and faith”. For the former, again reference Collins and “If you can’t change the people, change the people” Or ask the energy cost of chasing inauthentic “buy in”.
Or – to end on a positive – in believing we’ve assembled the right people, give time, support and confidence: E.g. Triathlon world titles will be won in athletes’ mid twenties, yet most of the recent female Junior World Champs have already quit the sport; so, in talent development, in coaching, in performance support, don’t rush for short term results – Rome wasn’t built in a day, Australian Swimming took 11 years to reach No1 with Talbot, England 7 years to win RWC with Woodward, and Man U 5 years for Ferguson’s first trophy. Along the way, enjoy the journey, because the vision is compelling!