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  • Christine Lithgow Smith

Achieving excellence: what 5 things can business leaders learn from the most successful rowing club

One of the things I love about being a small business owner is the privilege of being able to attend the events I would otherwise have missed. A couple of weeks ago a dear friend of mine gave me one of these opportunities and I was able to attend a “breakfast meeting for leaders” at the legendary Leander Club in Henley-on-Thames, hosted by Riddlebox.

Will it make the boat go faster?

Paul Budd, Leander Club’s Front of House, opened the event by stating that they measure what boosts performance by asking “Will it make the boat go faster?” So, for example, if a supplier offers them a new piece of equipment – the latest big thing in oars, let’s say – they respond with that question: “Will it make the boat go faster?” The supplier may say that it is lighter than all those previously created, and they will respond with “Yes, but will it make the boat go faster?” The poor supplier of course can’t guarantee that, but, with the latest monitoring tools on the boat, the Leander Club can.

This is a great example of an organisation pursuing excellence. For those of you who may not know of the Leander Club, it is the oldest rowing club in the world and, impressively, the only single-sports club in the world that can proudly state it has produced 124 Olympic Winners. In fairness, it started training them in 1908, but that in itself is impressive: to reach a truly world-class performance and sustain it for 110 years. When you visit you can see the name of every gold medal winner written, in gold, on the walls. With the exception of the Olympics, where every Olympian is recognised, every other competition records the name of silver and bronze medal winners in black; because it’s not quite good enough. You have to win to get your name in lights at the Leader Club. I quite liked that. I’m all for celebrating successes, but if you state that you’re aiming for excellence, isn’t that what you should actually measure?

So, what achieves Excellence on the water?

Next up was Chief Coach Mark Banks, and what he had to say was even more fascinating. Mark explained yet another issue that resonated hugely with me: it was about the combination of limited opportunity and capability. He said that to ‘get in boat’ required individual capability. A relentless ambition to not only be the best but to keep on knocking on the door, arguing the case why it should be you in the boat, and taking every opportunity to prove your worth. Of course, once the door has been opened and you’re ‘in the boat’, the skills needed for success are totally different. Once you’re ‘in the boat’, you’re part of a team. Once you’re in the boat, if you want to go faster, you have to maintain the balance of the boat on the water and that relies not just on you, but on everyone else’s performance as well. Once you’re ‘in the boat’, if you want to go faster you have to be in sync with the rest of the team. If you want to go as fast as you can, you need more than that. You need to be at one with the boat, the water, the oar, and at one with your teammates. And they need to be there too. No matter what. There is no room here for someone to have a bad day. There is no room for distraction. There is requirement. There is a requirement to be the very best that you can be, to trust the rest of the team to do the same, and to ensure that together you find that space inside where you can feel at one with it all and know that you will win. So once you’re ‘in the boat’ it’s not about your individual capability; it’s about your ability to work as a team and the skills you need are team effectiveness paired with the right attitude. In fact, it’s these attributes that, as a coach, Mark helps our future Olympians develop and sustain.

Does this translate to Excellence in Leadership?

Jezz Moore from Riddlebox thinks so. He confessed that Riddlebox is “Obsessed with Excellence in Leadership” and was keen to discuss this. Jezz shared some fascinating insights from the world of neuroscience, about the way our brain is wired and how it is now scientifically proven that we base decisions on our feelings first and only then justify them with logic, which reminded me of a talk by Jamil Qureshi where he talked about Feel, Think, Do. What we feel affects how we think, which determines what we do. This is a fascinating topic in its own right especially when combined with cognitive bias so watch this space for another blog on just that! Anyway, if we base our decisions (or our thinking, which informs our behaviour) on our feelings, how important is it to make sure we feel at our best? And how much control do we have over what we or someone else feels? The caveman part of our brain still triggers a fight or flight reaction when we feel threatened and Jezz demonstrated how our physiology affects how we feel. Luckily, we can use this to our advantage as Amy Cuddy highlighted in her brilliant Ted Talk. Again, this bit of the talk I loved. Intuitively I’ve always known that great leadership and positive change is about connecting with people and now neuroscience is demonstrating just how important that is. We’ve all had a leader or a colleague that we dreaded seeing in the morning. You’ve been there, right? How did that make you feel? And how did what you felt affect what you thought, what you said, and what you did?

We impact those around us more than we know

Having worked in numerous leadership and change positions over the years I am well aware of the impact some of the decisions we make as leaders has on others. And I’m confident that most ‘leaders’ are similarly aware. It’s not unusual to hear that “people won’t like that” or “they’ll want to do it the way we’ve always done it”. They may even do an ‘impact assessment’ to try and workout the roadblocks in advance. What I’m not confident about is whether we teach our leaders the level of self-awareness they truly require. Like most professions, including rowing, generally we seek out individuals at the top their game to give them the opportunity to ‘step up’ into a leadership position. If they’re lucky they might get some training, or go a course, but how many get the coaching they need to be their best and, in turn, bring out the best in their people?

This is a serious issue. If we go back to making the boat go faster:

  • You need a leader who recognises that making the boat go faster is what’s key to success, and can inspire others to get excited about it;

  • They need the ability to drop their ego at the door and focus on helping others row the boat there; and

  • They need to be self-aware and have sufficient empathy to positively impact the way others feel.

Great leaders

Great leaders do this. Great leaders think about how they make other people feel. They engage on a human level with their teams, they say ‘hello’ in the morning, they understand people’s concerns; they create an environment for people to thrive and they bring themselves to work. Great leaders work out ways to foster team effectiveness and coach their teams to help them maintain the right attitude. Just like the Leader Club. But even a great leader needs help.

So what can we do?

We can take a leaf out Leander’s book and remember:

  1. Excellence isn’t achieved because of the equipment or technique employed (e.g systems and processes). If it was, we could all be world-class rowers;

  2. Recruiting superstars doesn’t work. We need people who have the skills to work as a team and maintain the right attitude, in spite irrespective of the circumstances;

  3. Leaders need to know how to make the boat go faster and should focus the team and measures on that;

  4. Developing and maintaining balance within a team and the right attitudes isn’t easy, especially in a world of constant change;

  5. To consistently achieve excellence, we need to create an environment where people can thrive and acknowledge that we all need a coach sometimes.

With thanks for a great event to both the Leander Club and Riddlebox.

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