The Olympic insider's guide to developing a high performing team


Invaluable insights from Team GB for ambitious managers

On a warm Saturday evening in August, east London was alive with feverish excitement. The sun was just thinking about going down, but the cheers and screams from inside the Olympic Park showed no signs of dying. Within the space of 44 short minutes, Jessica Ennis, Greg Rutherford and Mo Farah all struck gold for Team GB.

Lord Coe described it as the “greatest day of sport” he had ever witnessed. That night, the British Athletics team proved themselves to be one of the highest achieving teams in the country. But for one person, the efforts of the team during the Games didn’t go quite far enough.

Head Athletics coach and Dutchman Charles van Commenee quit after London 2012. The goals he had set out for his team had not been met. He entered last years’ Olympic Games with his sights set on eight track and field medals, with at least one gold. Despite his haul of not one but four golds, the tally only came to six.

“When a target is not hit, it should have consequences,” he tells me. “For every high performance coach, accountability is a big factor. When you are trying to change the culture of a team into a high performing one, increased accountability is essential. A leader has to lead by example in every sense whether it’s commitment or how you present yourself.”

When it comes to creating and managing high performing teams, the world of business and that of the track are not a million miles away from one another. Just like Van Commenee, the challenge for business leaders is to show their contribution is realised as well as the team. Perhaps our capital’s CEOs could learn a thing or two from the straight-talking Dutchman?

“There is a lot of cross-over,” says van Commenee. “One of the most important elements of a high performing team is a common goal. Especially when you have to deal with non-team players. Not everyone is a team player, we know this in athletics and certainly in business too – the brilliant ones are not always those that collaborate best.”

High performing teams operate in companies across London. They are exceptional, they reach their goals and they are focused. Every business should strive to create these teams – of course they require great talent but they start and end with skilful management. So what can these managers do to to create high achieving groups of employees?

“Unless you have clarity and purpose it is almost impossible to achieve anything,” says Yvonne Smyth, director at Hays, the recruiting experts.

“A common mission must be understood by your team but this in turn will be not be realised unless in turn there is clear designation of roles and clear accountability. When people know what their role is they can be given their own goals and milestones to reach and held to account if it doesn’t go to plan.”

As Van Commenee is clear to point out, leaders must lead by example. The role of the coach or manager in the performance of a high performing team is often the most important. But often, this involves knowing when to step in and when to take a few steps back.

“One of the traps managers can fall into is to come up with solutions and give too much advice,” says Pam Jones, a director of Ashridge Business School’s Performance Through People programme.

“If you tell people what to do, they will always expect you to sort out their problems. You also miss giving others the opportunity for others to come up with ideas. People also feel more committed if they feel part of the solution.

“Also, listen rather than give advice. Sit back, listen and ask questions to help the individual think through the issue. This is not always easy when you are busy, but it is one of the main skills of coaching. Only by listening will you know what the individual has already done and what they need to do to progress. You will also be able to pick up on their concerns and interests. This in turn will help you to build on their ideas and ask questions to support and challenge their thinking.”

The way that business work is changing in terms of how to collaborate and communicate. There are scores of employees around the country working remotely, but despite what Marissa Mayer at Yahoo might think with her ban on working from home, this doesn’t have to damage the ability for these high performing teams to succeed in working together.

“In a global economy, flexible working is a critical component to team collaboration, productivity and employee engagement,” says Suzy Levy, Human Capital & Diversity Lead at Accenture.

“We’ve embraced modern technology to enable our employees to interact virtually, face to face on a daily basis. Through technology, employees can collaborate and communicate with each other, and our clients, without losing the important personal interaction and connection.  This contributes to a flexible working pattern which empowers employees to achieve a better balance between their work and personal lives.”

When it comes to creating teams with the skills needed to achieve lofty goals diversity is a key ingredient. It is universally recognised that a group of people with different personality types, different backgrounds and points of view is better equipped to face the challenges that high performance teams meet on a regular basis.

“In team work crucial that you embrace diversity the more diverse the team usual the stronger it is because you have got more skills covered,” says Van Commenee. “My sport is athletics which is an individual game but the support team around the athlete is essential – we have a lot of different expertise  – doctors, nutritionists etc. You need a spread of skills.”

Smyth concurs and commenting in particular ‘people perform best when they are encouraged to play to their strengths. The skill of a leader is to identity what skills are required around the table.’

High performing teams can benefit an organisation in many ways. Innovation and growth are the obvious ones but the advantages can be felt by other employees if the teams and the investment in them is managed correctly.

“A mistake that is often made is that investment tends to be in the elite – the chosen few who have been badged as having certain skills and expertise that a business is looking to utilise on the very near horizon,” says Smyth.

“But focusing on the near horizon, the organisation may miss out on the opportunity to inspire and create the high performers of tomorrow. Make sure that everyone has something to aspire to and in turn the performance of the whole workforce is likely to improve – you will secure a higher return on investment.”

The GB athletic golds at last years’ Games may have been won by four individuals but when Rio comes around, there’s no doubt that we’ll see the next wave of talent taking the top place on the podium.

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