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Jon Kennard


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Onto the podium


Drawing from his experiences of working with Olympic athletes, Jonathan Males explains even a tiny change in the right area has the potential to make a big difference.

For Olympic athletes, reaching the podium is a tangible outcome for their many years of hard work. For the serious athletes, fourth place may as well be last.

This difference – between fourth place and a medal – can be minute. In most events, a 1% improvement can take you onto the podium. These results from the 2008 Beijing Olympics show the difference across a range of sports – including events in which British athletes won gold:

Clearly it's not as simple as just trying 1% harder. Successful performance in sport pulls together a whole raft of physical, technical, psychological and logistical factors at exactly the right time. It's the culmination of years of preparation, and a bit of luck helps too! As part of this preparation, small improvements can make a big difference – and the closer you are to the podium, the more important these marginal gains become.

How does this apply to the world of work? Many managers would argue that they're not aiming for a gold medal. But when I'm working with organisations it's because they want to make the most of their people's potential. To do that, you can use the same principle: small improvements in the right areas will lead to big differences. The question is, where do you start?

Clarity of intent

Shin Fujitomo was a Japanese gymnast at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Japan were neck-and-neck with their arch-rivals, the USSR, when Shin landed awkwardly on his final routine and tore the ligaments in his left knee. He couldn't walk, and was carried off the mat. Without Shin's performance in the roman rings, the Japanese couldn't win.

"In business, you also need a crystal clear image of what your role should deliver... Without this clarity of intent, you can't separate what's important from what isn't."

Shin had a plan, though. After a night of intensive painkillers and physiotherapy, he asked to be lifted onto the rings. His performance was essential for the team's chances, so he'd mentally rehearsed it over and over. The next day, he was helped onto the mat and up to the rings. Despite being unable to stand, he began his routine – and executed it flawlessly, right through to the final dismount which he held for the necessary two seconds. Then he collapsed in agony. But he'd done it – Japan took gold.

In business, you also need a crystal clear image of what your role should deliver. What are the specific outcomes you're responsible for? Who are you delivering to, and by when? How much of your time and effort goes toward achieving them? Without this clarity of intent, you can't separate what's important from what isn't.

Do the basics very well

In 1992 I was coaching the Australian canoeing team in slalom at the Barcelona Olympics. We spent hours preparing on the purpose-built white-water course at La Seu d'Urgell, learning every wave and feature of the challenging rapids. No-one knew what the actual lay-out of the gates would be, but we knew it would be difficult. It was the Olympics after all...

We were wrong. TV schedules needed to keep things moving, so the day before the competition we saw a fast, open and straightforward course which skirted the difficult features we'd spent so long practising on. You could almost hear the collective groan of disbelief.

Despite their initial disappointment at such a simple course, I watched in amazement as some of the world's best athletes blew their chances. Despite the simplicity, many athletes failed to deliver when it counted. It worked in our favour: the under-rated Danielle Woodward performed solidly and won silver for Australia.

In business it's just as easy to dismiss the boring basics for the latest shiny fad. But what are the essentials for your role? Could you bring 1% more attention to them? Are you, and your team robust under pressure? Should you re-visit your basic processes and procedures?

It's not just about feeling good

Another surprise from the same Olympics was when British kayaker Richard Fox didn't place, despite having dominated the sport for the previous decade. Fourth place only stiffened his resolve.

"Although emotions can be an important source of information, they shouldn't be used to justify inaction or poor performance in business."

By May in 1993, I was coaching the British team and met up with Richard on a cold, windswept Nottingham riverbank. I asked him why he'd come back from training in the sunny south of France, especially for a lower-ranking race like this?

"I've been training really hard and I'm exhausted," Richard told me. "I've got a cold. This will be a tough race and that I don't feel like doing it. It's a real hassle to come back, and – as I expected – the weather's bad. But I need to know I can race well, no matter how I feel." He won the weekend's race, and also the World Championships that year.

Although emotions can be an important source of information, they shouldn't be used to justify inaction or poor performance in business. All too often I see managers who can't tolerate emotional discomfort, and who hide away from the hard decisions about themselves, their teams, or their businesses. What if you were just 1% more willing to face discomfort and do what's right?

Clarity of intent, doing the basics well, and pushing through discomfort. Whatever your role, these are three areas you need to pay attention to. No matter how good you are already, my challenge to you is to seek out a 1% improvement in any or all of these areas. It might be a tiny change but it's got the potential to make a big difference – even to get you on to the podium.

Jonathan Males is founding director of Performance 1, a consultancy that brings insights from Olympic sport to helping business leaders 'run a better race', through executive and team coaching

Author Profile Picture
Jon Kennard

Freelance writer

Read more from Jon Kennard

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