Turning Potential into World Beating Success

At the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, Team GB were the paupers of the Olympic world. Team GB had won a solitary gold medal and 15 medals in total. Members of the GB diving team had to sell their GB kit to raise money to fund their stay. Four years later in 2000, the medal tally had grown to 28 with 11 golds. At the 2012 London summer Olympics Team GB not only increased the medal tally to 65 (with 29 golds) but had beaten the medal tally of Olympic superpower Russia in the process. 

The book The Talent Lab by Owen Slot tells the story of how Team GB’s Olympic and Paralympic fortunes were transformed and how the audacious goal of 66 medals at the 2016 Rio Olympics was achieved (Team GB actually won 67 medals).

In recent years we have been privileged to have work with a number of UK sport bodies that create the high performance system that delivers Olympic and Paralympic success. The Talent Lab provides a fascinating insight into this world of elite sport and what it takes to be world class.

There are so many nuggets in this book that can be transferred to the world of business that our fundamental recommendation is to buy it and read it for yourself! The book is structured in five sections: Talent; Transformational Leadership; Winning Environments; Performance and Sustaining Success. Chapters are written by different people, with UK Sport Performance Directors Chelsea Warr and Simon Timson providing learning reflections at the end of each. 

What I want to focus on in this piece is creating the winning environment, highlighting key learning from one of the chapters, addressing how this speaks to leaders in non-sporting organisations.

A lesson from Swimming

In 2013, British swimming hit an all-time low. Despite the success of Team GB at the London Olympics, the British swimming team had bombed (Rebecca Adlington excepted). A year later at the World Swimming Championships in Barcelona, only a single bronze medal was won despite huge funding of the sport. If you are one for metrics then it took £8.4m to win one swimming medal as opposed to £2.1m for a cycling medal. Data also showed that only 20% of British swimmers achieved their personal best at the London games (typically 60%+ were expected to).  

The potential was there. But the challenge was to turn potential into performance. 

The actions taken to turn GB swimming around were four-fold:

  1. Build a leadership team that aligns the organisation around a shared purpose: The new leadership team post-2012 inherited a culture of strong individualism, with no sense of people working towards the same goal. The Chair, CEO, Performance Director and Head Coach – the spine of the organisation – invested time to aligned around a shared purpose and built a culture where there was commitment to see through the changes that were needed to create a high performance environment. The top team got aligned first and then focused on ensuring this alignment permeated the whole organisation.
  2. Change the coaches not the swimmers: If swimmers had hit their personal best times, Team GB would have won many more medals. However, coaches were creating a stressful, anxious environment that got in the way of athletes being their best when it mattered. Some would call it a toxic culture. The strong individualistic culture meant that no information was shared between coaches and some coaches undermined the work of other coaches (because the success of others reflected badly on them). When the environment lacks nutrients you need to replenish and renew. It wasn’t an easy call, but it was a critical call – either coaches changed, or coaches were changed. 

  3. Bring in fresh thinking: There was recognition that the sport needed a fresh eye, so some risks were also taken with appointments. Nigel Redmond – an international rugby player – was brought in as Elite Coaching Development Manager. He was seen as the ‘bloke who didn’t know anything about swimming’. That may have been true, but he did know a lot about coaching. So he focused on improving the skills of coaches as the main lever for a cultural shake-up. He also brought in learning from other disciplines such as athletics, cycling and sprint canoeing to improve technical areas in swimming such as starts.

  4. Use evidence to inform decisions: If getting the behaviours and capabilities right was one side of the coin, the effective use of evidence based data was the other side. To improve coaching capability, 20 competencies were identified. Each coach was assessed against these competencies and each received 360 degree feedback (something new for coaches at the time). Another use of data was to improve swimmer performance. The book tells how Adam Peaty was developed so that he swam under 57 seconds 

Think about what goes on in your organisation. Can you relate to any of the issues the GB swimming team faced? 

If you are a leader or manager, consider the following questions:

  • Reflect on how well you are creating the environment for others to perform. Is your attitude, anxiety, stress getting in the way of your performance and the performance of others … even if you don’t intend it to?

  • Consider how aligned your organisation is around core purpose, values and goals. What could be done to ensure stronger alignment at the top, and engagement and alignment throughout the organisation? 

  • Our conversations with others matter and whether we call it coaching or not. How do you help others (colleagues or team members) to be their best – even if they are not at their best? 

  • We all fall into patterns of thinking and behaving which can be unhelpful and create a rut. What can you do to bring fresh perspectives and thinking to your organisation or team to disrupt and innovate? 

Potential will always remain potential, unless we do something to turn potential into reality. The lessons we can draw on from The Talent Lab give us plenty of insights into how best to do that. We may not need to be world beaters, but we all have potential and the capability to grow and get better at what we do.  

If you want to read The Talent Lab you can buy it here: