How elite sports practices can help us understand and improve
board-level executive performance.
It’s often said that context drives performance. In other words, the same person may perform in one situation but fail in another. It’s a phenomenon that has long challenged talent development professionals and coaches, not only in business and other large organisations, but also in elite performance domains such as sports.
Organisations supporting elite athletes have responded by developing, refining, and mastering systems that increase the chances of success for outstanding athletes and teams.
One such system, developed by Dr Ceri Evans and Renzie Hanham, was notably adopted by the New Zealand All Blacks prior to their back-to-back Rugby World Cup triumphs in 2011 and 2015. Central to the framework is a pyramid-based performance system showing the interdependence and interconnectedness of Structure, Skillset and Mindset. Each element influences and reinforces the other, so if one is not at the required level then the other elements are impacted with consequences for performance.
In elite sport, Structure encompasses the overall strategy, including typical play styles, match-day tactics, and the structure of the training and game preparation regime. Skillset involves working on overall execution skills coupled with granular/micro skills across a variety of conditions. This might start in rarefied situations on the training ground before progressing to real, match-day situations with adverse conditions. Mindset determines athletes’ ability to stay focused and maintain their composure. It also ensures a constructive post-game analysis and dialogue; to dwell on the past only to the extent that it provides learnings.
With a little thought we can see that performance and underperformance in any human endeavour have their roots in the interaction between these three components. If any are ill-adapted to the needs of the situation, performance will falter.
Therefore, to fully understand and diagnose individual performance – and help our clients take control and move forward – we, as coaches, use a model which looks at the individual in the specific context in which they operate. After years in the executive hot seat, and thousands of hours around the board table and in coaching discussions, we define these areas as System, Skills and Self. If each of these are developed enough to meet the demands of the situation, strong performance and a relatively stress-free existence follow. If not then frustration, stress, anxiety and underperformance ensue, often to the detriment of the wider organisation.
From analysis of 60 clients with whom we have worked, accounting for over 2,000 hours of client sessions, we found that approximately 40% of the issues we worked on concerned System, 30% involved Skills development, and 30% related to the Self. Almost every client required assistance in all three areas.
So what are System, Skills and Self and what are the most common issues that we see under each of these areas?
Fundamentally, organisations are systems, and ‘A bad system’, said the American statistician W.E. Deming, ‘will beat a good person every time.’ And he’s right. How many individuals do we know that have performed in one environment but less well in another, even in the same company but with a different boss or in a different department?
With regard to System, we see four common categories of issues: Strategy articulation and alignment; Board and stakeholder relationships; Priorities, resources, performance expectations and freedom to act; Team structure, performance, culture and decision-making processes.
If any one of these areas is not functioning well then executives and the wider organisation feel the consequences. Some of these factors may be out of the control of executives but for the most part they are largely within their control and influence if effectively managed.
Think about a situation in which you feel comfortable with the level of skill you have to perform a particular role, as opposed to one in which you don’t. And the couple the latter with external expectations, scrutiny and consequences that comes with executive life … which further sap your confidence and impact performance.
Lack of skills, in relation to the expectations that are placed upon us (or which we perceive), is a fundamental source of performance on the one hand and a source of stress on the other. Perhaps the most visible form of this is elite sports in which skills deficiencies or failures are there for everyone to see and feedback is instantaneous (and sometimes brutal).
Senior executives very often find themselves out of their depth and eventually find a way through this but can suffer greatly in the process. This suffering is often called imposter syndrome in which our personal expectations of ourselves, or our self-image, do not match with the current reality.
But of the many things under our control as executives, skills development is one we have the most control over. We can develop our own skills or surround ourselves with those who have complementary skills to remedy areas of weakness.
The three common categories of skill we see are: Communication effectiveness and natural authority; Confronting conflict constructively and, more widely, leadership skills / capability.
The individual and collective skill of confronting conflict constructively is particularly important. If boards and executive teams do not master this then, as Patrick Lencioni said:
“When leadership team members avoid discomfort among themselves. They only transfer it in far greater quantities to larger groups of people throughout the rganization they are supposed to be serving”
Developing self-awareness, awareness of impact on others and the management of self (how the stresses and challenges of our environment or system) trigger us and cause us to behave is a foundational skill for executives.
Senior leadership challenges emotionally us in ways that we don’t expect. There are multiple sources of this including direct stakeholder pressure, higher visibility, making difficult decisions and the accompanying feelings of loneliness, isolation and helplessness. This contrasts to the early part of our career when there was less ambiguity and pressure and we could succeed by being relatively task focused. Accepting that “what got you here isn’t going to be what got you there” can challenge our self-identity and support through this period of transition is both valuable and necessary often involving therapeutic techniques to help the individual consider how behavioural patterns developed from early life challenges might be less useful in the complex environment of senior leadership.
The five common areas in our coaching work are: Understanding and leveraging character Strengths; Impulse control and behaviour under stress; Resilience; Health, Wellbeing and Balance and self-identity / authenticity
If the two key contextual factors of System and Skills are out of kilter, the Self of any senior executive suffers dramatically. This, coupled with the relentless pressure and sense of responsibility, translates into a self-perpetuating spiral of self-doubt, anxiety and fatigue in which behaviour, cognitive ability, situational awareness, and judgement become impaired.
Performing at our best is not just a question of working on the self. Work on our intrinsic selves needs to be done in tandem with a consideration of our environment, encapsulated in System and Skills. This gives rise to a virtuous cycle in which the business, or your part of it, seems to run itself, leaving you with the intellectual and emotional bandwidth to focus on what’s really important.
Try the SSS model on Yourself
Think about instances in your career where things have not run smoothly. What elements of System were lacking or not well enough adapted to the demands of the situation? What aspects of your Skills did not match or adapt to the demands of the situation? In what ways did each of these impact the elements of Self?
In contrast, revisit the periods when things have gone to plan. Consider how the System and your Skills were reflected in these instances. What impact did that have on your Self and your performance?
We’d love to hear from you about your experiences and to share more of our findings and research into this, including a longer version of this article which explores the coaching topics in more detail.
Written By Ivan Schofield
Mr. Ivan Schofield is a Managing Partner for Coaching at Metin Mitchell & Company and founder of leadership development firm &become.