Coaching: Sporting lessons for HR

When it comes to pursuing his determination to take gold in the 2012 London Olympics, British rower and silver medallist Alan Campbell doesn’t let a little cold weather stand in his way.

But as the Coleraine-born elite athlete prepares to nail his dream via a punishing training schedule that includes diving into the Irish Sea every Boxing Day at a training camp based near The Giant’s Causeway, can HR professionals looking to spur their people on to peak performance learn from Campbell’s approach?

His coach, Bill Barry, former chief executive of publicly-quoted ad agency FCB and founder of corporate coaching firm 121partners – whose clients include British Airways, commercial property agent Jones Lang LaSalle, directory service Yell Group and the Treasury – thinks so.

Inspiration and motivation

“Most HR professionals working in what I would call the more testosterone-driven industries would agree that their senior managers are more inspired by watching sport and learning about what makes athletes tick than by reading business books,” says Barry. “This can only continue as the run-up to 2012 accelerates.

“I would argue that there is a close similarity between using coaching to identify what motivates an athlete or director and using that knowledge to help that person stay at the top of their game; whether it’s rowing or retail.”

Case study 1

Ian Day, formerly an HR professional and now a coach at 121partners, was offered coaching after being promoted to the role of group head of talent at Severn Trent Water.

“Being coached made me nervous because I was used to listening, not talking, but after a while, I stopped being intimidated,” he says. “I learned how to productively use the long silences that my coach deliberately introduced to get me to open up about how I was managing in what was a far more challenging role, encompassing leadership development and succession planning.

“Through coaching, I discovered that I had hidden talents and was a far better people manager than I had realised. So much so that I eventually swapped HR and trained to become a professional coach.”

Dr Rob Copeland, senior sport and exercise scientist at Sheffield Hallam University’s Centre for Sport and Exercise Science, believes that even if a team is bored to tears by sport, the approach of athletics coaching to issues such as defining roles and responsibilities, performing under pressure, and remaining optimistic after failure, has major relevance to corporate life.

“People may be seriously turned off by gym sessions in the canteen or the mass distribution of running shoes, but most will be intrigued by how top athletes deal with clashes of ego in a team or pick themselves up after coming last in a critical race,” argues Copeland.

“There will undoubtedly be more interest in sport as 2012 hots up, and if HR professionals can harness it in a subtle way, perhaps by inviting in an expert speaker, or by booking some sessions with a good sports business coach, they are likely to find some real clues to building motivation and engagement,” he adds.

Business coaching

Barry, whose coachees are drawn predominantly from the senior ranks of FTSE 250 firms and who is himself an ex-silver medallist rower, says that while professional coaching has been an integral part of sport as far back as ancient Greece, it remains widely distrusted by many in the business world.

“I have met many people in HR who take an enlightened view of what coaching can achieve in terms of raising expectations and capitalising on strengths, but among business leaders as a whole, coaching has traditionally been seen as remedial and fluffy rather than a real management skill,” he says.

Yet while the intensely personal nature of performance coaching has often precluded employers from getting closely involved, this has begun to change, Barry believes.

“The recession has forced organisations to look harder at development programmes and take a harder-nosed approach to the setting of ground rules and key business objectives. Although the discussions between coach and coachee remain confidential, HR professionals both expect – and get – real value for money out of the entire coaching process.”

But it is critical, adds Copeland, that coaching is suggested by the individual, rather than their HR or line manager. “The merest mention of coaching can be seen as an implied criticism or a suggestion that someone is less than a top performer,” he says. “If an individual is self-aware enough to request added input, it is far more likely to work.”

Goals and achievements

In sport, says Beijing Olympics finalist Campbell, coaching relies on identifying long-term goals before setting the short-term milestones that will help achieve them. Both a single and quadruple sculler, he believes that being able to subdue his own ego in team events is equally critical.

“While I need a big ego to have got as far as I have, coaching has helped me understand that we all need expert back-up to achieve what we do,” he says. “Whether it’s training on the Thames or reaching for an ambitious sales target, the true leader is the one who gets everyone pulling in the same direction, even at the expense of their own individual status.”

Case study 2

Steve, a trader at a global investment bank, is responsible for tracking stock market movements and keeping team colleagues and clients abreast of developments. Identified by HR as a ‘high potential,’ the coaching firm Lane4, set up 15 years ago by former Olympic swimmer Adrian Moorhouse, was asked to coach Steve using the principles of sports psychology.

“Despite not having worked in my industry, my coach showed a remarkable awareness of the types of situations and problems I encounter on a daily basis and used techniques relating to mental toughness, goal-setting and time management to improve my performance and build my confidence,” says Steve, who doesn’t want to reveal his full name or his employer.

“During the course, which involved six, three-hour sessions over nine months, the metrics used by the bank’s management to measure my performance and profitability notably increased, and I experienced an improvement in my relationships with colleagues and clients.

“A few months after the completion of the course, I received an excellent annual review, and was promoted.”

Where sport and business differ most obviously is in their attitude to downtime, Barry believes. “In sport, it is recognised that nobody can give their all on a 24/7 basis and to even suggest that an athlete should give their very best every time they train would be a nonsense.

“If a business leader has recently pulled off a major coup like a takeover, he or she will need to time to rest and reflect, and it’s just the same with an athlete who has recently faced a gruelling competition.”

Varying the pace is another trick, says Barry. “Sometimes a coaching session will need to focus on building Alan’s physical strength – at Christmas, it involved an entire hour of sawing logs and carrying large weights – but at other times it will be more about developing his mental resilience. And I always stress the importance of having a life outside sport.”

Campbell himself believes that without Barry, life would be very different. “Bill pushes the right buttons, and because we both share the same goals, there is no conflict.

“I get up to train on dark mornings because I am passionate about what I do, but I know that my coach wants me to achieve my very best too, and that gives me enormous strength,” he says. “It’s not a case of father and son, and it’s not about telling me what to do all the time. I see it as guiding me to the right answers and having respect for my opinions. There’s a lot of give and take in our relationship.”


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