Looking for an inside edge: Steve Harrison interview

Ambitious people like to get an edge in their working lives. So do cricketers. Steve Harrison, who coaches in business and cricket, has firm ideas about how one discipline can learn from the other.

You are unlikely to find performance coach Steve Harrison in the office first thing on a Monday morning. Chances are he will be out on the golf course trying to improve his handicap.

And, while he admits that a round of 18 holes offers a chance to relax ahead of a busy week, sport is more than just a pastime to Harrison.

Drawing mainly from his experiences as a cricket coach and off-spin bowler, the 45-year-old Yorkshireman is developing innovative approaches to coaching in the workplace, based on methods he has taken from the sports arena.

“When I ask people in sport and business what they want to achieve, they give the same answers,” he says. “To perform at their peak, constantly improve and find an edge that will bring them success. There are areas in business where we can learn significant amounts from sport.”

One example Harrison offers is his concept of the corporate athlete, in which visualisation techniques and positive thinking exercises used in sport help executives achieve their goals.

He believes that training managers should also draw lessons about team performance from the sporting world.

Harrison says the recent Ashes success of the England Cricket Team is an example. “They came from nowhere to be top of the pile – until they toured Pakistan – thanks to a fresh approach to their team development.”

Team coaching is a special interest for Harrison. He recently submitted a thesis on the subject for an MSc in coaching and development. It is also an area he predicts will offer “massive opportunities for training professionals” and become ever more important over the next decade.

While organisations are geared up to extending individuals with personal development programmes and the like, the opposite is often true for team development, he says. “There is little understanding of what developing teams takes, therefore they operate at a fraction of their potential.

“As individuals there are things that hold us back, such as lack of confidence, and the wrong attitude. In a team these problems can be multiplied 10-fold if they are not dealt with,” he says.

Clean-bowled Kiwi

Alongside running his own business, the Coaching Company (www.coachingcompany.co.uk), Harrison also coaches youth cricketers in Nottinghamshire where he now lives. He uses non-directive coaching techniques that encourage budding Michael Vaughans to find a style that suits them best.

His day job takes him into public sector organisations and both multinational and smaller private sector companies, where he is involved in one-to-one executive coaching, team coaching and training managers to become coaches themselves. All his work comes through personal recommendations.

He says he has also been approached by a number of leading rugby and football clubs eager to see how his skills can help them to achieve success.

With this constant interchange of ideas between the sporting and business worlds, Harrison finds himself in the enviable position of mixing business with pleasure. “My hobby has become my business,” he says – one in which he has enjoyed some success, having once clean-bowled New Zealand batsman Chris Cairns.

Wiry, fit and outgoing, Harrison harbours an enormous passion for sport, as well as an unshakeable conviction that the coaching approach can elicit far greater results than traditional fear and control management styles.

This belief has been shaped by numerous job experiences since he started work at the age of 16. Working in various sales management roles in the construction and pharmaceutical industries, he says he soon became disenchanted with the old-style approach to management that he then encountered.

“I saw a lot of screaming and shouting and managers who thought their role was to be a policeman rather than a facilitator,” he says.

Fluffy and woolly

Life changed when he invited two sports coaches into the company to help with some training sessions. Their approach left him “completely converted” and he soon became the champion of the coaching approach in his company, taking on a number of training roles before setting up his own firm eight years ago.

Harrison defines coaching as “a high-quality conversation that makes a difference,” and says its aim is to make people realise just what they are capable of.

“Traditional managers think they must know everything and have all the answers for their staff – this is a very inefficient and stressful way of going about things,” he says.

“Through coaching, you can encourage team members to do things for themselves and come up with creative solutions to problems.”

He is also eager to dispel the idea that coaching is somehow “fluffy and woolly” or a soft option. “On the contrary it is a tough option,” he says.

He gives the example of a three-day residential workshop he ran for a large public sector organisation with the aim of improving team performance.

What he found was a group of people divided by petty disputes, unable to communicate or be honest with each other. There were tears and a lot of soul-searching. “People had to ask themselves a lot of hard questions, but as a result we got people to start trusting in each other,” he says.

This is where Harrison derives his job satisfaction – sitting back after a number of tough sessions and seeing how people have improved and are more willing to do things for themselves.

“When you see coaching work like this, you realise it is powerful stuff,” he says.

by Ross Bentley

The Corporate Athlete

In the workplace, as in sport, there are five essential elements that drive success, says Harrison.

There is the technical, have you got the right skills? The tactical, do you have a strategy? The lifestyle, do you have the right work-life balance? The physical, are you physically fit? And the mental, do you have passion, belief and desire?

It is the mental aspect that is often neglected in organisations, says Harrison. Yet athletes use visualisation and self-talk techniques constantly to develop positive thinking.

“I’ve seen this mental rehearsal work in all sports from football to weightlifting, but the fact is that in business we don’t touch it, and we should,” he says.

The chief executive who has to announce redundancies or sell a major message to shareholders, or the sales person on the verge of closing a major deal are just some of the people who could benefit from these skills, says Harrison.

The Harrison scorecard

  • Sporting hero

Andrew Flintoff – for his commitment, belief, desire and postive response to feedback, and for his contribution to raising the profile of cricket.

  • Rates

England captain Michael Vaughan – for his leadership.

  • Supports

2005 county cricket champions Nottinghamshire.

  • Can’t abide

Wasted talent, disrespect, bullying from those in authority, and cheating.

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