Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Perfect Storm - Leadership for Performance

I admit it, I’m a bit of a geek. I love analysing data and I’m especially fascinated by applying theories & models to real life situations. Is this a bad thing? Well it would be if I wasn’t acutely aware of my ability to make peoples eyes glaze over, before rolling into the back of their head.  So I’ll keep this brief, here is one of the models I used for leading teams to deliver performance.

(Guest blog by Darren Warner, Olympic medal winning coach, and Judospace Performance Advisor. Follow Darren on twitter at @createautonomy )

In 2007, I was lucky enough to be part of UK Sports Elite Coach, a three year leadership programme for GB coaches. Lucky? I say lucky because at this stage in my career, I was unsure on my leadership style.  I considered myself a good coach. I had confidence in my coaching philosophy, and clarity in the model I worked within. But how did I Lead? 

The Tipping Point
For me, it was the seven days I spent in Wales with the Leadership Trust, paid for by UK Sport, as part of my development.  The Leadership Trust thrives on setting tasks, where the debrief consists of the group telling the task leader how their leadership made them feel.  At times, it was brutally harsh, but dispersed with leadership models throughout the week, it struck a great balance. I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who has a spare £5,000, or someone else has…

Forming - Storming - Norming - Performing
Looking back, I think Tuckman’s stages of group development model struck a cord with me because I already felt that group development wasn’t a linear progression. Maybe it confirmed my beliefs… Sure, it was first proposed in 1965, with many further developments since then, but it provided me with a model to conceptualise and play with. That was all I needed.

The following year, in 2008 was the first time I recognised the signs of the forming-storming in a team I was leading.  There were plenty of  strong characters in the team, with many of the athletes coming from the same club and I had a feeling that this had the potential to be an explosive year.  But, I had no idea how explosive!

There were plenty of  strong characters in the team...

I’d like to say the first cracks appeared in June but in all honesty, it was more like a smash! We were on a conditioning camp in Austria when things kicked off. It started with money being stolen from one of the girls rooms and progressed with a drunken binge with six of the athletes, leading to two of the players being banned.  By the time we arrived for our high volume block of training in Japan, two weeks later, the problems were there for all to see.  There was a lot of animosity and blame, everyone seemed to have an issue with someone. So how could I make things better? I didn’t, I decided to make things worse…

Riding the Storm
Firstly laying down the law, telling them how unhappy I was with their behaviour and that for the next three weeks, their life would be hell. ‘Expect to be woken up in the middle of the night for training!’ kept them on edge, as did putting them in small rooms of six, when double rooms were available. I’d be lying if I said I had a master plan of how it would pan out.  As I mentioned, my leadership style was just developing, but I did recognise that by becoming the common enemy, they stopped hating each other.  By the end of the year, I had to look back on the Japan camp as a massive success. OK they hated me, but I pushed them much harder and got a much better reaction when they wanted to prove me wrong. 

Once we were back from Asia, there was a different feel in the air.  They’d won back my respect with their efforts out there and I used that as a way to win them back. I told them how wrong I’d been, that I realised that this team was capable of having the most success at a World Championships that British Judo had ever seen.  From that moment on, I didn’t want to speak to them about anything that wasn’t taking us closer to world class success.  We reestablished our team rules, but rather than the average session at the start of the year, where nobody seems that clear on why we’re doing it?! Everyone had a focus that this was taking us all closer to the success we craved. 

Everyone had a focus that this was taking us all closer to the success we craved. 

So that's how it started, the momentum built and anyone who has led a team to success will tell you they can feel it. Every team talk I delivered, I looked in their eyes and I knew this year could be different. I knew they wanted it more than any team I’d worked with before. So how did it end?  I’ve realised there’s only one way it could end… BRILLIANTLY

European & World Championships
That year we attended the four hardest European ranking tournaments: Russia, France, Poland & Germany. So going into the European Championships in September, we had six players who’d won 10 medals from the four events. If I compare this to top nations such as Russia (won 43 medals), France (won 33 medals) or Germany (won 46 medals) it was clear we had both a smaller talent pool and less consistency throughout the team. In fact only two members of our team had won more than one medal from the four events, highlighting we had no guaranteed medals!

2008 Major Event Medals By Nation

Europeans Worlds

Russia 4    4

Germany 4    1

France 5    4

Great Britain 3    3

Whilst periodisation played a key part to these results, I really felt the storm we’d had earlier in the year was pivotal.  The six medals were won by four players but we were 4 seconds aways from a fourth medal at the Europeans as one of the lads lost with four seconds to go in the semi-final! That said, we were also the only European nation to improve our performance at the World Championships as we achieved a silver and two bronze as opposed to three bronze at the Europeans.

So what did I take from that year? Well, every year after that I created a storm with the athletes in one form or another. Every time I felt a real shift in attitude. I became very comfortable in not being the most popular person in the room. One thing I did notice is that unlike my periodisation model, the storm never came at the same time.  

Sometimes you have to force it, other times it comes by itself. But either way don’t run from it, once you see it, embrace and whenever possible, ride it! 

Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s learning to dance in the rain…

Find out more about Darren's work with the Judospace Educational Institute here...