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Rowing to business success

Powerful but ‘less obvious’ lessons that Olympic athletes can teach business, from focusing on things you can control to reassessing what ‘winning’ really means.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - April 11, 2010: Lagoon is the famous inland water connected Atlantic Ocean, mecca for aquatic sports such as rowing.

Mark de Rond

Mark de Rond

With the summer Olympics soon to begin in Brazil, what can business learn from world-class athletes?

There are inspiring lessons in leadership and teamwork and determination, of course, and that’s why many business books have sports- or goal-themed titles like Pitching to Win, Good to Great and In Search of Excellence.

But there are also other, less flashy lessons that business people can learn from world-class athletes. “The most powerful lessons business can learn from sports are not always also the most obvious,” says Mark de Rond, Reader in Strategy & Organisation at Cambridge Judge Business School, who has studied high-performing teams including world-class rowers.

Among such lessons, say two former Olympic rowers with Cambridge connections: to realise that even championship performances can be improved, to focus on things you can control rather than those you can’t, and to recognise that even gold medal winners can’t do it alone without a well-tuned support team.

Focusing on improvement

“An athlete would never assume that they are perfect in every sense and all they need to do in order to succeed is keep doing what they are doing,” says Richard Phelps, who represented Britain in men’s rowing at the 1992 summer Olympics in Barcelona and later won the Boat Race three straight years as a rower for the University of Cambridge against Oxford University.

“When I lost, it hurt, but I’d walk away and analyse why I lost, and if I won I’d go away and hopefully analyse why I won,” says Richard, now managing director, senior relationship management at Barclays Investment Bank. “What was good enough for gold today isn’t going to be good enough for gold tomorrow. A win can make you complacent. In rowing, you constantly reassess exactly what is a gold medal standard.

“I wonder whether firms like BHS and Austin Reed (two once-successful but now-failed UK retailers) were doing the equivalent – saying: ‘OK, this works well for us now – but what are market conditions going to be like in eight years’ time? Do we need to up the ante? Or change how we do things?’

“You can be sure that Usain Bolt (who won three gold medals at both the 2008 and 2012 summer Olympics) will be going all out to win in Rio this year and he’ll expect to change his training regime to achieve that.”

The 2016 summer Olympics are held 5-21 August. Bolt’s showcase 100-metre final event is at the Olympic Stadium on 14 August, while Olympic rowers will compete 6-13 August at Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas in the Copacabana region of Rio de Janeiro.

Concentrate on things you can control

Cath Bishop, a career diplomat who rowed for Britain at the Atlanta, Sydney and Athens Olympic games, winning Olympic silver at Athens in 2004, says her mindset shifted over the years from being “obsessed with winning medals” to performing to the best of her ability.

“How I defined winning changed very much throughout my time as an Olympian,” says Cath, who competed in the Boat Race twice and is now Chair of the Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club. “I found that if I only thought about how I won a medal or not, it beat me down. I couldn’t control what the rest of the world was doing. I couldn’t control whether I was going to win a gold. But I could control delivering my best performance.

“It’s the feeling of the boat flying over the water. When you get everything working in harmony and the effort suddenly becomes effortless. You’re cohesive, you’re working together. The timing is completely spot on. You’re working intuitively. And you suddenly get that extra thing that means you are more than the sum of your parts. If you get that in a race, it feels great and you are highly likely to win a medal.”

Rely on expert support

Richard and Cath say that support teams, too often unsung, are vital in both sports and business – because specialised expertise and fresh opinions help drive success.

That message is reflected in a recent report on small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), convened by Barclays and featuring research from Cambridge Judge Business School and Oxford Saïd Business School. Many SMEs are tightly managed and controlled by their founders without proper delegation, and this imposes a limit on firm size through the “bottleneck of one mind”, the report found.

“To grow beyond this limit, a formalisation of roles, organisation and processes is necessary – and such formalisation is often a prerequisite to successful delegation that allows growth without sacrificing decision speed and quality,” the report said.

World-class rowers usually have a rowing coach, a conditioning coach, and a physiologist or doctor. “They never think that just because they have won something, they know all the answers,” says Richard. “In business, the winners are those who have worked that out.”

Sports and business aren’t identical

Tom Ransley, a Cambridge Judge alumnus (Management Studies Tripos 2009) who won a bronze medal with Britain’s men’s eight rowing team at the 2012 Olympics and will compete in the same event at this year’s Rio games, says overlap between the sports and business worlds can sometimes work both ways.

“I worked with Coca-Cola Enterprises and the Coca-Cola Company in the three years before London 2012,” he says. “My approach to training and racing were improved by the lessons I learnt at Coca-Cola – the ability to make a robust plan and communicate that plan to the relevant people, whilst still retaining the flexibility to adapt to the unforeseen.

“Yet there are also cultural norms and methods that don’t always transfer well, including the pressure and stress of working in a high-performance environment. It very much depends on the intended objectives and the people who are working toward them,” says Tom.

Mark de Rond of Cambridge Judge says it’s understandable why sports metaphors like “slam dunk”, “keep your eye on the ball” and “be a team player” have become part of business vernacular, given that about half the CEOs of Britain’s 500 largest companies have, at some point, won awards for their athletic prowess.

He cautions, however, that there are some big differences between sports and business.

An Olympic sport like rowing has a “clear, measurable objective” – to cross the finish line first – while a business serves many stakeholders and interests that may not always coincide: customers, employees, suppliers and shareholders.

And while a CEO can pick his or her top executive team based at least partly on subjective factors like loyalty and personality, elite sports are usually a far truer meritocracy with an “inability to cherry-pick team members” based on factors other than sheer ability, says Mark.