Last week, the eyes of the world’s press turned to Doha and its hosting of the World Athletics Championships. Here in the UK interest was intense. Dinah Asher Smith’s victory in the 200 meters was a masterclass of controlled and specialised technique, but it was Katerina Johnson Thompson’s Gold in Heptathlon that caught my eye.
The Heptathlon is one of the ultimate trials of all-round athletic ability. From shotput to sprinting, the discipline tests speed, strength and stamina, as well as the mental ability to hold it all together over two days of competition. In contrast to Asher Smith’s 20 seconds of brilliance, Johnson Thompson’s victory required a balance of skills, none of them world-beating on their own, but which collectively others could not match.
Since returning to the UK as CEO of Connect Group, I’ve been impressed by a similar quality in our news and magazine distribution business. Handling an average of 5 million copies every day, it delivers to 27,000 outlets from superstores to corner shops, collecting unsold copies for recycling, processing data to forecast demand, taking customer calls, invoicing… and all of it achieved in the tightest of time windows. The physical logistics is only half the story; I recall being astounded to learn that by noon our publishers can typically view their sales figures from the day before, right down to that corner shop I mentioned.
And yet, if we examine the unique skills of news wholesaling, what we find is that success more resembles a heptathlon than a sprint. What underpins our competitiveness is in not so much that we are very best at physical or even time sensitive delivery, nor are we peerless leaders in information management, invoicing or customer services. Rather, we are good at all these things, and it is this optimum combination of our arguably sub-optimal parts, which make us world class at what we do.
That’s not to say, there isn’t room for improvement. As with athletics, standards move on, expectations increase; the competition is always at our shoulders. As leaders and strategists, the lesson from this week’s heptathlon in Doha, is that we must take a holistic view, considering the impact of each initiative in its wider context — ensuring the strength we build in one area, doesn’t sap our speed or stamina in another.
It strikes me that the metaphor of ‘leader as coach’ is never more apt than in complex and well-established organisations — not least because, the catalogue of good companies brought down by supposedly transformative projects should give us pause for thought. But that pause must never lead to indecision.
The danger in managing this type of complexity is that answers can tend towards those that start with ‘But…’ As professionals we must accept that all decisions involve some risk, including the choice to leave matters alone. Risk can feel uncomfortable, threatening even, but a failure to commit is the surest way to ensure the competition will soon be pressing at your heels.
Making progress, while limiting our exposure requires that we draw on analysis as well as experience; creativity balanced by objective measures — and occasionally some counter intuitive thinking. Standard operating procedures, for example, might appear to be a restrictor to change — but we should view them more as athletes see solid technique. For only when we have sound and consistent foundations, can we test, and most importantly measure, the impact of changes we might introduce. In a world where all the parts are different, it’s tough to know what works, what doesn’t, or what to do next.
If I were to add one more ingredient, it would be to encourage, and be seen to exercise, appropriate humility. For no one can be right all the time and not every idea will be a success. Occasionally — though hopefully not too often — we must hold up our hands and learn from the experience. It is not being wrong that we should fear, it is being too proud to change course when the evidence is clear.
Returning to Doha, in the time I’ve drafted this piece the UK teams have won silver medals in both the sprint relays — pipped, I might add, by the Americans if not the Belgians!
The relay, of course, is all about passing the baton, with success being more than the sum of the parts. That’s a subject for another day, but it reminds me that harnessing the commitment of our teams to a bold but measurable strategy, is the best way to exceeding our expectations.