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Team Sky: Leadership lessons from Sir David Brailsford

After fielding the winners in 2012 (Sir Bradley Wiggins) and 2013 (Chris Froome), the 2014 Tour de France was disastrous for Team Sky. Chris Froome crashed out of the race in Stage 5 and the team’s plan B failed to deliver a podium finish in Paris. Yet, last week they bounced back to deliver a second tour victory for Chris Froome. What was the secret of their renewed success? In his interview after the 2015 victory, here are some of the reflections from Team Sky general manager, Sir David Brailsford:-

  • “We’d been becoming pretty aligned over the last six years working together. If you gave us a problem we’d come back with the same answer, [we had lost] the cognitive diversity we had as a group.”
  • “[Before] when I would say something, they would say ‘bollocks’, we’d argue a lot, there would be tension but we’d come up with some good ideas, constantly pushing forward.”
  • “It was comfortable, everyone getting on but it wasn’t excellent. So if we want to change this we’re going to have to rock this boat, as uncomfortable as this is.”

Through the above comments, Brailsford is advocating three attributes of teams that don’t just win once, but win again and again and again:-

Team Sky

  • cognitive diversity
  • creative tension
  • rocking the boat

In challenging coaching terms, Team Sky know how to enter the zone of uncomfortable debate (ZOUD) in pursuit of the dream. They recognise that optimum performance requires a level of tension in the system and that success has an unfortunate habit of reducing that tension. Finally, they recognise that, over time, teams tend to drift towards harmony at the expense of performance; the boat stops rocking. New blood is often key to shaking up the existing order.

In the business world, we are familiar with the same challenges. Board level teams recruit in their own image, those who rock the boat are labelled mavericks or trouble-makers, whilst healthy conflict is stifled by procedure and politics. The added handicap in the business world is often the lack of a compelling goal. Where is our podium? What is the equivalent of the yellow jersey? Who is our king of the mountains? The stop watch is a simpler and more honest arbiter of performance than the profit and loss account or the balance sheet. Without a shared understanding of that dream; that set of courageous goals; that common purpose, what will trigger us to enter our own ZOUD?

Team Sky knew exactly what success tasted like, looked like and smelt like. They’d been there in 2012 and 2013 and they wanted to get back there again in 2015. Here’s Brailsford talking about the team’s journey home after the 2014 failure:-

  • “We drove six hours to Paris, phones off, and I grilled the management all the way: ‘What are we going to do to turn this round? This isn’t good enough, this isn’t what we are all about, this isn’t excellent.’ And excellence is what we are supposed to be all about.”

In business as in sport, we are about excellence and we need to win our race as a team. The story of Team Sky should inspire us at many different levels. Most of all, it should prompt us to ask the following questions as we look around the boardroom table:-

  • Do we really know what success looks like round here?
  • Are we recruiting and promoting people who will shake things up as opposed to fit in well?
  • Do we have conversations where anyone in the room, not just the boss, can say ‘this isn’t good enough’?
  • Is excellence one of our values and, if it is, are we prepared to switch off our mobile phones and make a stand for it?

As we know, the Tour de France is not a perfect institution, but we can learn a lot from Team Sky’s unflinching performance-driven culture. ‘Mais oui, bien sûr!’ as they say on the Champs Élysées!

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