Former Olympic champion, politician and businessman Sebastian Coe shares the secrets of his success and provides his tips on leadership skills (from an article in the Daily Telegraph in 2009 – I wonder if he would add to this, now, after his experience of running the Olympics?)
I am often asked what motivates me to succeed, and how I apply the skills I learned as a runner to my roles in politics and business. The answers to the first question are a passion for the job in hand and a wish to be the best I can be; the answer to the second is that I apply them daily.
There are common traits to successful leaders in any field: imagination, tenacity, the ability to listen, intuition and intelligence. Equally important is the ability to focus and stay on track for as long as it takes, self-management, an element of charisma, a degree of talent and sheer personal courage.
Sports people at the top of their game tend, like entrepreneurs, to have something of a frontier mentality. They are bold and they are prepared to embrace new ideas. Those with a winning mentality are often more prepared to listen to criticism and do things in a new way. It can take courage to set yourself apart from the crowd. Choosing to do things differently can be mistaken for arrogance but, in reality, taking a new approach is often born simply of a compulsion to keep driving forwards.
1 LEADERS CAN BE MADE
There is a common belief that leaders are born, not made. I am not so sure about that. There is also every chance that a leader is shaped – by their environment, by their ambition, by their role models, by the support they are given as they progress through life and by sheer determination. I believe that almost anything can be achieved by anyone, provided they have the motivation and drive and can visualise the end goal clearly enough.
2 THE VISION THING
I cannot overstate the importance of having a vision. It is what you cling to, for dear life, when a project is proving particularly difficult. A vision is not the same as a mission statement. A mission statement is simply a statement of intent and often merely restates the obvious; a vision is intended to inspire people. A vision helps describe the landscape you are helping people navigate. It is bold, it is optimistic, it is often pioneering – and usually intensely personal. It is the highest point of achievement you can envisage for yourself and your team.
3 YOU CAN’T INSPIRE PEOPLE UNLESS YOU UNDERSTAND THEM FIRST
Unless you can inspire others to buy into your vision you won’t succeed. Success is possible only if each individual understands the unique part they play in achieving the eventual outcome. You can’t inspire people simply by barking orders from the touchline. You can’t inspire people unless you first understand them. I asked myself and the members of the Olympic bid team: “Why do you want to do this?”
4″HOW?” AND “WHY?” QUESTIONS THAT NEED TO BE ASKED IN THE RIGHT ORDER
Project managers in any organization will spend a lot of time drilling in two basic questions: “How are we going to do it?” “Why are we going to do it?” But the questions are usually asked in the wrong order. It is impossible to decide how to do something effectively unless you can get to the heart of why you’re doing it. It is the most important question to ask any individual or team before they start project planning.
5 SET REALISTIC GOALS
A consistent and single-minded approach to reaching short-term goals is often a more reliable way of achieving long-term success than a wealth of natural talent on its own.
Throughout my athletics career, the overall goal
was always to be a better athlete than I was at that moment – whether next week, next month or next year. The object was always to improve – gradually, steadily, sustainably – and in achievable stages. The improvement was the goal. The medal was simply the ultimate reward for achieving that goal. It’s an approach that I still apply now, in all aspects of my life.
6 STRONG LEADERS ARE NOT AFRAID TO HIRE PEOPLE BRIGHTER THAN THEMSELVES
I trust my 2012 team to be far more expert than me in their respective disciplines, as I did with my backroom athletics team. It is important to recognize when other people’s skills are needed as well as your own, when it is time to say, “I can’t take you any further with this”, rather than saying, “I’m going to try to turn myself into that kind of person’. Problems develop if those operating at a strategic level become too involved in the detail, or vice versa.
7 LISTEN NOT ONLY TO WHAT IS BEING SAID, BUT ALSO TO WHAT IS NOT BEING SAID
I am not a great fan of desks and offices so I tend to walk around and talk to people. I find it a very useful way of getting to know people and finding out what is really going on, listening for the questions that should be asked but are not. Keeping the lines of daily communication open is crucial. A good leader doesn’t only listen to what is being said – they are intuitively tuned in to the subtext as well. It is one of the most important aspects of leading a team. Ensuring any project will succeed requires effective communication: up and down, formal and informal, always open, always honest.
8 PICK YOUR BATTLES
It’s important that on occasions I am seen out there at the front, defending when necessary and not hiding from reasonable debate and scrutiny, as well as picking the battles, often ones that are small enough to win and big enough to matter. One of the greatest challenges of any leader is recognizing when personal involvement is necessary and when it is more effective to lend support to others instead.
9 YOU ARE NOT INDISPENSABLE
In business, there are bosses who are so controlling that team members cease to have the confidence to make any decision themselves. The reality is that most people ask questions because they are engaged in the process and are genuinely trying to understand and improve their performance, to the advantage of the team. Rather than feeling threatened by a younger, talented person, an effective leader will nurture that individual and help them to succeed. A successful company or department should not cease to function simply because a key individual leaves the company, goes on holiday, or takes on a new role; the organization should already know who the next generation of leaders is likely to be.
10 HOLD FEWER MEETINGS
In many companies there is a tendency to become dependent on an excessive number of meetings. If you give your team permission to go away and do their jobs without constant sign-off they will start to develop the confidence to begin making decisions and thinking for themselves. In a highly skilled environment, where the right appointments exist, very few people lack the ability to do the job, but a heavily dependent meeting culture will undermine confidence. In a work environment where every decision has to be approved by someone higher up the chain the whole organization can become paralyzed.
11 EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED
In every scenario it is wise to assume that the worst could happen. Human error tends to be the norm. Mistakes are very rarely down to a failure in technology. Part of a leader’s job is to anticipate crises in advance of them occurring. The risk is that the whole organization may develop a bunker mentality rather than focusing on creating an upbeat project. The answer is to ensure the creative team does not worry unnecessarily about risk management and the risk management team is respected for what they put in place.
12 ENCOURAGE RISK TAKING
Allow people to take calculated risks – within their own area of responsibility – even if it means the risk of failure. The reality is that those who are risk-averse will find it much tougher, and probably more stressful, to make it to the top in business. At the point at which you make things happen, there is inevitably an element of risk. The tension that is created in bringing all your focus to bear on a single goal will eventually drive you forward to some form of resolution: you will either take the risk and transform yourself by going forward, or take the softer risk-averse option and sidestep the risk of failure but miss out on the reward. The latter is often the safer option, but in the long term it will not enable you to grow or develop as fast.
13 LOSING IS NOT THE SAME AS FAILING
Losing once does not mean that you haven’t enough talent to succeed in future – it is simply an opportunity to learn, to expand understanding of the task and develop self-knowledge and to find out what improvements have to be made in order to win next time. Losing did not make me want to quit – it just increased my hunger to win. I couldn’t wait to get back on to the track, and I couldn’t wait to start making the changes needed to improve my chances of winning next time around.
14 NEVER SAY NEVER
There have been several key points during my life when I was told I couldn’t/shouldn’t/wouldn’t do something because it had never been done before. That is never a good enough reason not to try. I was told I would never be fast enough to be an 800m runner and I would never be big enough to be a miler – and yet I broke world records in both distances before my twenty-third birthday. I use other people’s disbelief as a motivating factor when faced with tough challenges.
15 STICK TO YOUR OWN GAMEPLAN
Your needs are different to your competitors’ and if something needs to be changed, it should be done strategically and over time, not in reaction to someone else’s aims. Strategy relates to long-term goals, whereas tactics are the practical manoeuvres that need to take place on the day. Short-termism should never replace the long-term view.
16 RESPECT YOUR RIVALS
Your relationships with your competitors are crucial. The business relationships and contacts that you make early on in your career don’t disappear – they rise alongside you as your peers. People tend to have long memories too, so it is always as well to appreciate your friends and respect your enemies, because you never know who you might be collaborating with at a later date. Never doubt that in business, as in politics, most relationships are dispensable. Even ones that have been developed over a long period of time can be jeopardized if a contact feels used or misinformed, or if a decision reflects badly on their own position.
17 ALWAYS LISTEN TO THE MARKET
In 2003, a couple of years before the presentation in Singapore for the London bid, my four children joined me at the World Athletics Championships in Paris. I remember driving down the Champs Élysées, en route to the Stade de France to claim our prime site seats and thinking that I wanted them to understand we were going to enjoy a pretty privileged existence. I turned to my daughter, then 12, and said: “How lucky the children in your class must think you are.” She replied: “I doubt there are three children in my class who know that these championships are on.” My daughter was telling me that I was out of touch with the marketplace and she was right. Track and field has been sliding off the radar for my children’s generation. That feedback revealed to me the challenge we were facing with our bid.
18 LIVE A BALANCED LIFE
Every athlete that you see out there in an Olympic stadium has brought immense focus to bear on that one moment in their career. Focusing on one thing at the expense of all others will result in a loss of balance. It is possible to over-prepare or become so absorbed in a task that the overall life-balance is forfeit. Just as an athlete may find it difficult to adjust to “normal” life once their career has peaked and they are starting to think about other things, so too, in any role, it can be challenging to find a balance between preparation, action and knowing when to stop. So many traits, if taken to extremes, can have a detrimental effect not only on professional performance but on personal well-being and relationships as well.
19 DON’T BE AFRAID TO SWITCH OFF
The brain needs periods of rest to allow new information to bed down, and fresh ideas and perspectives to come to the surface. There are numerous examples of people making new discoveries when they were relaxing or taking a break from the very thing they had been focusing on. In athletics, performance will often be enhanced by a period of relaxation and calm.
20 YES YOU CAN
Success is not some kind of exclusive club where you can simply pay your membership dues, sit back and let life’s rewards come to you. The nature of success is entirely determined by the individual. Success for some is getting up in the morning. For others it is about overcoming a fear. Success is whatever you want it to be. Whatever your field of endeavour, my advice is to understand and absorb the lessons life throws at you, to focus on your goals, to continually challenge yourself and never be deterred by seemingly insurmountable opposition. Once you’ve decided what you want to achieve, commit yourself fully. There are no half-measures. Then, and only then, will you find out what you are really made of. You may just be surprised by the results.
Published: in the Daily Telegraph 04 Apr 2009