Human Performance | Dec 3, 2015

Michael Brooke, BNP Paribas

Extracting the Best from the Best

Much can be learned by examining excellence in other industries. We asked the Talent specialist at global investment bank BNP Paribas, Michael Brooke, to write a guest column on how he trains and develops elite executives. These ‘corporate athletes’ come through a rigorous selection process and operate under extreme pressure. They make decisions everyday with billions of dollars at stake. And like in sport, getting their coaching right, fine-tuning their skills and ensuring they are performing at full potential is a key advantage in a ruthlessly competitive and high stakes environment.

I have worked in talent development in various blue chip organisations for over 20 years.  My experience has been on both sides, as a supplier and as an in-house ‘buyer’. These organisations are characterised by talented people, who tend to share a common need; they are generally hungry to be developed, by credible experts, but almost without exception are hard to engage and extremely time-poor.

This is where some creative use of cross-industry expertise has proven successful for developing elite talent in business. Here are three informal principles I’ve used when designing interventions and some of the areas I’ve found to be rich with learnings.

Principle 1: Expertise is all around us…

The acting profession, as an example, have an enormous contribution to make to the business world. Business actors have long been helping business, typically by carrying out role plays to simulate business scenarios. The excellent feedback they provide comes from a completely different school of thought. Yet there is much more to be learnt from the acting profession, for example from actor and leading communication skills expert David Gillespie of The Speechworks.

David works with some of the world’s leading business executives and has based aspects of his philosophy around his acting work. One piece of his wisdom I’ve found resonates well in business is the importance of status in communication.

‘It’s all about status – and the sort of status we’re talking about has nothing to do with position or power or any of the things we might usually associate with the word. This is about perception. How we are perceived and how we want to be perceived. On a status scale of one to ten – ten isn’t the best and one isn’t the worst, in fact they are both as bad as each other. Ten is aloof arrogance that pushes people away and one is timid apology that closes us off for meaningful communication.

The right level to be effective communicators is in the middle – 5-7 on the status scale making us open, accessible, warm, approachable and strong – and it’s physical, vocal and emotional. Status is the absolute bedrock to great communication. Actors get to explore status from one to a thousand because that’s their job. People in business don’t have that luxury – they have to get their status bang on right first time – every time.

Having observed many tangible performance improvements from working with actors, I have recently progressed to exploring how the wider world of entertainment can assist us, and have recently worked with comedians and musicians in order to extract even more incremental gains for the talent pool within one organisation. Of course we are not trying to turn people into comedians, but to help them understand that everything from client pitches, to team meetings, to one on one conversations are actually opportunities to give memorable performances and hence improve outcomes.

Principle 2: Don’t always look in the most obvious place…

Naturally, the subject of confidence is talked about in all professional circles, nowhere more than in professional sport which has contributed significantly to the debate.   I have had great success with business executives by deploying physician Dr Tim Anstiss, who approaches the topic from a well-being and human flourishing approach.  Here are Tim’s thoughts on confidence:

A lack of confidence is common, and isn’t always a bad thing. There are lots of things I lack confidence in, and that stops me doing stuff that perhaps I should not, or am not ready to do. And we all know people who are overconfident, and the bad things that can happen as a result.

One of the things I want to do as a doctor working with patients with long term conditions is to help them become more confident about managing their own health in the future. To do this, I draw on ‘self-efficacy’ theory of Albert Bandura. Self-efficacy (task specific confidence) is a major determinant of whether or not people attempt a behaviour, and how long they persist in the face of obstacles. And it comes from four main sources: previous mastery experiences, vicarious learning (learning from others), persuasion from an authority, and physiological feedback. So to help a patient become more confident we get them to practice the required behaviour in small, progressive steps, watch how other people do it and learn from or with them, whilst providing and optimistic ‘coaching’ and supporting style of communication and feedback. And this is the same way I help anyone become more confident at what they want to learn to do.

But since anxiety and fear of failure also get in the way of people attempting new things, I also throw in a few proven cognitive-behavioural and mindfulness based practices to help people either a) experience less fear, or b) experience anxiety and do the behaviour anyway.

Principle 3: The communication is as important as the content…

Sometimes a story is more effective, more memorable and more hard-hitting than any other form of learning. A story engages with people on a different level. Stories stimulate both emotional and logical parts of the brain. If you try to persuade through facts and figures, you are more likely to meet resistance, people will naturally look for opposing arguments or flaws in the data.  Through stories we are more open to new ideas. So, where appropriate, I have used this methodology quite specifically to engage people with new initiatives.

So what easy steps can organisations take in order to enhance the skills of their people through cross-industry sharing?

Dr Chris Shambrook, psychologist to the GB Olympic Rowing team, talks about high performers (in any profession) having an in-depth understanding of all of the performance resources available to them, and the importance of meticulous and deliberate development of each of these resources. Chris breaks these into six key components of high performance: Tactical, technical, physical, psychological, emotional and contextual. This simple framework when combined with the aforementioned principles can be helpful to almost any performer in virtually any context.

So how can this be adopted in practice? Firstly, organisations (or individuals) might wish to define their own list of key resources, (tactical, technical etc). The second key step is to identify which of these are well-developed and which need attention. For example, technical skills might be in pretty good shape, but let’s say the thinking skills are not being deliberately developed sufficiently, hence there is a development opportunity there. Step three is to look around with a very open mind to identify where some real expertise exists, and step four is to engage with that expertise in a creative way considering all the principles mentioned above.

Truly high-performing organisations could do well to adopt this strategy, not as a nice to have, but as an essential mindset in order to survive.

Sign up to our newsletters

To ensure you’re keeping up to date with the latest intelligence, sign up (for free) to receive newsletters.


Become a member

Join our exclusive community of 600 leading global performance organisations and access insights, ideas and individuals that will challenge your thinking and maximise performance.

Become a member