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Leadership & Culture, Performance | Jul 4, 2016
Sir Dave Brailsford on Creating a Winning Environment.

Sir Dave Brailsford knows what it takes to win. Under his stewardship Team Sky have won three of the last four Tours de France and are well-placed to challenge for the overall title again this year.


By John Portch

“I’ve never won a Tour de France and I’m not going to win a Tour de France. I can’t do the thing I get judged on,” he says. “So all I can do is actually think how I can become an expert at helping and supporting people to be the best they can be. I spend 80 per cent of my time thinking about the human aspect of what we do.”

At the Leaders Sport Performance Summit in London in 2015 Brailsford delivered an insight into his work creating a winning environment at Team Sky. The team’s approach breaks down into three key areas:

1. Performance strategy

2. Creating an optimised performance environment

3. Continuous improvement

1. Performance Strategy

Goal harmony

No matter how talented a team is, it will fail if its team members do not have a singular vision that complements personal ambitions. Brailsford prioritises what he calls ‘goal harmony’: “If you can get everybody behind a goal then you may achieve some team harmony, but if you focus on having a harmonious team first, without being clear about where you will get that goal harmony then I don’t think your performance will be optimal.

“It’s about having the right alignment of individual aspirations and it’s about setting out individual projects and seeing them as discrete events.”

Self versus self-sacrifice

The discrete goals of riders at Team Sky are rooted in the balance of self and self-sacrifice. “A lot of guys in our sport sacrifice their own chance to enable somebody else to be successful and you’ll hear all this talk about him being a team player, putting his aspirations to one side for the benefit of the team.

“It’s the concept of current self versus future self and is something to think about when aligning people to a current goal. That is how we try to get that alignment.”

“People don’t do that – that’s not how people are. They’re always thinking ‘what’s in it for me?’ We have to recognise that people will think about themselves, they will want their own opportunities and will contemplate the idea of what they are willing to sacrifice now if they are to receive an opportunity in the future.

“It’s the concept of current self versus future self and is something to think about when aligning people to a current goal. That is how we try to get that alignment.”

2. Creating the right environment

Optimising the opportunity to perform

“I think you win first and develop a culture.” It was Team Sky’s victories at the 2012 and 2013 Tours de France enabled Brailsford and his staff to establish a framework for their performance environment heading forward. “It is very much about the human. I’m not talking about a rider or a member of staff, I’m just thinking about humans and how you can create environments that optimise a human’s opportunity to perform at the best of their ability.”

Recruiting to Team Sky’s values

Sensible recruitment is a fundamental component of Team Sky’s cultural environment. “Firstly, you have to identify what it is you’re trying to recruit. We spend a lot of time thinking if there is a particular skill or function that we would like somebody to come in with. Do we want a future winner of the Tour de France? Do you want someone to come in and support the team? Do we want someone to come in and lead our physiology department? You have to be really clear in terms of what you are looking for. We tend to look at knowledge, skills, experience and behaviour. I will create a big chart and look at those attributes.

“Everybody will have a different profile but behaviour is pretty important. If it’s a staff member and they can’t find into the Team Sky way, as it were, then it’s going to fail regardless of the knowledge and skills they’ve got. From a rider’s point of view, behaviour is important but if you haven’t got the talent then you aren’t going to win.”

Onboarding

“The concept of onboarding is important to us. I don’t like the term but I do like the thinking behind it. This year we hired some talented riders and thought about how the speed of their integration will have an impact on how they are going to be able to perform. So we have to sit back and work out how we can fast track somebody into the team. Do we just let it happen or is there any intervention we can look at?”

We looked for our positive attributes and decided that this is what we stand for, behaviours we look to embody. The main ones are: managing self, then it’s about performance, communication and continuous improvement.

Brailsford explains that the framework for interventions often comes through Team Sky’s accepted behaviours. “Like many people, we have identified what we think our behaviours are. We looked for our positive attributes and decided that this is what we stand for, behaviours we look to embody. The main ones are: managing self, then it’s about performance, communication and continuous improvement.

Winning and losing behaviours

“Underneath that we develop certain phrases that represent, identify and fit in those areas. If it’s 11.30pm on a cold night, you’re tired, the mechanics are tired, they’ve got to get the bikes right for a big day tomorrow. We were late coming in, we were on a big stage and there is a bit of friction. At that moment in time how do you get that filter, those behaviours or values, to enable a person to think or see those problems through those rather than just what they would normally do? It’s not easy.

“So we developed an app to gauge the winning and losing behaviours of our staff. Each day they answer a series of multiple choice questions from an angry emoji to a super happy emoji and I get to see those.”

Questions require riders and staff to think and include such phrases as ‘I am in control of my emotions’, ‘I am consistent and robust’ and ‘I proactively solve problems’. “It’s a reflective practice to say ‘you think you’re on a super happy face for all these things you’ve done but you’ve been moaning lately’. If you’re spending a month with somebody as we do then you don’t want someone bringing everyone down. For me that would be a losing behaviour.

They’re exhibiting more losing behaviours than winning behaviours we’ll flag it up and give you a chance to modify it. We’ll try to sort it out over time but if you can’t then there’s no place for you in this team. That’s how you bring our culture to life.

“But what I think you find is a lot of literature written around the positive aspects of culture, which say ‘these are the things you should do’ and there is not much written about the things that kill you. The losing behaviours, if you like. I think if you eradicate the things that can make you go down then people can flourish.

“We monitor it and if they’re exhibiting more losing behaviours than winning behaviours we’ll flag it up and give you a chance to modify it. We’ll try to sort it out over time but if you can’t then there’s no place for you in this team. That’s how you bring our culture to life.”

3. Continuous improvements

Searching for bridgeable gaps

Another aspect of the culture is the constant analysis to work out what it takes to keep winning. “There are more ‘ologists’ in sport now than we had before so it’s not too difficult to work out,” says Brailsford. “Once we have got that, look at where we are at, then try to see if it’s a bridgeable gap or not, and if it is we’ll decide what interventions we are going to put in place to optimise the chances of it happening.

“I like to go forward thinking about what it will take to be successful in the future, because I think we all have a cognitive bias with the moment we are in. So we’re influenced by the challenges, pressures and obstacles of what is holding us back now.  I just try to forget everything and take a step into the future, unshackle ourselves from what is going on now and think about what winning looks like in the future.

“Then you work back from there and I think you get a different solution or perhaps a different mindset to try and solve the problem.

“So we are constantly looking for the small improvements. I’m a big believer in progression rather than perfection. If you set perfection as a goal then I think it’s quite a daunting task: we’re all human, we all fail at times, none of us are robots. But ask someone if they can improve a little bit and 99.9 per cent of people will say ‘yes’. That becomes motivational. Off we go to make little steps, to accumulate those steps, which then become big steps.”

Takeaways

  • Goal harmony. Personal aspirations can be used to develop a unified team vision.
  • Athletes will be willing to sacrifice their present chances for the sake of the team if presented with future opportunities.
  • Team Sky recruits according to their winning behaviours and values.
  • Staff and riders are monitored to see how they embody those winning behaviours and Brailsford will intervene if someone is exhibiting too many losing behaviours.
  • Team Sky is in constant pursuit of improvement and looks to continuously span ‘bridgeable gaps’ in performance.

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