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Learning From the Sporting Supremos: How Baby Steps Can Take You to the Top

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With Wimbledon, the Tour De France and the Ashes all in the bag, not to mention the first US Open win for an Englishman in 43 years, it seems a good time to look at what business leaders can learn from some UK sporting supremos.

After the second Ashes test match, England's batting coach was talking about the youngest member of the England squad, Joe Root. Young Root had just scored a whopping 180 runs which had secured English victory. His selection to open the batting had been slightly contentious as there are more experienced players in good form who could easily have been picked ahead of him. The batting coach and ex-England captain Graham Gooch gave an insight into how the coaching set up had recognised that Root was the man for the job: "He's hungry to learn and takes ownership of his own improvement and development; he's the type that will always be asking questions, coming to us looking to improve his performance. We can't spoon-feed at this level and the best performers are those who are constantly looking to work on their game." I'm paraphrasing but the message was clear; ability is one thing, hard work and continual learning is what separates the super-stars from the also-rans. There are lots of talented sports people, it's the ones with the right attitudes that will reach the top and warrant most investment.

Switch over to the Tour De France and Team Sky's unprecedented recent dominance. From a standing start, David Brailsford has led this new team to successive victories, with two very different British riders in Wiggins and Froome. This is also the man who master-minded the GB cycling team's Olympic supremacy, in both Beijing and London. Pleasingly, the man who told the French that the secret to GBs success was that his wheels were rounder than theirs. With two top dogs in his team, who don't get on well, he was quizzed on how the team could function next year when both leaders were fit and healthy. Probably the most successful sports coach of the last decade, in any sport, Brailsford was dismissive. He rejected the premise that team-mates needed to be mates at all. The only important thing for him was "goal harmony". As long as people have goal harmony they can perform at world-beating levels, without needing to be friendly or even particularly compatible. If people want the same thing, they will collaborate, irrespective of friendship. The trick lies in identifying the shared goal and shared benefit, and communicating it to all parties. Having a harmonious and friendly team doesn't automatically equate to a high performance team, and certainly isn't a dependency for success.

Finally, sticking with the British sporting theme, there's Clive Woodward, who led England to Rugby World Cup victory in 2003. Woodward focussed a lot on the 'one per cents'. The principle being that, at the highest level, there are no more huge advantages or gains to be had over the opposition. They're all fit, professional and well coached, and the rules of the game are the same. There's no single area where a five to 10 per cent advantage can be gained so he focused on the top one per cent. He ensured that everything was as good as it could possibly be, and looked for numerous incremental gains across lots of different areas. If all else is equal then it's the fractions that ultimately make the difference. He encouraged the players and management to leave no stone unturned in providing an environment for success. Collect enough one per cent edges over the rest of the world and soon you'll have the best team in the world. A first ever rugby world cup for England suggests he got something right.

Three successful British coaches, three valuable and transferable philosophies; don't be swayed by skill alone. Attitude is at least as important in terms of deciding who'll be a super star. Search hard to identify, communicate and agree 'goal harmony' across any team, department or company. Don't focus exclusively on game changing ideas or initiatives; instead focus on making everything a little bit better at every opportunity. A culture of continual improvement and 'small wins' soon adds up to a big competitive advantage. Baby steps can get you a long way.