The leadership team – ‘the fierce urgency of now’

In February next year four to six British athletes will be careering down a Beijing ice track at over 90 miles per hour in the quest for more medals and more glory for the British Skeleton team. Ignite has sponsored the Talent squad for eight years and has had the privilege of witnessing this incredible team of leaders, coaches and athletes repeatedly achieve remarkable success against all the odds.

There is much that we continue to learn from the secrets of their success, and certainly much that can be applied to organisations outside the world of elite sport. Over the following months we will be interviewing these very people; monitoring their progress and sharing the insight as they prepare for the opportunity to do their country proud. Everyone from sports enthusiasts to business leaders will benefit from understanding the magic that goes into creating the kind of high-performance environment that delivers Olympic success time and time again.  Today we begin with those leading this remarkable team.

Let me introduce you to the British Skeleton leadership team – Nat Dunman and Danny Holdcroft.

Nat is the Performance Director and has been on the team since September 2018. It is her vision and strategy that binds the team together. Her role is to ensure that she has exactly the right blend of expertise, experience and skills in the team, with every individual fully behind the purpose and the strategy that she sets; always focusing on the things that will make the greatest difference.

Danny is Head of Performance and has been with the team since 2005 and remarkably this is his fifth Olympic cycle. He sets the standards and holds the team to account to ensure that everyone is operating at the peak of their potential. His role is to continuously raise the bar, ensuring that the team habitually explore bold and imaginative ways of outperforming the opposition. Together they form a formidable team, determined to ensure our history of success extends to Beijing and beyond.

 

Today we have been talking to them to better understand where they are now and what more needs to be achieved to ensure that the team maximises their chances of success in February 2022. We asked them to set out the five key things that have contributed to their run of success, where they feel they are at the moment in these key areas, and what they need to focus upon over the Summer. We explored each of the critical ingredients for success in turn:

Focus – Nat and Danny are both clear that the team exists for one all-consuming purpose – to win Olympic medals. It is their role to ensure that everyone fully understands exactly what they are accountable for and what they must focus on to fully contribute towards this purpose.

This Olympic cycle has seen a number of personnel changes including coaches and sports & medicine staff. “We have a relatively new team”, says Nat. “We needed to ensure we quickly established a common purpose, clarity of accountabilities and mutual respect across the group. I was also keen that everyone understood and respected that this programme relies upon public funding, and we need to acknowledge the privileged position we are in and the importance of ensuring we deliver value for money from this investment”. Both Nat and Danny acknowledge that there remains more to be done here, increasingly sharpening the focus of everyone as the Olympics get nearer.

Strong and decisive leadership throughout the team – in describing the nature of the leadership the team needs, both Nat and Danny are acutely aware of the importance of recognising the different styles of leadership required at different stages of the season. In the Summer, the team are based at Bath and it is a period of reflecting, planning and responding to everything learnt during the past competitive season. Nat favours a highly inclusive and collaborative approach to leadership that is in line with her natural style. But come the Winter when the team are competing, leaders need to be much more directive, making decisions for the good of the team at pace and quickly responding to the challenges and opportunities the active season throws up. “It is important that the team understands why we take a different leadership approach at different stages. Otherwise, it just seems that we are not being consistent. The team has come to value and respect that there is a time for collective leadership and a time for a much more directive approach”, says Nat.

Innovation and resourcefulness – it has long been a source for pride for the UK, and an issue of intense frustration for our competitors, that this team continues to deliver major successes in a sport where we have no historical right to win and where the absence of a UK track severely hinders the opportunities for our athletes to practice on ice.

So how do you turn a weakness like this into a key strength? Nat is convinced that this set of circumstances has forced a level of innovation and resourcefulness that has been pivotal to success. “We need to be a curious organisation, always testing boundaries and looking for an edge. We need to spot and realise every opportunity to be the best we possibly can be. As leaders I want us to create the expectation that everyone should be devoting at least 20% of their effort into exploring new and bold ways of driving up performance. Our job then is to ensure that this innovation is focused in the areas that are most likely to contribute to success”.

As we enter the Olympic year, both Nat and Danny recognise that they need the team to continue to innovate, but increasingly shift the focus from broader, team-related innovations to things that individual athletes could do that would maximise their individual chances of success in February. But at the same time, they need to keep identifying opportunities to try new things that could play out within the next Olympic cycle. “Our team continues to question and challenge aspects of how we prepare our athletes, and we need to encourage and enable this whilst maintaining focus on the immediate challenges ahead” says Danny.

Performance – the team has invested heavily in setting out clearly the kind of performance trajectory that athletes need to be on to win medals. They have also ensured that the need to achieve these target levels of performance is hard wired into the decisions, behaviours and thinking of the whole team. “All those who impact the performance of an athlete need to inspire them to achieve and sustain a level of performance beyond what they ever thought possible” says Danny. “In this sport we have coaches with very different styles and roles; some bring vital analysis and logic and inspire through their diligence and attention to detail. Others bring raw energy and focus and are more vocal in the way they motivate. What is vital is that everyone is sufficiently self-aware of their own style and impact and can inspire our athletes in a way that is authentic to them”.

Alongside this Nat is keen to ensure there is clear line of sight between the work done to prepare athletes and the impact this has on their performance. “Whether it is major themes such as how we run our pre-seasons and how this ultimately impacts performance, or those special moments with an individual athlete where a critical conversation leads to improvements in technique or the gaining of a psychological edge, it is vital that we pick up these breakthrough moments, learn from them and, where appropriate, replicate them”.

Approach – last but certainly not least is the overall approach Nat and Danny apply to ensure that athletes peak at just the right moment. Each athlete has their own Individual Athlete Plan and people from across the team were actively engaged in developing and agreeing these. This was vital in ensuring the everyone understands, respects and trusts the approach the team are taking to ensure success. Athletes themselves are feeding back how much they benefit from this level of alignment and buy-in to the approach. “This is the scaffolding that holds everything together”, says Nat, “but we need to tread a fine line between sticking to an approach we have collectively committed to whilst at the same time encouraging and capturing opportunities for it to be even better”.

Nat and Danny are both justifiably proud of how they have built a relatively new team and quickly established a strong sense of common purpose with clarity around what they need to do. But they are equally keen to ensure that they continue to drive the team forward over the critical period between now and the forthcoming Olympic season.

We asked them where they felt they are going to be most challenged between now and Beijing. “We need to use our Summer well”, says Nat. “My major task is to bring all of the elements of the team together, including coaches, sports & medicine staff and the research and innovation team and just ensure that we are all totally aligned behind our shared goals, that our roles and activities are tightly coordinated, and that everyone is doing the right things in the right way and in the right sequence to support our athletes”. For Danny it is all about energy and momentum. “We need to ensure that we take full advantage of every day between now and Beijing to make those adjustments, large or small, that could make the difference between medalling or not. We certainly shouldn’t be panicking, but we need to establish and sustain a level of energy right through to next February.”

It was a pleasure to engage with two people who care so much for the team they lead and who have such determination and passion in ensuring our track record of success continues at Beijing and beyond. There are clear learnings we can all take from their approach, including:

  • They have a system that works, but they continue to test and evolve it
  • They are highly thoughtful about how they lead, how they enable others to lead, and how they build and sustain commitment, focus and energy
  • They have a team with a clear focus and an unyielding connection with purpose; but they don’t take this for granted and are always seeking ways to strengthen this.

We look forward to following them through the next nine months, and next time we will be speaking to members of their team to find out what they are thinking, feeling and doing as they play their part in this exciting journey. And if you want to know more, please get in contact at info@ignite.org.uk.