The leadership team – ‘time to deliver’

This is the fifth article where we follow the British Skeleton team as they prepare for the next Winter Olympics. Today we are going back to pick up with Nat and Danny, the two key leaders of the British Skeleton team, to explore where they feel they are as we reach touching distance from the Games.

Reaping the rewards of the past three years

We begin by acknowledging just how much the past three years has been focused on getting to this stage of the journey. “Since I first joined British Skeleton in 2018 my focus has been on building a strong team of coaches, athletes and staff all aligned behind a common purpose and a shared ambition. We established a performance pathway that we all agreed to that we felt would ensure our athletes would peak at the right time”, said Nat. “We also spent a lot of time building the right culture and environment where everyone has a voice and we could explore the difficult issues honestly and openly”. It is now really clear just how important these building blocks were in getting the team to where they are now.

The importance of the test event

The Skeleton track at Beijing has been purposefully built for the 2022 Winter Olympics, and the Chinese hosted a test event there in October. This was the first time that our athletes got the chance to test their skills on this new track.

“We went into the test event with two key ambitions – to prove we are the best prepared team out there and to demonstrate that we have athletes capable of medalling. We achieved both of these” said Danny. “The fact we did so well has proved that we have athletes that can compete with the very best. We just need to retain this belief and have trust that if we keep performing as we are we are in a really strong position to medal in February”. Nat agrees – “we proved that we can hit the ground running at the test event, and this gives us total confidence that we can do the same in February”.

It is apparent just how important it was to Nat and Danny to succeed at the test event and then use this as an ‘anchor’ to ensure athletes and coaches retain trust in the strategy and approach they embarked upon three years ago.

Different stage, different challenges
We have talked previously about the fact that the closer we got to Beijing the more their leadership styles would need to be more directive; solving problems, removing barriers, bringing calmness and certainty. This is in contrast to the more inclusive style that has been their greatest feature and strength over the past three years. “As a leader my job has now changed and my focus is now all about calmness and stability, removing barriers and distractions and ensuring that we are able to fully reap the rewards of the three years investment that has got us to this position”, says Nat.
We talked about the things that they as leaders need to do in these final few months to maximise the chances of success:

  • Avoid knee-jerk reactions – Danny talks from the experience gained from five Olympic cycles about the tendency for athletes and coaches to overreact to an individual incident or one-off poor performance in the lead up to the Games. “We need to ensure that everyone retains trust in our approach. We have proved that we can succeed, and now is the time to retain trust in what works and avoid the temptation to look for some big thing at the eleventh hour. If an athlete has a single poor performance – which of course can happen – then we need to ensure we learn from it but don’t overreact”. “We need to help our athletes rationalise their emotions”, adds Nat, “including regularly pausing to take a breath and ensure that none of the small things that are happening are getting in the way of us seeing the bigger picture”.
  • Be confident and decisive – “Athletes value certainty and direction at this stage of the journey”, said Nat. “We need to respond quickly and decisively to anything unexpected that occurs. We need to demonstrate that we are in total control of the situation and are able to deal with anything, no matter how unexpected or scary”.
  • Maintain the overall tempo – “Some athletes and coaches will have highs and lows in their energy over the next few weeks, and we need to expect this” said Danny. “Our job is to set and maintain a high-energy tempo across the team that ensures that even if one individual is having an off-day, it is not allowed to impact the wider team”.
  • Dealing with the difficult decisions well – Difficult decisions around team selection are looming, and Nat is keen to ensure that they are made with the same degree of honesty and openness that has been a feature of the team culture from the beginning. “I am proud of the fact that we have established the environment where tough decisions can be discussed honestly and openly. It is important that we retain this key strength, even when the decisions we make have a major impact on the lives and ambitions of our athletes”.
  • Deal with the details in the same way – It is not just the big decisions that leaders need to pay attention to. As we get closer to February Nat and Danny are aware that there is the risk that small misunderstandings or situations can get blown out of all proportion as emotions run high. They are constantly looking out for such things, tacking them early before they run the risk of doing any damage or unnecessarily unsettling people.
  • Support and challenge each other – seeing Nat and Danny together it is clear just how aligned they are on so many things. But they also support, stretch and challenge each other to ensure they are both doing everything they can in leading the team. “We have both come to know each other’s strengths and have found a way of getting the best from each other”, says Nat.

Again we end with a reflection of what Nat and Danny are either excited or worried about. Both are excited by the potential that exists within the whole team, and how far they have come individually and collectively since they embarked on this adventure three years ago. The only things they worry about are things outside of their control, such as injuries to athletes or a Covid-related incident.

Through the experience of managing a four-year Olympic cycle, British Skeleton have learnt much about the different stages in an organisation’s development, and what this means in terms of the role and style of leadership required. It goes without saying that there are many things that we can learn from them, and if we were to summarise them they would be:

  • The critical conditions for success – establish the key building blocks that will enable high performance to be achieved, including a strong and cohesive team, a culture and environment centred on ambition, integrity and openness, and a clear and agreed approach that turns potential into winners
  • Exploring, innovating and stretching – harness the power of ingenuity, being curious and wanting to be better. Ensuring that this mentality and approach exists in everyone, and that it is focused on the right areas and at the right time
  • Getting focused and serious – know that there are times to not change, to not innovate, and to not change course. Know that at these times when the task is to eliminate noise and to focus on performance
  • Development v delivery – understanding the different leadership styles that are required between on the one hand developing the capability of the organisation and individuals, and on the other creating the conditions for them to perform to the peak of their potential

This is the last time we will talk to Nat and Danny before the Winter Olympics takes place. It has been a total privilege to engage with them to get a better understanding of what they have done to establish and sustain such a winning environment. The next time we speak we will know more about just what a difference this made to the British athletes at Beijing. All we can be sure of that between them they have invested every ounce of their experience, wisdom, ingenuity, energy and commitment in the team they lead, and they can be justifiably proud of the impact they have had.