August 30, 2016

Jonathon Stubbs: On learning from the culture and approach of Olympic athletes


I have been in awe of the athletes competing at this year’s Olympic Games. We have been treated to watching Olympic legends in many different sporting disciplines, whether it be Jamaica’s Usain Bolt’s “triple triple” gold in the athletics, USA’s Michael Phelps in the swimming, becoming the most decorated Olympian of all time; or, as a Brit, rower Katherine Grainger CBE who is the first British woman to win medals at five consecutive Games and is Great Britain’s most decorated female Olympian. 

Watching Team GB climb the medal table to finish second overall in the last fortnight will no doubt have inspired a generation of budding athletes in the UK and around the world. But it’s not just the competitors on their podiums I’m interested in. It’s the coaches, backroom staff, friends and family watching by the side-lines who fascinate me. These people provide the culture, systems and support which make high performance possible.

Just like the coaches and staff who have been working behind the scenes at the Olympics, we endeavour to create a culture at BNY Mellon where individuals and teams can reach their full potential. So what might be the secret to Team GB’s culture of excellence and what can financial services learn from it?

Much of Britain’s success in the velodrome, for example, has been put down to the work done by the coaches and performance directors – their focus on “marginal gains” and the positive team culture they created. The strategy has reaped plenty of rewards with every single British cyclist competing in the velodrome winning a medal at Rio.

By breaking every component of performance down and improving it by 1%, a significant increase in performance can be achieved, or so the theory goes. From teaching athletes to wash their hands more thoroughly to sleeping on more comfortable mattresses, the coaches’ quest for marginal gains has led them to look in some unusual places for that extra edge.

We take the same approach when it comes to improving performance in the work place. From creating flexible working spaces to encouraging employees to work the hours which make sense to them, we are helping employees to be their best selves at work. My colleague Matt Wells, who runs our Manchester office, recently wrote about our workplace excellence initiative and how we are transforming how we work in the city. If you missed it, you can read it here.

I think perhaps the most surprising habit of world class athletes is their willingness to admit failure. I was intrigued by what our own former German and Turkish Karate champion Cüneyt Uenal said recently, which is that failure can also be a gift. When reflecting on his karate career he describes how improving his performance in the dojo relies upon his ability to identify his own failures and reflect on them.

Embracing failure is a cliché of the business world. Yet fear of failure, just as much as not learning from failure or mistakes, can have devastating consequences as the financial services industry knows all too well. For me, US educational reformer John Dewey possibly articulates this best: "Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes." 

You only have to look at some of the best athletes in the world who consistently assess their performances and apply their learnings to continue to improve, to know this is true. Their dedication is an inspiration to us all.

Related News:
Jeff Pamplin: On his sporting achievements
Cüneyt Uenal: On comparing the culture of karate with financial services
Dimitri Ghuys: On becoming a champion 26 years after injuries cut short his promising athletic career
Matt Cullen: On juggling being a pole vaulter and working in derivatives
Sandra Blaschke: On what it is like to be a synchronised swimmer
Christine Berthold-Poje: On playing hockey for Germany and the importance of placing teams first, ego second