What Is A Performance Culture? Lessons from Women’s Team Sports
Olympic rower and respected diplomat Cath Bishop is well-acquainted with the pressures of delivering outstanding performance under extreme circumstances. Here she discusses the invaluable lessons that businesses can learn from women's team sports to generate a performance culture that drives truly incredible results.
Most organisations and leaders want to improve performance within their companies, and are increasingly aware of the need not just to develop, train and support all the staff that work there, but to pay attention to the environment in which they work – the ‘culture’ of ‘how things get done’.
It is the culture of an organisation which can drive or constrain the performance of those who work there. And despite the best intentions of senior teams, there is often a significant gap between the best mission statements and company values and what employees experience on a daily basis – yet it is the latter which determines performance.
Sport often offers brilliant metaphors for performance and there is a strong tradition of using sporting stories and frameworks to support businesses to raise performance – indeed, it’s something I spend a lot of my time working with organisations to understand and apply. But too often, I see leaders sucked into the sporting narratives of superhuman effort under pressure or the myth of the heroic leader that the media often hone in on and embellish.
This summer offered an incredible richness of sporting performance well worth our time to watch, enjoy and examine what we can learn, as we have the opportunity to watch, observe and reflect on some of the best high performing teams you could want to see. The England women’s cricket team – who won the World Cup in brilliant style – the Lionesses who reached the semi-finals of the European Championships, and our brilliant England Red Roses who fantastically made it to the World Cup Rugby finals this year.
These are teams that have been offering us a new approach to teamwork, also exemplified by the historic GB Women’s Hockey team who won Olympic Gold so memorably in Rio last year. These teams are always about a squad – you will not find an interview with a member of the Olympic-winning women’s hockey team without a reference to the wider team of 31, not just the team on the pitch, but the whole squad of 31, many of whom didn’t make it to Rio but who all played a critical role in the journey to build a different culture and approach to performance that led to that memorable Olympic night.
These are teams who talk about teamwork, about investing in understanding and respecting each other, about supporting and collaborating during training sessions, and about consultation and co-creating the way they want to perform both on and off the field of play. The leaders and captains are inspirational and impressive athletes, but they don’t dominate their teams as we have seen in past sporting matches. They can often be seen watching, quietly supporting and sensing how others are feeling and performing on the field of play, as much as they can be seen shouting and pointing - in fact there is a remarkable absence of the latter.
You would be hard-pushed to find better role models than Heather Knight and Anya Shrubsole, than Maggie Alphonsi and Danielle Waterman, or Casey Stoney and Jodie Taylor. Many of these players have fought to be allowed to play their sport and to be able to afford to train on the full-time basis required in order to compete with the best in the world. They speak with a passion for their sport and share their tales of how they refused to allow coaches and systems they encountered growing up stop them from playing their sport.
How brilliant to have such fantastic sporting role models and sporting performance for us to draw on in the workplace, in school, and at home. But let’s celebrate them more, talk about them more, interview them more, understand the way they have built their teams better, for my only fear is that we are missing out on some great stories of teamwork and some of the latest theory and practice on what a high-performance culture should look like which is right under our noses.
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