Playing the context – should we be surprised by the number of upsets?


Despite the focus on the world cup this week, there has been much in the sporting press about the number of upsets at Wimbledon in the first week – should we be surprised and is it something unusual?

Well, no, it’s not massively unusual – however, if things went according to the seedings the top 16 should have made it through to the fourth round, by the time all the second round matches were completed six of the top 16 in the men’s draw and seven of the top 16 in the women’s had been knocked out.

In 2013, by the end of the second round seven of the top seeds in the men’s draw, including Nadal and Federer, had been knocked out and nine of the top 16 in the women’s.

So, why do we get this scale of upset at Wimbledon?  There are a number of factors to consider.

  • Wimbledon seed the women according to the rankings, except where there is an exceptional case to be made, e.g. Serena Williams (in at 25 at the expense of Dominika Cibulkova (both still in the draw).  For the men there is a published formula which re-orders the top 32 players in the rankings based upon an adjustment for grass court performance.
  • The grass is reputedly playing a little faster this year
  • Despite the meticulous grooming, grass is a less predictable surface and will, at times, require late adjustments.  Players have to learn to adjust as they do when they move to play on clay.
  • Along with this almost all the players are coming from playing on clay (the slowest surface) to adjusting to play on the fastest and least predictable surface, with a relatively short preparation period ahead of Wimbledon.

At one level it illustrates the depth in both the men’s and women’s games.  More importantly, it  demonstrates the need to adjust to the context in which the game is being played.  Playing too far back may give more time but leaves the player exposed to the angles.

As the upsets have continued (as they did in 2013) the second week will be interesting. 10 years on we may yet have another Federer/Nadal final!

In the wrong gear?


I cycle a fair bit and later in the year I’m doing a hundred mile sportive with a fair bit of climbing.  As I live in a relative flat area, at this stage in my training I often go up the few and small hills in as high a gear as possible – to build some strength in my legs. On a number of occasions I’ve had some smart Alec – usually the one descending while I’m huffing and puffing uphill – yell out ‘you’re in the wrong gear’!

Well, of course we could spend ages talking about giving directive advice without understanding the whole context.  However, it has reminded me of something that I’ve heard in a professional context on numerous occasions in the last few years – ‘delivering at pace’.  Without exception I’ve heard this phrase uttered by senior managers, all with similar characteristics:

  • Directive management style
  • Continually confuse activity with progress (pedalling furiously and sometimes not even moving forward)
  • Have unsustainable working practices, for example long working hours and unrealistic expectations around output

Of course, this leads to disengaged staff, lack of cohesion, lots of activity but poor performance.

This doesn’t need to be the case. We’ve consistently demonstrated over the last couple of decades that delivering change rapidly, with increased productivity, can be achieved far more effectively by putting the performance and well-being of the team to the fore.  An example of this at a major investment bank can be read here.


By the way – I’ll be looking for sponsorship for my ride in the near future 😉


Rafa continues to demonstrate that experience delivers ….


So, Rafa dropped the first set of his campaign at this years Roland Garros.  Diego Schwartzman clearly had him on the ropes prior to the first rain delay on Wednesday.  That and the subsequent overnight delay gave Rafa and his team time to re-assess and change the momentum in his favour.

In the semis he played Del Potro – the sort of big-hitting player that has troubled him in the past and he brushed him aside.

Nadal has seen most things on a tennis court over the decade and a half he’s been playing and winning in Paris. Like Federer and other experience athletes, they don’t panic in situation when they are under the cosh but see the challenges presented as another problem to solve and, if their initial game plan doesn’t work they will probe and experiment to find something that does,

It’s this mindset that defines them – they suffer nerves like the rest of us but don’t get debilitated by them.  With this continual love of what they do, the competition and the on-going challenge of overcoming the problems thrown at them, they’ve thrived and continued to deliver phenomenal performance and results beyond a point where most people in their sport have typically been in decline or have hung up their rackets.

The Great Manager and the … Not So Great!


Well congratulations to the Divs for winning the English Premier League this season – as a long time United fan it grieves me to see it but Guardiola’s team have been exceptional  and illustrate the gulf in managerial class between the him and his noisy neighbour!

Don’t get me wrong – I was born just outside Manchester and am a lifelong United fan but some years ago I wrote a piece that illustrated the difference between Ferguson and Mourinho then but similar parallels can be drawn between Guardiola and Mourinho now – unfortunately it is Guardiola who is more Ferguson-like.  They are managers with  completely different approaches to football and man management.  Unfortunately, today Mourinho, the directive and controlling manager is in charge at United, who seems to make it more about himslef than the team, while Guardiola, like Ferguson, focuses on the team.

One of the  illustrations of difference is in Mourinho’s reaction after United’s loss to West Brom on Sunday, compared to Guardiola, after recent losses to Liverpool and United.  This week numerous newspapers and websites carried headlines along the lines of ‘Mourinho blasts players’.  In contrast, Guardiola, after losses to Liverpool in the Champions League and United in the Premier League, when interviewed talked about the joy of managing such a talented group of players,  He also described it as a learning experience for the team.  Ferguson, as United manager, never criticised his players in public – that was saved for the privacy of the dressing room.

There is a potentially critical impact on the psychology of the players – Gary Neville, former United captain under Ferguson, in a recent BBC interview, talked about how he’s found the world of business different to sport, while building his business empire.

“In both you have to have motivated people, and they have to enjoy what they do,” he says. “Also, in football and business you have to work the hardest you can every single day, and make sure you never give in.”

However, Neville says, in business – unlike in football – it can sometimes be difficult to achieve the “peer group analysis” he encountered in the high-pressure Old Trafford dressing room, where players would instantly acknowledge responsibility for mistakes.

“It can be difficult in an office for people to admit they didn’t do very well, or have fallen below standards,” observes Neville.

Ferguson, with his approach, bred an us against the world mentality, providing a bonding in which peer group feedback was the norm in the dressing room and players took accountability.  When the manager criticises the players in public it can lead to the players becoming defensive, feeling they may not have the complete backing of the manager and not readily accepting accountability for their performance when it is sub par.  Directive managerial behaviour exacerbates this.

When we see a lack of accountability in our teams we should look at the leaders or managers and how they behave, as well as ourselves.

Are You Using Your Noggin?



Jim Courier, in his post match interview with Grigor Dmitrov, after his win over Nick Kyrgios, said ‘you used your noggin’.  The context – a tight match, with a number of twists and turns, was Dmitrov’s ability to change his return of serve tactics during the match, stepping in to give Kyrgios less time on the next shot.

In the BBC radio commentary, Leon Smith, British Davis Cup Captain, was asked about the top players dealing with the mental pressures of competing at this level and dealing with the various twists and turns in a match.  Leon has been close to Andy Murray for many years and while not giving too much away, he stated that Andy, like all the players at the very top of the game, always has a plan.

We may often think about the plan in the context of the project plan that’s put together at the outset of a project, or the agenda for a meeting or presentation.  However, for the top players, like Murray, there are two types of plan.  As Leon articulated, Andy Murray loves doing the analysis of his opponents and working out a match plan ahead of time and all top players do this.  However, what happens when the flow of the match goes against you, or your level of play drops and the doubt creeps in?

For the top players they plan for this.  Sure, changing the game plan may be part of it when the opponent is getting the better of you.  But what if it is a drop in your own level of play and your confidence in your own ability to hit the shots you’re capable of dissipates, as it does to all at some point?  The reason the very best remain at the top so consistently is not only that they plan for these eventualities too but that they have processes to help them recognise and del with these moments.  They practice them and are very good at putting them in place.

It’s a challenge for us in the work context as well, for example in meetings or giving a presentation.  We may put an agenda together but how do we respond when a senior person in the room spends most of the allocated time on the first slide of our deck, or wants to take the agenda in a different direction to that we envisaged.

It’s often difficult to find the time in our busy schedules to prepare for a meeting or presentation in the first place and then we are most likely to plan for it going a particularly way.  However, in reality given meetings rarely go as expected we need to think through potential options and learn not to be de-railed by them.  There are a number of different ways of dealing with these types of moment – winging it is rarely successful.

An initial recommendation would be to learn to stay present – different strategies work for different people.  It’s also worth remembering, as one military strategist put it many years ago ‘no plan ever survives first contact with the enemy’. There are a number of other things we can do – many of which we can learn from elite athletes – more to come!

Fast Fail – We can’t learn from our failures if we don’t admit them!


Many of you will have heard or seen the famous Michael Jordan quote:

“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty six times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Of course, in sport judgment about success or failure is usually clear.  In tennis there are no draws.  In football (soccer) at the end of the season there is one team that wins the league.

In financial services, the industry where I have done much of my work, there has been an obsession with agility and innovation in recent years and the term ‘fast fail’ (or fail fast) has become overused!  Of course, there is immense value in proving that something doesn’t work quickly rather than wasting months on some application or initiative that ultimately would have failed to work effectively.  There is even greater value in the learning we can take from these exercises.

There is a significant cultural problem, however, which is how do we learn in environments that do not readily tolerate failure.  In fact the cultural norms of top down directive management, where bad news does not easily travel back up the line, often lead to organizational denial around failure.

I remember attending a steering committee for a major programme at a global bank, where it became clear that items on the plan that should have been complete hadn’t even been started!  There was a distinct reluctance by some of the senior people in the meeting to even acknowledge this, never mind the consideration of changing the plan to reflect reality!  It would have meant openly admitting the next major delivery would not be achieved on a previously agreed date.

Top athletes like Jordan and Federer strive for success but readily admit when they come up short and learn from it.  How often do we attend job interviews, either as interviewers or candidates and have honest conversations about how we screwed up and what we learnt from it?

This one of a number of cultural traits in the corporate world that needs to be addressed!  More to follow, including lessons from the history of financial markets.

Getting the best people on the pitch or the right environment?



This week, under the excellent stewardship of Sean Dyche, Burnley crept into fourth place in the English Premier League, though they’ve since dropped back to sixth (4th-6th are all on 31 points).  Dyche has a limited budget, with no big names lining up as first choice (at least for most people outside Burnley) but, like Leicester two seasons ago, they continue to prove a challenge to the better funded teams in the league – punching above their weight.

There seems to be an obsession in both sporting and corporate worlds with getting the best people ‘on the pitch’, though this often equates to getting the team that the top person is comfortable with!  Some years ago I worked with a consulting firm whose regular advice to clients was to bring in the top talent from across the organisation when they wanted to get a key change programme delivered.

What comes first good leadership or the environment?  I’ve often struggled with this question.  After all a leader can screw up a successful environment quickly but turning an underperforming team into a successful team takes time.  Witness the experience at Manchester United over the past 30 years.  When Sir Alex Ferguson was appointed manager of Manchester United in 1986 he didn’t win his first trophy (the FA Cup) until 1990 and the first of 13 league titles came two years later.  Unusually, in British football Ferguson was given time and, of course, became the most successful manager in British football, retiring in 2013, to be succeeded by David Moyes.

Moyes did what many top managers do – replaced a successful management team with his own people – from Everton, a very different club to Manchester United. So Manchester United have become like so many other clubs – impatient with management, resulting in four managers since Ferguson.  How many times have we seen that in the corporate world – a firm brings in a new CXO from another firm and before long most of their top table are from the same firm! The connections with the wider organisation are lost or diluted, trust dissipates.

In the banking world it’s rare that the CXO is afforded the same patience that Ferguson had but building success and changing culture undoubtedly takes time – something that Sean Dyche at Burnley has been given by Burnley.  Dyche has even survived a relegation into the Championship, having been at Burnley now for five years.  Described last season by Martin Keown as one of the two best managers in the Premier League, he has taken Burnley to the threshold of Champions League football.  Of course, that may all change but Dyche is no short-term flash in the pan.

Some of Dyches quotes are revealing:

“We make the environment a good place to be and I think that’s important…Players are human and if you can make it an enjoyable but informative environment then I think that’s the right way to work.  The first thing really is to align your new group with what you can offer them – that’s certainly what I did. I thought there were things we could put in place to enhance their individual potential and collective potential.”

So, for Dyche, creating the right environment that is both enjoyable and helps players improve has been important to getting results.

“A lot of psychology goes into some of our planning.  I want the players to know that they can grow here, develop as players and get results.”

“I have worked very hard to make my life what it is. I Love Gary Player’s quote ‘the harder I work the luckier I become’. Fortune favours the prepared. I like that.”

Preparation and helping players achieve their potential are clearly key to Dyche’s approach but, while the mention of psychology might not be surprising, how often is it considered explicitly in the modern workplace.  Dyche has a clear vision of how to set his team up and communicates it effectively to his players.  He has provided an environment for growth and has a group of players that work as a cohesive team.

I once worked with a consulting firm whose advice to clients was regularly to bring in the top talent across a programme team to deliver change.  However, it’s the leadership that really counts.  Getting the right environment and culture and teams will flourish, the wrong environment and even the most talented can be set up to fail.

I was asked to take over a failing programme at a major bank some years ago and, while the major consulting firms were advocating sending in teams of people and replacement of a failing team, I was fortunate enough to be taken on by someone who believed in our approach of coaching the team.  We developed an environment where collaboration and support became the norm and the same team with only minor tweaks that had been seen as a basket case became a cohesive and highly effective delivery team.

To do this takes time and the results are not always evident in the early stages, however, with a clear vision and persistence the transformation can be profound.   The first few weeks are often challenging – particularly as senior management want to see quick results – quick results are often not sustainable results.  Getting teams to perform at their optimum needs giving them the space and time to do so.