Apologies to renowned coach Marshall Goldsmith for stealing the title of one of his books but it seemed so appropriate.
Watching Federer play Mischa Zverev reminded me of the need to amend our strategy both dependent on the occasion and the stage of our career. This has been highlighted by Federer yesterday and throughout his career.
Yesterday against the older Zverev he was faced with a wily player, with a game well suited to grass ,who he expected to serve and volley and in return games to try and get to the net as often as possible. Federer, like the other top players, is good at getting the ball back into play of big servers by slicing or chipping the ball back, giving himself the chance to get into the point. This is fine against a big server who stays back most of the time – the type of opponent he faces in many matches. However, against Zverev it would most likely give him a relatively easy volley. So Federer’s return strategy changed – the vast majority of his returns were driven or hit with topspin, with the aim of getting the ball down at the ankles of Zverev. Tougher to make the return but harder for the incoming volleyer. The result of course was a straight sets win for Federer.
So, what of career changes. Federer, faced with the growing competition from Nadal and Djokovic between 2008 and 2011 was faced with two opponents who were exceotional defensive players who played well behind the baseline. Both stretch the limits of time allowed between play and, Nadal particularly has clearly messed with Federer’s head in disrupting his relatively rapid rhythm between points.
Federer has not stood still in this but has sought to change and in some instances innovate to compete. First, in 2009, rather than step back and give himself more time, Federer stepped up, more frequently playing around the baseline – Nadal, Djokovic and Murray will often play two metres or more behind it. What Federer’s strategy did was take time away from his opponents. Of course, he’s blessed with remarkable gifts that have allowed him to do that – though this has been coupled with many hours of work on the practice court.
Then, of course, a couple of years ago we saw the sneak attack by Roger (SABR) appear in the American hard court season, where he would step forward to take a second serve almost on the service line. A tactic very few could execute successfully but it reaped dividends, if not quite another slam. Years ago he resurrected the forehand slice when dragged out of position, as part of his defensive arsenal, which gave him time to get back into points.
In his time off last year he seems to have worked further on being more aggressive, particularly on his backhand – once seen as a relative weakness. This year its been a weapon and a thing of beauty.
What’s also been interesting this year and, particularly at Wimbledon, is Rafael Nadal, is stepping in more – something that has clearly paid off. I think he’s currently playing some of the best tennis of his career.
So, what can we learn?
Firstly, as the world is changing around us we cannot rely on the way we have worked in the past, whether in terms of personal style or business or operating models. That doesn’t mean we throw everything out, indeed, where it works and is sound it may well be the right thing to continue with.
However, a week ago I briefly mentioned the dynamics of the tennis entourage. These vary and are often unusual. One thing we can say is that they don’t have the hierarchical, command and control cultures that we see in many large corporates. Given the focus on achieving results, there are people bringing specific skills to bear on this and all need to be heard and often the strategy around these areas is debated between player, expert and other key members of the team.
There is undoubtedly a high degree of collaboration and debate. The open nature of these debates is part of keeping the team engaged and on-board. However, in many large commercial firms (my experience is principally in financial services) the hierarchical, command and control structure is counter-productive. Lack of openness and low trust often result and bad news does not travel upwards effectively, leading to a degree of organisational blindness.
While many firms are trying to innovate and rightly concerned about the competitive threat from tech firms, traditional management styles are not only counter-productive to innovation, they also inhibit performance and productivity.
As large firms, particularly in financial services, where I have spent much of my career, seek to innovate, this cultural element is an on-going obstacle. Command and control coaching has long since disappeared from much of elite sport – when will senior managers in the corporate sector learn that such approaches are severely limiting to individual and team performance.