If Ever You Needed a Kick off the Couch

This piece is about two British, female athletes, Elise Christie, and Lizzy Yarnold. For very different reasons they are inspirational and especially inspirational for women.

Let’s talk first about Christie.

Elise Christie is a short track speed skater who represents Great Britain.

If you don’t know anything about short track speed skating it is another of those crazy winter sports. Between 4 and 7 skaters race around an oval track, a bit over 110 metres long with record average speed of over 50 km/hour. They race at distances between 500 and 1,500 metres.

In the last Olympics in Sochi, she was disqualified in each of her three events. It was heart-breaking to watch as Christie showed to the world on live TV, all her emotions of disappointment. As she cried for herself so we all cried for her and with her.

She says her favourite event is the 1000m event. Following the tragedy of Sochi, she was ten times a European gold medallist, including two overall European titles in 2015 and 2016. In the 2017 World Championships in Rotterdam, she won world titles in both the 1000m and 1500m events, as well as the overall gold. She is the first British woman and first European woman to do so.

In other words, she is an elite athlete at the top of her form, or so you would think. The 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang was going to be her redemption. As I write 2 of her events have taken place and again she has also been eliminated from both. In the last, she was also badly injured as she fell heavily into the edge padding and was taken to a hospital.

At first, as she was taken to hospital it was feared that she had broken her ankle. After a scan, it was found to be ‘nothing more’ than a soft tissue injury. Although not a break she was unable to put on her boots. Today she was posting videos of her on a training bike with the promise that she would do everything she could to be on the track, whatever the pain, to race on Tuesday.

It is a frantic, hectic sport almost guaranteed to lead to crashes and dispute, but how can one person seem to have so much misfortune? However, despite set back after set back, Christie still returns for more. It is the strength of an elite athlete that they accept the misfortune and come back stronger ready again compete.

Yarnold’s route to a second an Olympic Gold Medal in the Skeleton was not a cruise over the 4-year gap.  For the year after Sochi, she was unbeatable and was world champion. However, since 2015 she has taken a two-year gap from the exhausting schedule. There are no training facilities in the UK. To train and compete she has been away from home travelling around Europe, North America, and Japan. She was spending more than six months every year on the road.

After a two year break last year she returned to the sport with just one ambition: to win another gold medal.

This year her form has been, at best, patchy and she has not won any of the World Championship races. In fact, she has often not been in the top 10. After her first run, travelling at more than 80 miles an hour and covering the one-mile course is a fraction over 50 seconds, she was dizzy. She suffers from an ear infection and this is quite regular.

When calm and resolve were needed at the start of the final run she proved to have an abundance of both. She has the winner’s core requirement of belief in herself, she has belief in what she was doing and the training process.

Let’s be clear there is no history of winter sports in the UK.  We have only ever won 11 Winter Golds and Lizzy Yarnold has won 2 of those. It is a superhuman effort from a wonderful athlete, but it shows exactly what happens when dedication and purpose are combined with opportunity.

What links these two great athletes. It is not just winning and courage but the way they have taken the opportunities offered them.

Elise has suffered untold pain and disappointment in the Olympics but despite that excelled straight after. Lizzy has had the glory of the Olympic Gold Medal but fought back from a loss of form and motivation to again reach the pinnacle of her sport.

You don’t suddenly become a winner.

A decade ago Lizzie was an aspiring heptathlete when she converted to Skeleton spotted by the ‘Girls for Gold’ sports programme.

Elise got her first taste of short track speed skating at the age of twelve and quickly took to the sport. By the age of fifteen, she was invited to join the GB Squad. Originally from Scotland, Elise moved to Nottingham to concentrate full-time on skating at the National Performance Centre with the rest of the Squad.

There was an opportunity and they grasped it with everything they had. Significant National Lottery funding supported both.

There are opportunities out there for everyone. Success is there for anyone who wants it badly enough and willing to give their all to succeed.

In particular, I hope Lizzy and Elise inspire young women. GB has won 4 medals at these Winter Olympics and women have won 3 of those.

An inspiration for us all.

Inspirational Leaders: Richard Sawyer

Inspiration comes in many ways and sometimes it is just one meeting that can inspire and change all following behaviour. So it was after my one and only meeting with Richard Sawyer.

It is very unlikely that you will know Richard Sawyer. He was someone I met on a project while working at Mars Electronics in the 1980s. My job was to develop a set of performance indicators in line with the culture and he was as senior manager and just one of the many people I met.

Mars Electronics was part of the global Mars Group (yes, Mars Bars and all that) with a culture driven by its family roots. At the time I was there the Mars family were still heavily involved and I think they had just introduced globally their ‘5 Principles’ but if not, there was something very equivalent in place.

My first task was to try and understand the culture.

I was talking to Richard who told me that everyone’s bonus, which was driven by personal as much as corporate performance, made up a very significant part of the total remuneration. Also, up to a third of the bonus was determined by feedback from colleagues. It was taking 360-degree reviews further than most have even ventured today.

‘Surely, it’s a cosy cabal,’ I said. ‘If money is involved then you will all rate each other highly to make sure you all get paid?

‘No,’ he said.

‘Have you ever had a poor review?’

‘Yes, and it cost about 15% of my total salary that year, but I learnt from it.’

Richard went on to tell me that he had been running a significant project on behalf of a local Board member. In turn that Board member was leading the project and reporting up the chain to Head Office in the USA. It was high visibility.

Together, Richard and his boss, had agreed the budget and a three-month development and implementation plan. Everything was going fine, Richard said, although it got very tight at the end. The budget was good but his final project sign-off was touch and go. He said that he had used up all his contingency and signed off the project with his team 48 hours before the deadline and sent a notification to his boss.

‘A big cost overrun?’ I asked.

‘Nope.’

‘It sounds almost perfect,’ I said. ‘Bang on budget and the time planning was good. So, where was the problem?’ I watched as Richard relived the moment when he lost a lot of salary. It was a long minute of silence.

‘I learnt that communication is every bit as important as all the technical skills,’ he said.

He continued. ‘I knew that my boss was responsible to higher authorities and while I knew that the project was tight but on target I just forget to tell him. We had a really good relationship and I thought he would know it was on time because I hadn’t told him it was late. I thought we had that kind of relationship. He knew that if I had a problem I would tell him, and I would have told him of any problems.’

So, what went wrong?’ I asked.

‘At the end he was with his bosses in the USA and I just didn’t want to bother him with a message that said everything was good. Why bother him with no news? But he had been phoned by his boss, who had been phoned by his boss and they both wanted assurances that the project would be delivered on time.’

I was starting to understand.

‘In Mars we are always honest with each other and he had to say to his boss that he thought all was good, but he didn’t really know,’ Richard said. ‘That is why I didn’t get my full bonus because as far as my boss was concerned the project was a failure. Technically it was good but on communication it failed.’

‘An expensive mistake, if it was even a mistake,’ I said. ‘Could you appeal?’

‘Maybe. I don’t know,’ he said, ‘but it was a mistake and I didn’t even think of that. I will never make that mistake again.’

It was a lesson I have never forgotten, and that was the day as a young manager I learnt that my bosses can always handle delays and problems if I tell them. What is more, if my communication is good often they can help in the solution.

It may seem to be very macho to take away a problem and come back two months later with a solution, but it is not good project management and that is why you might find you lose your bonus or even a promotion.