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Find your Marginal Gain - Leadership Tips from Sir Dave Brailsford

Published 27th October 2016 by Thomas Bale
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What can we learn from world leaders in sport to help us develop high performing teams?

Sir Dave Brailsford MBA, CBE is the coach who led the British cycling team to victory in two Olympics and produced two British winners of the Tour De France within four years. He is also recognised for his theory of marginal gains – the philosophy that achieving a significant improvement overall can be obtained by a large number of marginal increases. Sir Dave’s commitment to measurable increases in performance and continuous improvement makes him a natural spokesperson for Investors in People and Outperformance. We took the opportunity to ask Sir Dave for his advice.

Read Dave Brailsford's Top 5 Tips for creating a High Performing team:

Recruit the best people

You’re looking for skill but also attitude and behaviour. I think the behavioural fit is more important than the core skill. You can educate and teach the core skills but that fit in terms of trying to create the right culture is massively important. We’ve got this term about ‘podium people’. We want our athletes to be one of the best three in the world at what they do in a given time and a given place. So why shouldn’t the people supporting them be one of the best three in the world at what they do? So we talk a lot about being a podium person and what does it take? Who’s the best in the world at the minute, where are you and how are we going to get there? So I think recruitment and recruiting the best people is important.

Give people ownership

You’re looking for skill but also attitude and behaviour. I think the behavioural fit is more important than the core skill. You can educate and teach the core skills but that fit in terms of trying to create the right culture is massively important. We’ve got this term about ‘podium people’. We want our athletes to be one of the best three in the world at what they do in a given time and a given place. So why shouldn’t the people supporting them be one of the best three in the world at what they do? So we talk a lot about being a podium person and what does it take? Who’s the best in the world at the minute, where are you and how are we going to get there? So I think recruitment and recruiting the best people is important.

There should be absolute clarity over role and responsibility and boundaries

What does success look like? What does that person’s role entail? It’s one thing to tell somebody this is what I’d like you to do, it’s another thing whether somebody accepts it. And then the execution of that role is important as well. Unless someone accepts the role, genuinely internally accepts the role and believes that it’s the right thing to do, they won’t do it. Unless they’ve accepted it, they won’t go out and execute it. So you have to double check and really make sure you’ve got that role acceptance part of the process mapped out.

Identify the standards that you expect and that you’re going to set

These could be the value standards, behavioural standards or performance standards. You have to be really clear about how you’re going to operate and how your organisation is going to work on a belief and value system. And then you hold people accountable to it. However, in my opinion, you don’t dictate and control. You’re a coach and an educator. If you’re a leader then you’re an educator and you’ve got to help people and teach them how to get there.

You want happy people and you want a happy environment

A happy environment is when people are aligned behind a goal. You can have tension, you can have conflict, so it is a robust environment but ultimately you want to try and keep people in a place where they feel like they’re being looked after. People need to feel that they’re being heard, that they’ve got a voice, that they can come and talk about a problem. If there’s a difference of opinion, it should be recognised as a healthy thing. A great test for me is whether or not people are willing to take their problems to each other. That’s a great sign that you’re heading in the right direction. If you can create a positive environment where people can go and confront each other, be honest with each other, give each other feedback in a positive way, then you’re in a good place.

The easiest marginal gain is a smile. If you walk in and smile and say “Hi, how are you?” that would make you feel better. It’s only small but if it happened every day that would be a better place to work. That’s a marginal gain.