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Why leaders need to redefine success and go for ‘The Long Win’

Dr Cath Bishop, Olympic medallist, former diplomat, business coach & author of ‘The Long Win’

Who were the winners of 2020?  Who will ‘win’ in 2021?  What does success even look like in a pandemic, or in the face of some of the key complex issues of our times that range from global health to climate change, and from social inequality to immigration?  Current events are prompting us to re-evaluate what matters, our priorities and our ways of working, and as a result, redefining what success in business really means.

Too often success has been defined around a narrow, macho aim to win and be the best, the toughest or the strongest.  But such an approach holds us back in a world where we need to be agile and innovative, diverse and resilient over the longer-term. Adaptability became the number one skill required by organisations in 2020, the most unpredictable of years.  So how are organisations developing, measuring and growing skills of adaptability, learning and meaningful development on a daily basis?  This might be a much more useful area to pay attention to beyond typical short-term outcomes metrics.

Cath Bishop
Cath Bishop

The stuttering of productivity and engagement levels across sectors for decades has long warned us that our world of metrics and incentives, targets and bonuses is not unlocking potential levels of performance that remain untapped in so many organisations. An increasing obsession with short-term outcomes and narrow metrics has exacerbated this further.  The 3C’s of ‘The Long Win’ offer a way to develop deeper motivation, innovation and wellbeing at work: a Clarity of purpose, Constant learning mindset and the prioritisation of human Connections in everything that we do set up new and lasting ways of improving performance.

Clarifying our purpose should form the foundation of what success means.  There is an ever-growing body of research that proves purpose-led businesses outperform their peers.  It’s not new.  Yet there remains a gap in understanding why purpose matters and how to put this into practice beyond rhetoric. It’s not just about leaders reframing the company mission and creating a purpose statement – it’s about ensuring that everyone within an organisation can articulate that purpose in their own words and relate their own jobs to it. It’s less about what gets decided at a leadership strategy awayday, and more about how every meeting and interaction connects to the bigger purpose.  It involves the reason why a team exists and explaining their impact beyond the four walls (or screens) on another community of people, customers or colleagues.  Research has shown that when people are engaged in work that matters, then we tap into a much deeper source of intrinsic motivation, not dependent on short-term incentives or external recognition, and one that brings greater creativity, resilience and innovation with it.

As we shift emphasis away from short-term outcomes towards the daily process of learning and progressing in order to achieve a longer-term objective, we start to emulate the daily performance process that elite athletes invest in as the key to optimise performance and Constant Learning mindset.   Athletes know that in order to maximise their chances of winning in the future, they must become world-class at improving each day.  They develop an improver’s mindset, or ‘mastery’ mindset, learning on a constant basis, tweaking, experimenting, always looking to improve in the myriad small ways open to them that aren’t just about training harder – that way can only lead to injury in most cases – but about training smarter.  A learning approach is based on a growth mindset, open to feedback and asking for others’ perspectives, and notching up the small wins each day.  This also builds resilience through progress and learning even when outcomes don’t go to plan.

The third C of Connection emphasises the importance of relationships in our personal and professional lives.  None of us can succeed on our own.  And collaboration with others (rather than competition against others) opens up opportunities to work together to achieve what we cannot achieve alone.  Whilst many still claim that competition fuels performance, countless company cultures show the opposite in anything other than the short-term.  Removing competitive influences that create silos, division and even sabotage in organisations is needed in order to create an environment where collaboration can thrive.  Workplaces (online and in person) need space to explore together, to challenge and share ideas.  Too often, this is left to chance rather than prioritised and explicitly tied to long-term success.

Experiences of Olympic sport emphasised the importance of building deep bonds with those I trained and competed with. It wasn’t enough that everyone wanted to win; what was important was to find out what motivated each of us, our backgrounds and perspectives, and the deeper purpose that underpinned our Olympic sporting journeys.  Our aim wasn’t to create harmonious teams, but meaningful relationships characterised by candour, challenge and support which could then be resilient under the greatest of pressure.

As a diplomat in a world that depended on building relationships, partnerships and alliances in order to achieve progress, I also learnt the importance of connecting across all sorts of barriers and boundaries.  Before I went on my first foreign posting, an eminent ambassador gave me three pieces of advice on how to build meaningful relationships with others with whom I might at first think I had nothing in common:

  • First, get to know them beyond their job title: what really matters to them, what do they care about, which is inevitably never the first thing they say;
  • Second, listen more than you speak: this is how you find out about what drives them, how they see the world and how you can then connect with that;
  • Third, find out what you have in common: this comes from the first two steps. But it’s always easy to focus on differences – opportunity lies in finding even the smallest areas of common interest and building on those.

Experiences of genuine connection start from the earliest point in our lives.  Pyschologist Terry Orlick’s extensive work with children concluded that ‘experiences in human cooperation are the most essential ingredient for the development of psychological health.’ The same continues to apply throughout our adult lives, and the pandemic has reinforced the importance of relationships to us.  But how much are we prioritizing and consciously developing the quality of connections in our lives?  Rather than simply ticking off tasks on the day’s ‘to-do’ list, we might start to ask ourselves about what we have done today to support others?  How have we contributed to an environment for ourselves and others to thrive in?  And what experience do we want others to have when they work with us?  It’s also worth considering who else we could connect with, who could bring a further dimension and add value to our personal and professional lives.

It is clear that the complex problems we face in business and beyond in society require a collective response, an understanding of multiple perspectives and collaborative solutions. Much of what we experienced in 2020 has taught us that our futures depend on our capability to connect more deeply, ambitiously and diversely.  It’s time to redefine success in business beyond any single short-term profit metric, by Clarifying our purpose and how it connects to our daily work, embracing the Constant learning journey that each day brings, and prioritising the Connections we need to fully explore the possibilities that the future holds, together.

Dr Cath Bishop is an Olympian, former diplomat and business coach. She competed in rowing at 3 Olympic Games, winning World Championships gold in 2003 and Olympic silver in Athens 2004. As a diplomat for the British Foreign Office for 12 years, Cath specialized in policy and negotiations on conflict issues, with postings to Bosnia and Iraq. Cath now works as a business consultant, leadership coach and author, and teaches on Executive Education programmes at the Judge Business School, Cambridge University and is a Visiting Professor at Surrey Business School. Cath speaks at events globally on topics of leadership, high performing teams and cultural change. Her first book ‘The Long Win: the search for a better way to succeed’, published October 2020, was described by the Financial Times as ‘a deep and rewarding exploration of human motivation in sport, politics, business and our personal lives.’