A View on Talent in the 21st Century.


I recently had the pleasure of speaking, as part of a panel, at an event called “Talent in the 21st Century” in London. My fellow panellists included Olympic champions Greg Searle and Ben Hunt-Davis, GB Olympian Steve Backley, Mike Forde who was the Director of Football Operations at Chelsea FC, plus authors Rasmus Ankersen and Simon Sear.

My fellow panellists and I were posed five questions. Here are those questions and my own personal answers to them…


Q. What are the common characteristics of elite performers in sport and business?

A. In writing How To Shine, I identified eight common characteristics that differentiate world class performers from the rest. These are characteristics that I have consistently noticed, that set the very best in the world apart from the rest. Firstly, they have a dream and a real passion. They simplify what they do and are able to focus on the step that they’re taking right now, rather than focusing purely on the end result. World class performers also have a clear understanding of what they can compromise and what they definitely will not compromise. They are happy to push the envelope, to try and fail. They are also mentally tough and happy to take complete responsibility for their performance. Finally, world class performers are authentic; true to themselves. These characteristics help them to do what others won’t do. There is a point in time when the investment required to make improvements becomes disproportionately larger than the gain that you make. At the highest level, athletes invest huge amounts of time, effort and focus to gain just a fraction of a per cent. When the balance tips, some people will stop making the investment because the returns appear so small. However, world class people don’t stop!


Q. What can leaders do to coach and develop these characteristics?

A. I think it starts with recruitment and selection. We could start by recruiting those with a real passion; and intrinsic love for what they do. We could also look for evidence (not words), which show us that the person we’re recruiting does what it takes to succeed. In some cases we may not have that luxury because we may inherit a team who were not recruited on that basis. Many great leaders work to help their people develop passion. Twice Michelin starred chef Kenny Atkinson will take his chefs to meet suppliers, to develop an appreciation for the ingredients, understand where they come from and how much effort goes into producing them. He does the same with customer service, to help his team to care deeply about providing a great experience. In doing so, he nurtures their passion, taking it from ‘an interest’, to something they ‘like’, to ‘like a lot’ and to ‘love’.

There are relatively simple ways to develop the other seven characteristics of world class performers. To start with, leaders can help their people to find their “Two Lengths of the Pool” and understand their jobs in the simplest possible terms. They can also help their people to identifying the key processes and focus on delivering them, help their people understand what they should not compromise and where the boundaries of their responsibility lie. Of course these ideas are just the start.


Q. What are the common characteristics of under-performers, and what can be done to increase performance?

A. There are some fairly obvious clues that I often see in under-performers; blame and excuses. Under-performers normally focus on something external, which has affected their performance. Sometimes there will be reasons that were outside of their control. Sometimes, they failed because of a lack of resources. Whatever the reason, it is often beyond their influence.

I also tend to see that their focus and motivation fluctuate, following their results or feedback that other people give them. If they’re doing well, or there is a following wind, they’ll be energised and motivated. If things are going against them, their focus and enthusiasm seems to wane.

So, what can leaders do? 

Here are a few thoughts…

Leaders can start by understanding the root cause of the under-performance. I often employ a quick audit of Knowledge, Skills, Resources and Desire, to identify if there is a lack in one or more areas that is contributing to the under-performance. If ‘Desire’ is the issue, ask whether the person has a strong understanding of ‘the why’; the reason to perform.

Is there a balance between the challenge that’s presented and the skills that the person has? More specifically, is there a balance between the perception of the challenge and the perception of their skills. When we perform at our best, often these two elements are well balanced.

Leaders can help their people to generate a positive spiral of performance, by simplifying and clarifying their focus, helping them to control their confidence and master their motivation. The free sample chapter of Peak Performance Every Time explains this process in more detail.

In addition, leaders can ensure that there is a clear understanding of who is responsible for the performance, and what their people are responsible for delivering. Performance is often greater when there is focus on, and responsibility for, delivering processes rather than outcomes.

Leaders can also reflect upon the balance between the level of challenge they demand, and the level of support they provide. Research in sport psychology suggests that balance in these two elements influences a leader’s ability to enable performance in their people.


Q. What are the characteristics of elite teams and who are they?

A. Until recently I have spoken about the ‘Five Habits of World Class Teams’. These are the characteristics that I’ve seen in world class sports teams, SAS teams, Red Arrows and many more. Although I’ve traditionally identified five, recently I have come to notice a sixth as well.

The world class teams that I’ve observed all tend to have the following…

They are very focused (and have a strong, clear and shared purpose).

They have shared standards and expectations.

They have a total appreciation of each individual and the contribution they make.

They understand how to gain the greatest strength from their differences.

They are brutally honest.

And, most recently I have come to add…

They are always learning and improving.

These are all characteristics that can be developed in teams. My work with sports teams and Exec teams in business focuses on systematically developing these characteristics.

Interestingly, one of the delegates at the event asked, “What if we don’t have the resources to improve?”. My response to the question is, “How much does it cost to think better?”. Often we don’t need more resources to improve our performance, but we do need to think differently. Sometimes we need to invest more time, but many organisations can make significant gains without an enormous spend. If you want to follow this thought process, read Behind The Scenes of Our Olympic Success.


Q. How can business leaders improve the performance of their team?

A. There are, as you can imagine, many possible solutions. In reality, it depends upon the specific challenges the team has and the context around them. However, there are also a number of ‘usual suspect’ elements that we can improve, which will boost the team’s performance. I’ve been helping teams to adopt the habits of world class teams into their own performance. For example, we can help develop focus by ensuring that the team understands its “Two Lengths of the Pool” (its job in the simplest possible terms) and that all of the team members know how they, and each other, contribute to it. This alignment is often a foundation of great team performance.

Developing a common understanding of the standards and expectations, the inter-dependency between team members and how the various personalities can add greatest value to the team also has a significant impact on its success. By employing strategies that are used by other world class teams, such as the Red Arrows, we can ensure that the team is constantly learning. In addition, leaders can work to create an environment in which a combination of brutal honesty and complete respect, can flourish. This often means identifying differences in personal and team agendas, and addressing ‘ego’ issues.



Obviously, these are not the only answers to the questions. These are simply the thoughts that I gave in a very limited time. In essence these are some of the headlines, and not even an exhaustive list of them. However, I hope they’re valuable to you.

If you’re curious to know more about how to improve personal and team performance, you’ll find more at www.be-world-class.com