Staying Ahead


Getting to number one is undoubtedly a challenge. Arguably, though, staying at number one is an even greater challenge. How do organisations consistently stay ahead of their competitors? It is an interesting question, and one that a number of my clients are currently tackling.

Several years ago I worked with a number of athletes who discovered that they needed a shift in thinking once they had broken through the clouds and become the number one in their sport. Of course, for many years they had been chasing their closest rivals. They had something to aim at, a target in their sights. When they became number one, the target in front of them disappeared. Who do they chase now? Rather than aiming to surpass those in front of them, they have become the target. Everyone else is now chasing them!

It is an interesting transition for many. For so long, they had part of their focus on those in front of them. Perhaps they have been looking at the front runners to pick up ideas. How do ‘the best’ do it? What can I learn? What are they doing that I could incorporate? There is also a certain motivational drive that many people experience when they’re chasing down those ahead of them. Sometimes the motivation is simply, “to be number one”. The danger of course is that when you hit the front, that motivation may evaporate because the job is done.

Many people will agree that outcomes follow processes. If we execute the processes well, the outcomes tend to follow. In addition, there is a lag phase between employing the processes and seeing the results. Sometimes that delay can be frustratingly long. Normally there is extra effort required to employ better processes. It is tempting to think that if we’re not seeing the results, perhaps the extra effort is wasted. This period, between improving the processes and seeing the results, is one where many people give up.

If we have executed our processes well over a long period, and achieved some great results, there is also a chance that we can ease off the processes without seeing an immediate drop in performance. There is a chance that we might become complacent. Of course, the outcome follows the processes, so eventually the performances and results will inevitably dip too. As with improvements, there is often a delay between the point when we take our foot off the gas, and the point at which we notice the drop in performance. This is a dangerous time for many.

Those who have sustained success for many years understand that in many ways the mind-set from chasing to leading doesn’t actually change much at all. The way we perceive the motive may change slightly; from wanting to become number one, to staying number one. However, for the world’s best, the motivation is often to simply be the best they can possibly be. This doesn’t change according to rankings or positions. Equally, the insatiable desire to learn as much as possible from those around them also remains. If there are things that competitors are doing well, world class organisations will always look at ways to incorporate them. This applies not only to those who are ranked highly. It applies to those who are doing things really well. I have also noticed that many of the best organisations in the world look outside of their discipline for inspiration and input. For example, England Squash have led the world for around 20 years. They do study other squash nations, but also spend time looking at other world leading sports organisations such as British Cycling and the ECB.

Those who have a relentless desire to be the best they can also have a keen internal focus on their own game. Olympic swimmer, Chris Cook, knew that his job was to swim Two Lengths of the Pool as quickly as he could. That job didn’t change when he became the British and Commonwealth number one. Chris knew that he had a clear game plan and was focused on executing it. Chris’ game plan was different to other swimmers and designed to suit him. Chris’ focus in each and every training session was simply to improve his game. Equally, England Squash knew that their game plan was different than the Egyptians, Malaysians and Indians. England had different challenges to contend with and therefore needed different solutions. Therefore, the focus for England Squash was to deliver their strategy as well as they could. Interestingly, the innovations that keep England Squash ahead of the rest are not the result of cutting edge sport science or racket design. Instead, their solution is to take coaching beyond teaching skills, techniques and tactics, to engage the players completely and to optimise the human dimension.

To find out more about how organisations remain at number one year after year, become a member of Be World Class and check out “On… Staying Ahead” with England Squash’s Head of Performance, Keir Worth.