What Does Business Success Mean? Why leaders need to go for the ‘Long Win’ if they are serious about performance

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by Dr Cath Bishop, ProjectNext Leadership Associate, Olympic medalist, former UK diplomat, business coach & author of ‘The Long Win

Who were the winners of 2020? Who will ‘win’ in 2021? A number of senior leaders I have coached over the past year have told me that current events are prompting them to rethink their priorities, personally and professionally, and to reimagine their approach to leadership.

At the same time in professional sports, there has been a stream of gold medallists over recent years claiming that winning wasn’t what they expected. That joy and fulfillment didn’t follow after crossing the line first. Michael Phelps and Lolo Jones spoke about the challenges of elite sport in the documentary ‘The Weight of Gold’, such as the costs of being dedicated to winning above all else, and the void that often follows, regardless of the result. Andre Agassi spoke of the chimera of winning in his autobiography, ‘Open’, describing that ‘winning changes nothing.’ Other winners have talked of a ‘void’, ‘anti-climax’ and even depression after winning, Their stories show winning, disconnected from a longer-lasting meaning loses its importance. It’s the same in business – results need to be tied to a greater purpose that sets up the next goal within that greater context.

Winning as a concept can be found across society, from sports to education, and politics to business. Traditionally, leaders, institutions and systems have focused on a narrow aim to ‘win’, defined as being the best, having the most marketshare, or the biggest profits. But this approach is increasingly inadequate for the complex, fast-paced, uncertain business world we live in now where purpose stands alongside profit, where competitors may be potential partners, and where innovation and creativity are more valuable than compliance inside organisations. As a result, leaders need to redefine what success looks like in order to ensure that they are supporting and stimulating – not constraining – performance.

What does this mean for business? Leaders increasingly need to understand the wider social and environmental impact of their work, nurture inclusive teams where cognitive diversity thrives and learning is constant, and prioritise collaborative ways of working inside and across organisations. None of these factors can be easily represented in a spreadsheet or simple metrics, yet all are critical to the quality and sustainability of results. A question I find useful to ask when coaching leaders is: ‘What isn’t in the organisational metrics, that also affects the bottom line?’ This opens up discussion of the more human elements of organisational life, from purpose to personal growth to relationships, all of which fuel the resilience, creativity and innovation their organisations need to deliver longer-term market results.

To support this shift, drawing on my experiences of high performance across sport, international politics, and business, I have created the concept of ‘The Long Win,’ composed of the 3 Cs of Clarity, Constant Learning and Connection. These are ongoing themes which shape the leader’s narrative and become part of every aspect of organisational life: focusing everything we do around
1. Clarity of purpose
2. Constant learning mindset
3. human Connections.

The 3Cs set up new and lasting ways of improving performance and help take leaders and teams into the deeper levels of culture, motivation and employee experience.

First, Clarifying our purpose should form the basis of organisational language. Clarifying why roles and teams matter in the bigger picture engages colleagues at a deeper intrinsic level. There is an ever-growing body of research that proves purpose-led businesses outperform their peers over the longer-term. It’s not new. Jim Collins described purpose as the ‘extra’ dimension that enables companies to go from ‘good to great.’ Companies that integrate environmental, social and governance (ESG) data are shown to make better investment decisions and outperform their peers. Sustainable investing has held up well during the pandemic.

Yet there remains a gap in understanding why purpose matters and how to put this into practice beyond rhetoric. It’s not simply a case of leaders rewording 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 daily work to it. This involves clarifying (and re-clarifying) the reason why a team exists and explaining their impact beyond the four walls (or screens) on another community of people, customers or colleagues. Harvard academic Teresa Amabile’s research showed that when we are engaged in “meaningful work”, we can tap into a much deeper source of (intrinsic) motivation, no longer dependent on short-term incentives or external recognition to drive it.

Second, an emphasis on Constant learning requires leaders to shift their focus away from solely short-term results and recognise the daily process of learning, experimenting and developing in order to build adaptability into the cultural DNA. This approach emulates the daily mindset that elite athletes invest in as the key to optimising high performance. When I was training as an Olympic rower, I knew that in order to maximise my chances of winning, I had to become world-class at improving each day. Sports psychologists supported us to develop an improver’s mindset, or ‘mastery’ mindset, learning on a constant basis, tweaking, experimenting, always looking to get better in myriad small ways. It was not just a question of training harder – that way leads to injury and burnout in most cases – but about training smarter and continually searching for different ways to improve performance beyond simply physical effort.

The third C of Connection emphasises the importance of relationships in our personal and professional lives. We are social creatures and lockdown has shown us how hard it is to thrive on our own. 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. Removing competitive influences that create silos, division and even sabotage in organisations creates an environment where collaboration can thrive.

My experience in the hyper-competitive world of Olympic sports 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. We needed to build relationships characterised by candour, challenge and support to prepare us to perform under the greatest of pressures. One exceptional rowing coach asked our team, when we were experiencing conflict, ‘What’s our goal here? What are we aiming for? The goal isn’t harmony – the goal is performance.’ He explained that if we explored the areas we saw differently with candour and trust, it could open the pathway to higher performance.

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, I encourage my clients to question what they have done today to support others? What was the quality of your conversations and how might you improve the quality of those interactions tomorrow? How have you contributed to an environment for yourself and others to thrive in? This opens up questions around the experience leaders are creating for others who work with them.

Questions, stories and conversations can help us to redefine what success looks like in a more meaningful way. The first step is to challenge narrow, short-term definitions of success. From there, we can start to clarify our purpose that connects us to our organisations and the communities and societies outside; we can continue to learn and value progress as much as outcomes, knowing that progress is the path to better outcomes; and invest in building connections that help us explore what’s possible together. There is a bigger game to play with more riches to be won beyond short-term shallow metrics. It’s time to pursue ‘The Long Win.