“Who the &$#? was that.”
That’s what Lord Coe thought in Prague 1977 as he was approaching the finish line. An East German athlete was overtaking both him and super competitor Ovett to win out of nowhere. Coe got a bronze.
“You know that your competitors are going along smoothly, and then suddenly a new boy comes and overtakes you.”
That’s one for all of us to remember in business.
Lord Sebastian Coe is a prolific world record setter, one of the UK’s greatest runners, chairman of London 2012, president of the IAAF at the time he spoke.
He’s best known in the UK as head of the organising committee for the London 2012 Olympics and a celebrated track and field athlete. He won four Olympic medals, including the 1500 metres gold medal at the Olympic Games in 1980 and 1984. He was also an MP from 1992-1997.
His ability to manage the huge event that is the Olympics is a world away from the projects I lead, but he’s still another of my inspirational figures – I was fortunate to listen and meet him in Birmingham.
Here are some of the gold nuggets I got from Lord Coe.
When he was targeting his golds in the late 1970s, he knew he had to try something different – especially if he was to compete with the East Germans.
“Don’t be afraid to challenge the althodoxes. Do something differently. Break the mould.”
Wise words. And so when got a great team working together hard and effectively “God knows when they slept”.
They had to turn him into the fastest middle distance runner of his generation. Coe got specialists on board, including blood chemistry analysis experts. People to see how weight was being distributed. This was all new stuff. It was frightening people. Today it’s bread and butter for athletes.
Coe broke the mould.
But when you try things differently Lord Coe made clear that you need to “withstand criticism”.
After all that work he ran the 800m in Oslo. His record stood for 18 years.
What Lord Coe was clear on was that his team all understood what they needed to do in their own role. They did not stepping on each others toes.
“Bringing people together is not just a science but an art. It’s about understanding their motivations – it’s about much more than just the technical abilities they bring.”
These same management traits learnt in the 1970s were what Coe brought to organising the Olympic games.
His thoughts on organising the Olympics was fascinating. What a mammoth job. How do you manage all those people, get the right things done and deliver the Olympic games?
“Surround yourself with the smartest people you find. Strong leaders crave unpalatable things being told to them. Don’t ever lose sight of most important questions. How and the why. Everyone asks the how first. You need to start with the why.”
“There needs to be a big vision binding you all together through the journey. And a mission.”
“It’s easier to articulate the vision beyond business walls if everyone understands the vision and mission in your business.”
“Vision must be in the DNA of your organisation. You’re permanently at cross roads where the judgement is between budget and creativity. At the start of the Olympic journey we said we’re going to stick to the vision – a guiding North Star.
Example of the importance of vision at London 2012:
“Before the Olympic games, London 2010 began to run out of money. The finance guy was telling them to cut back on all the big screens in many city centres. Why would we cut back on that?” said Coe, “We want the games to inspire people. Why would you remove a key bit of the vision? Cut back on something else.” instructed Coe, “Always go back to vision. Live by your vision by the hour.”
Interestingly, Lord Coe gave insight into influencing the decision makers behind giving the Olympics to London.
“We won the bid because we understood the motivations of 34 swing voters. We even got Tony blair to spent 15 minutes with each one. We were very interested in listening to the people we wanted to influence.”
“Listen to the people you’re working with and for.”
“Wake up every morning to do better than the day before.”
Lord Coe’s Top Tips
- Relationships are the best mitigator against risk. Relationships will see you through storms.
- Communicate. Be open and liberal. Treat the most demanding stakeholders with respect and maturity. With the games the most demanding stakeholders were community around the Olympic stadium.
- Surround yourself with people who are far smarter than you.
What an inspiration.
Mark Reynolds is the founder of ProfitReach, a digital marketing and web optimisation agency – helping you get more high quality leads to make the selling easier.