Vision and Empowerment: Better never stops

The British sports-admin­is­tra­tor Baroness Sue Camp­bell was one of the experts at the SURPRISE FACTORS SYMPOSIUM “From Good to Great” 2015. She explained that you have to define clear goals and to fol­low those who are the best at the moment. To encour­age her ath­letes, she always gave them three sim­ple ques­tions: What are you doing? What could you do? And, what pre­vents you from doing it?

Interview with Sue Campbell:

In sport, com­par­i­son is a huge mark­er: What is good? What is great?

When I was put in charge of the over­all Olympic team for the Unit­ed King­dom, I don’t think I knew the answers to those ques­tions. To put it into con­text, in 1996 we were 36th in the medal table. A lot of the issue was we didn’t make a sig­nif­i­cant invest­ment in our coach­es and ath­letes. In 1997 we estab­lished the lot­tery and that cre­at­ed a major new source of invest­ment. We went from 36th to 10th at the Olympics in Syd­ney and then 10th again in Athens. We knew that we’d got­ten to “good” and that invest­ment had made the dif­fer­ence: Ath­letes were train­ing full time, we had bet­ter coach­es, bet­ter sports sci­ence and bet­ter sports med­i­cine.

But was that as good as we were going to be? Could we get to great?
When I came in to head up UK Sport I start­ed with very sim­ple ques­tions: We’re 10th in the medal table. Who’s above us? The answer they gave me was: Amer­i­ca and Chi­na. There were good rea­sons why Amer­i­ca and Chi­na were going to stay at first and sec­ond: mas­sive pop­u­la­tion, mas­sive com­mer­cial invest­ment, mas­sive uni­ver­si­ty invest­ment.

So I asked, who’s num­ber three? Rus­sia. All right, we might not do bet­ter than Rus­sia. Who’s num­ber four? Aus­tralia. Aus­tralia! I didn’t buy the idea that we couldn’t do bet­ter than Aus­tralia. I know it’s a sport­ing nation, but sure­ly we can come in fourth. Oh, no, they told me: Aus­tralia has the sun­shine! When I asked about the oth­er nations that were above us on the list – five, six, sev­en, eight, nine – for each one they gave me a rea­son. But they weren’t rea­sons. They were excus­es.

That’s when I began my “bet­ter nev­er stops” con­cept. “Bet­ter nev­er stops” means that start­ing today, every day we’re going to be a lit­tle bit bet­ter. If we get on that ten-year jour­ney, then one day we’ll be on the way to great. But the next ques­tion was: what does great look like?

MindMap: Inter­view with Sue Camp­bell (en)

By chance I found the answer to that ques­tion at a For­mu­la One race. I end­ed up in Michael Schumacher’s pit lane. At the time he was the world cham­pi­on. On Mon­day after the race, I got the UK Sport staff in a room and I said, “I can now describe ‘great’ to you.”

I had boiled it down to three ques­tions: First, can you eat your lunch off a garage floor? Because you can off Michael Schumacher’s garage floor – that’s how clean it is. I had spent 30 min­utes with the man who cleaned that floor. He felt like he was world-class at clean­ing the floor. He bragged to me that his floor clean­ing was an impor­tant part of Michael Schu­mach­er win­ning the race. If you want to be great, it doesn’t mat­ter what job you do, you’ve got to want to be world class. That was my way of chang­ing the mind­set of every­body in our sys­tem.

„If you want to be great, it doesn’t mat­ter what job you do, you’ve got to want to be world class.”

The sec­ond ques­tion: How long does it take you to change your tire when you get a blow out on your car? Because I’d watched Michael Schumacher’s team prac­tice that tire change to get 0.01 sec­onds off their time. You can’t blink that fast. My point was that we could become great if we worked at mar­gin­al gains: Can you make incre­men­tal improve­ments every day? If you say to some­one, we’re going to be great, that seems so far away, it’s unreach­able. If you say, tomor­row we’re going to be 0.01 bet­ter than we were today, I defy any­one to tell me they can’t do that.

My third ques­tion was: How long does it take to make a deci­sion? We were part of the pub­lic sec­tor, so the answer was, for­ev­er! But I had watched Michael Schumacher’s race direc­tor make an unbe­liev­ably coura­geous deci­sion in five sec­onds – and that deci­sion won the race. But the key was, he had made that deci­sion based on great data.

So my three lessons were: Every­body has to belong, has to be val­ued in the sys­tem, and has to be strug­gling to be world class – there is no com­pro­mise. Sec­ond, we’re going to work col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly, con­stant­ly coach­ing each oth­er to find mar­gin­al, incre­men­tal gains to make us bet­ter tomor­row than we were yes­ter­day or today. And we’re going to have the best data in the world so we can make coura­geous deci­sions about where we put our invest­ment. That was the begin­ning of the jour­ney from good to great.

„Of course, mon­ey always mat­ters”

It’s always rel­e­vant. But the real shift from good to great was about cul­ture, about mind­set and less about mon­ey. The way you bring those togeth­er is through trans­paren­cy. When it came to mon­ey, to invest­ment, for exam­ple, there was no trans­paren­cy: Who got how much mon­ey? Because they didn’t know how mon­ey was allo­cat­ed, peo­ple resent­ed the fact that some­one else got more mon­ey than they did. I want­ed to cre­ate a trans­par­ent sys­tem so every­body would under­stand why they got what they got. That way, the entire sys­tem could get bet­ter. Each sport was begin­ning to under­stand what it took to be great. If you start to mod­el great­ness, it becomes attain­able to more peo­ple.

I have anoth­er expres­sion: “Nev­er let any­body put a ceil­ing in your sky.” In oth­er words, how do you unlock peo­ple, give them the free­dom to accom­plish what they are tru­ly capa­ble of accom­plish­ing?

„How do you unlock peo­ple, give them the free­dom to accom­plish what they are tru­ly capa­ble of accom­plish­ing?”

Again, I took three sim­ple ques­tions and asked every­one at UK Sport. First, I asked, what do you do? It’s fas­ci­nat­ing how few peo­ple can tell you what they do. Peo­ple can tell you the tasks they do. But they can’t tell you the pur­pose of what they do. Sec­ond, I asked, what could you do? If all the con­straints were tak­en away and bud­get weren’t an issue, what could you do? And third, I asked, what stops you? What keeps you from doing what you could do?

They’re sim­ple ques­tions, but they lib­er­at­ed a lot of people’s minds.
Cre­ativ­i­ty, inspi­ra­tion is in every­body. But we lock them down. We need to unlock everyone’s cre­ativ­i­ty. In the end, going from good to great is in the ath­letes. It’s their desire, their deter­mi­na­tion, their resilience, their abil­i­ty to come back when things aren’t good.

One of the things we’ve done is to have our Olympic and Par­a­lympic ath­letes go into schools. They work with small cohorts of kids who are strug­gling with school or home life. They talk with kids who are hav­ing a tough time in life and they bring inspi­ra­tion into their lives.

They tell a kid, if you have a pas­sion and you pur­sue it and you don’t let peo­ple knock you off course, you’ll find some­thing very spe­cial at the end of the jour­ney – which is self-ful­fill­ment. It’s not about medals actu­al­ly. It’s about the jour­ney. It’s about self-ful­fill­ment.

About Sue Campbell:

Sue Camp­bell is a mem­ber of the British House of Lords. She is con­sid­ered the mas­ter­mind behind the out­stand­ing suc­cess of the British nation­al team at the Olympic Games in Lon­don in 2012.

Camp­bell grad­u­at­ed from Bed­ford Col­lege of Phys­i­cal Edu­ca­tion and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Leices­ter with a Mas­ter of Edu­ca­tion. She was, among oth­er things, deputy direc­tor for phys­i­cal edu­ca­tion at Leices­ter and Lough­bor­ough Uni­ver­si­ty. Since 2005 Camp­bell has chaired Youth Sport Trust, an asso­ci­a­tion with the aim to detect the poten­tial of young peo­ple in all walks of life through sports. As for­mer chair­per­son of UK Sports, in eight years of inten­sive prepara­to­ry work Sue Camp­bell devel­oped a strat­e­gy that helped Eng­land achieve the best results at Olympic Games 2012 ever.

She has won numer­ous awards, includ­ing for exam­ple the award for life­time achieve­ment from Sun­day Times Sports­woman of the Year Awards in 2012. She has received 10 hon­orary doc­tor­ates, the lat­est of which was award­ed from Queen’s Uni­ver­si­ty Belfast in July 2013. In June 2003, Sue was award­ed a Com­man­der of the British Empire for her ser­vices to sport.