We joined with our partners, Leaders in Sport, to find out what 3 outstanding practitioners-turned-High Performance leaders: Jeremy Bettle, Darren Burgess and James Thomas had to say about how to prepare to become a better leader in High Performance.

“In sport,” says Jeremy Bettle, “you start out as a practitioner and you get better and better as a practitioner. The next thing you know, you’re a manager and a leader, and it’s an area we’re really poorly prepared for.”

The Performance Director of MLS champions New York City FC is talking to the Leaders Performance Institute and Elite Performance Partners [EPP] about his own experience as both a practitioner and a leader.

“In my first leadership roles,” Bettle continues, “I really thought having the best strategy or having the best ideas, that was what was going to make me a great leader, that people would just hear my idea and say ‘this is brilliant! Let’s do it!’ And you very quickly realise that it’s all about the people that you’re going to be leading.”

Bettle speaks from his experience leading performance divisions at teams including the Anaheim Ducks and Toronto Maple Leafs.

“Yes, you have to have a strategy but the other side of it is that you need to have empathy for what people are going through, their sense of threat from your new system, and the humility you must have to go into a new environment and take it all in. There’s a huge component of leadership you almost don’t realise until you’re in the job already. Hopefully you ride that storm out where you last and get to take that next step.”

The Leaders Performance Institute and EPP’s Dave Slemen and Anna Edwards are also joined by Darren Burgess, the High Performance Manager of the Adelaide Crows who also leads EPP’s search offering in Australia, and James Thomas, the Performance Director at British Gymnastics.

Although the trio offer three different perspectives from three different sports, systems and countries, they hit on the numerous performance principles that EPP, a performance consultancy and search firm, discuss with their clients on a daily basis. One such principle being the need to ensure people are developing a range of ‘human skills’ over and above their technical competence in order to prepare for leadership. Here are some of the other key considerations they identify for performance directors going into new roles.

Cultivating high performance habits

The environment is uppermost in the minds of all three, playing to EPP’s belief that culture and strategy hold equal weight in an organisation – like two strands of a DNA helix, with strong leadership binding the two together and enabling the team to retain its core structure when pressure is inevitably applied. “You don’t have to get it perfectly to succeed at all because talent will probably beat that, but where talent is equal, the environment becomes really important,” says Burgess, who has led high performance teams in the English Premier League at Liverpool and Arsenal, as well as in his native Australia, where he helped Melbourne to win the AFL Grand Final last year.

The dynamics are not quite the same in Olympic sport but the need for a clear performance vision is paramount, as Thomas explains.

“I’ve always described culture as turning expectation and beliefs into behaviours, and then behaviours into daily performance habits,” says Thomas, who has previously worked with British Judo, Welsh Boxing and Great Britain Wheelchair Rugby.

“The people I’ve seen be successful have had consistently high performance habits in an environment that allows people to express those habits daily, to allow them to be reinforced and celebrated in training and competition.”

It takes time to reach that point, as Bettle points out. “People need to be open-minded and have humility, both me coming into an environment and the people there,” he says. “In a positive environment, there’s a lot of work done to prepare for your entry, but that isn’t always the case and staff can have no clue as to what’s expected and why we’re making a change. You have to spend a significant amount of time on the front end just letting the staff know exactly what the new org chart looks like.” Even when you get there, leaders need to remind their teams of the culture they are trying to build on a daily basis, EPP’s Dave Slemen adds.

Stop, look and listen

That said, it is important not to rush.

“I think the most important thing that I’ve done is taking some time to not do anything,” says Bettle. “Really just observing the current culture, the current systems; really taking it all in before you actually start plugging your system into it.”

He admits it is an error he has made in the past. “You go in too quick and you’ve got a system that you want to drop on this new culture and you miss things that are being done really well. You lose sight of the fact that this is a big change management project, and so people can’t change as fast as you would like them to if you just go in on day one and start to change systems and processes and reporting lines.”

“For 60 days, you should observe and plug in little pieces where you can, and then once you’ve done that evaluation, you can plug in your system to really complement the things that are being done really well; and you can give them small pieces to change over time, and look at it as more of a long-term project than ‘at day one you’ve got to come in and produce results’” says Bettle.

Burgess concurs:

“People need to feel safe and they need to feel appreciated, and they need to feel that just because there’s change that doesn’t mean there will be wholesale change, and that’s a tough balance because, in a lot of clubs, in a lot of situations, you’re brought in for a reason, and they know that and you know that and the players know that, so there is a delicate balance there you have to find.”

The performance director role must begin to engender trust. “Unless you spend the time to build the connection with somebody I’ve often found it falls a little bit short,” says Thomas, who understands the importance of giving his staff a sense of psychological safety. “I’ve always taken the time to stand next to a coach during training, watch, ask questions, be inquisitive, and give them a sense that I’m interested rather than coming in and make a big change. It might not need a big change, but unless you talk to people and find out, you’ll never really know. It’s probably quite simple, but I just stand, watch and ask questions and try to be humble. I’ve come in, I’m not going to fix everything for anybody, but I’ll happily try and help. But I need to know about what you feel, what you think the issues are, and what you think doesn’t need fixing. What you think is great and really sacred to the sport, what needs to be maintained for the next few years.” Burgess points out you also need to speak up when it’s required, which fits with the definition of psychological safety held by EPP.

“It’s not just about creating an environment in which everyone can speak up and be heard, it’s about creating one where you have an obligation to if you think something is wrong,” adds Slemen.

Thomas’ inclusive approach proved useful as British Gymnastics devised its plan for the 2024 Paris Olympics. “By the time we’d launched our plan, which was just before Tokyo, everybody had seen it and heard the words, heard the language, and heard the ideas of change, so it felt quite normal,” he says. “It felt like people took and breath and just said ‘onto the next four years’. There’s a few changes and I’m sure people will have to work through that, but we’d taken on such a journey and evolved the team quite early on. There was actually a big sense of togetherness rather than a secret thing that was cooked up in a boardroom that no one had ever seen and all of a sudden now you were putting it on them.”

The importance of a criteria-based approach

As Bettle says: “You want to be clear about your standards and how people are going to be held accountable and, within that, being as supportive as you can.”

To that end, Burgess has adopted a criteria-based approach.

“I tend to give the staff a practical job description and say ‘there’s your practical day to day responsibilities’ and then there’s a real clear expectation and they can be as little as ‘you’re putting out the cones for the warm-up’ to as extensive as ‘you’re responsible for delivering the training analysis to the coach’, he says.

“Whether that’s a physio, doctor, psychologist, a performance analyst, they all have their practical job description and therefore they know what they’re going to be held accountable for, and that tends to be a little bit more specific and practical than a human resources-designed job description. That’s helped a lot. It’s helped us to get people aligned in what they’re doing, it’s also created its own issues when people fall short because it’s only mine and it’s not HR’s, but within our staff context it works quite well.” Which is perhaps why he’s such a good fit for EPP, who take a similar criteria-based approach to their hires, taking time upfront to ensure all are aligned on the key priorities for any role and why they are hiring, rather than getting blinded by names of prospective candidates or silverware.

For Thomas, it is a question of impact. “I’ll say, ‘where do you, as an analyst, as a physiotherapist, show impact? Can you talk me through where you impacted on performance?’” he says. “And then we move away from KPIs and job descriptions to actually showing me or telling me a story about where they impacted and connect to the team going after world championships and winning four medals; the nutritionist can tell me a story of the six weeks before and you get a real sense that somebody really can give you a great story of where they’re adding value; or if someone can’t quite describe that to you that’s where I start to think where are they? Where are they working? Where are they impacting? Moving forward, is this an area that we might want to change?”

Find your authentic voice

Authenticity is important and, in Edwards’ view, the most important leadership trait, alongside vulnerability. “It’s just what is right for me and what allows me to be my best, draw from my experiences, inspire others, but in a way that suits me,” says Thomas.

“I’m not a stand on top of a desk and beat my chest person, I try to inspire through relationships, caring about people, good strategy, but actually allowing other people to feel empowered to do it. So for me it’s been learning about myself, trust myself, but do it the way it feels right for me.”

For his part, Burgess initially noted down the qualities he liked and disliked in his leaders. “I would just come back and check those quite often,” he says.

“The big one for me, in every organisation, was that I barely got feedback and that might be a conversation on the pitch or more formalised feedback and those things are really important because most of the staff are just craving some sort of information on how they’re doing.”

Mentors and blind spots

Thomas found a mentor early in his career.

“I wanted someone to challenge me outside of the gymnastics space,” Thomas says. “It was a safe space where someone could really push me, get me asking the right questions, and give me feedback about how I was doing and how I was coming across.”

It’s something that I always quite pleased on, my ability to make tough decisions, and someone held the mirror back at me and said ‘you’re great at making tough decisions, but do you have tough conversations before that?’ That’s something different. Making a tough decision and just doing it, that’s one thing, but actually telling people beforehand or getting their views beforehand and having those tough conversations, that was a little bit of a blind spot for me and maybe I’m shying away from the tough discussion but then going straight to the tough decision. That’s something I’ve learnt, that they go hand in hand, but they’re two very different skills.

The importance of mentors came out as a key theme in Slemen’s dissertation for the Executive MBA he completed last summer. In interviewing ten of the UK’s top performance leaders, he found all had leant on mentors throughout their careers, and most highlighted it as the most pressing factor in their success.

Thomas advocates the same for his team.

“It was something probably two years in that I pushed really hard with my senior team; ‘get yourself a mentor, get someone who can support you outside of the work environment’. It’s been a massive success for gymnastics in terms of the growth I’ve seen in my team and them enjoying more leadership responsibility. A lot of that has been in seeking feedback from other members of the team.”

Quarterly 360-feedback is now part of British Gymnastics’ programme and Thomas relies upon it.

“They might not even be involved in performance, it might be PR or marketing or finance, but tell me how I’m doing, tell me how I’m coming across, what grates on you that I do that I’m not aware of, that I need to think about, where my blind spots are that I’m just not aware of day to day; and it’s that ability to reflect based on other people’s feedback has been really important.”

Bettle agrees. “I’ve worked with a mentor and coach for some time now and I think that that process of self-reflection has been one of the most important things in my career, certainly transitioning into leadership, just general self-awareness, self-reflection and getting to know yourself better, getting to know what my defaults are and what my blind spots are has been really important coming into environments as we try to increase diversity within an organisation; and you just know that you’ve got blind spots that you’ve got no way of knowing how other people are really thinking unless you’re really seeking it out.”

Having seen the importance of such guidance in the careers of many of the leaders they work with, Edwards has undertaken a Master’s in Mentoring & Coaching, allowing EPP to offer this as an additional service to those with whom they work.