Friday, July 18, 2008

No limits to excellence

No limits to excellence

The important lesson in the Nadal-Federer match is that people who operate at high levels of excellence pull each other up the scale.

V. K. Madhav Mohan for THE HINDU

CEOs and organisations can learn important lessons from the history that unfolded on Centre Court at Wimbledon on July 6, 2008. The gentlemen’s final of 2008 was arguably the greatest tennis match of all time. Noted tennis historian Bud Collins had no hesitation in classifying it as the greatest Wimbledon final ever (also the longest at 4 hours and 48 minutes).

What Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer achieved on that rain-swept day was unimaginable. As the rest of the world looked on in disbelief, they shifted the frontiers of excellence upward by an order of magnitude.

This was not just tennis, as Vijay Amritraj said during live commentary. The match had everything anyone could hope for: drama, fortunes swinging like a pendulum, brute power laced with consummate finesse, court speed fuelled by fighting spirit and above all, mental strength beautified by sportsmanship.

What has all this got to do with CEOs and organisations? Quite simply, the classic encounter reveals finer points that are as applicable to individuals as they are to organisations. Both Nadal and Federer competed on their own respective scales and yet propelled each other to the next level. They fed on each other’s performance and so transcended from good to great. That transition points the way for the rest of us, lesser mortals!

The important lesson that stands out is that people who operate at high levels of excellence pull each other up the scale. Peter Drucker posited that the difference between the top and the average is constant and so the way to shift the average upwards is to help the top shift upwards. The common practice however is to help the bottom shift upwards.

Both in academic and corporate environments, the focus is almost always on the weaker, poorer performers. More resources are lavished on them in terms of training and counselling; if the same resources were directed at the top performers, they would move even higher. Then the average would move upwards since the difference between the top and average is constant.

This has important implications for organisational performance. If more people improved their performance and if top performers went even higher the entire organisation would migrate to new standards. This is more or less what happened during the Nadal-Federer epic. Both have been top performers consistently as their respective ATP rankings of two and one in the world respectively, denote. On July 6 both pushed the other into a new zone of performance, a zone that that is the stuff of dreams.

Their achievement is bound to raise the standard of tennis on both the men’s and the women’s circuit because Nadal and Federer have demonstrated what is possible. This is much like Roger Bannister breaching the four minute barrier for the one mile run on May 6, 1954, with a time of 3 minutes 59.4 seconds; a month after this feat another runner, an Australian named John Landy, bettered Bannister’s record with a time of 3 minutes 57.4 seconds.

New performance zones

The CEO should think about ways to move his team into these new zones of performance. By focusing his own time and the organisation’s resources on the top performers (mentoring, training, new assignments, exposure, travel, scholarships) he can create an environment in which every individual pushes others up their own scales. A collective lift ensues, thereby scaling up organisational performance, much like the flight of geese in formation generates collective lift.

Wining formula

Coming back to the Wimbledon final, I believe Nadal won this time because of the following, each of which has lessons for CEOs:

His backhand is hit with perfect balance in all situations since he is a natural right-hander converted into a lefty. So Nadal actually has two equally powerful sides, his powerful lefty forehand and his backhand beefed up by the strength and control in his natural right hand. Organisations need to learn from this by creating and innovating new strengths while augmenting the existing strengths. This more than compensates for weaknesses.

Nadal's swinging slice serve which curves away from the opponents on either side. Even the great Federer's perfect ground-strokes were always under pressure on the Nadal first serve because the ball was always either going away from Federer (on the deuce court) or curving into his body (on the advantage court).

The lesson here is to develop one particular weapon to specifically neutralise a competitor's core strength. That means understanding the opponent's strength and designing a product, service or policy to eliminate its effectiveness in the market

Unrivalled court speed and unrelenting aggression. Nadal is probably the fastest man ever on a tennis court. That allows him to retrieve even impossible winners and forces the opponent to play interminably long points, thereby sapping his stamina.

Companies need to build reserves of cash and talent that will force opponents downhill with every competitive encounter. No matter what strategy or tactics the competitor employs, the CEO must always be ready with a counter thrust. In fact, the reserves of organisational stamina must be built up with contingency plans and resources, careful husbanding of cash and constant honing of talent

Continuous adaptation and evolution in his game. Nadal has made the crossover from a clay court specialist to a complete tennis player. From being able to hit mostly heavy top spin ground strokes he's graduated to drop shots, sliced backhands, deft angles and serve and volley tennis. Similarly organisations must adapt continuously and develop all-round capabilities much like pilots with all-weather ratings. That calls for continuous market analysis and organisation development to map the market.

Mental toughness. Nadal's mental toughness prevented him from wilting even when he had lost several match points. That strength is evidently practised and polished with visualisation exercises. Mental rehearsals are as important as physical practice. CEOs must develop this capability for personal visioning by repeatedly visiting the scene of future physical performance mentally and "seeing" a perfect performance every time. By encouraging everyone around him to develop this skill the CEO can make a very strong impact on organisational performance.

Supreme physical fitness. No other tennis player has demonstrated Nadal's unremitting aggression, court speed or mental toughness. The basis of all that is his almost superhuman physical fitness which gives him the balance, breath control and stamina to deploy his technique and weaponry with devastating effect.

The peerless Federer revealed fleeting glimpses of fatigue only in the last two games of the match but that, sadly, was enough to make the difference between victory and defeat.

So too must CEOs , business owners and managers be committed to physical fitness. This is the key to mental toughness and clarity. Gym workouts, sports, walking, yoga, pranayama are all de rigueur for today's leaders. Personal discipline leads to fitness, physical and mental, and that goes with the territory of leadership.

What the world experienced during the Nadal-Federer encounter was indeed a demonstration of possibilities for personal and organisational growth. The dynamic duo proved beyond doubt that limits to growth and excellence do not exist. For that we have be eternally grateful to those two great sportsmen.

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