NMBS Conference 2014: Building A Winning Team

Published:  23 June, 2014

Robert Tansey, development director at Sky Sports and chairman of Team Sky, spoke to delegates on how to build a winning team.

Robert Tansey is development director at Sky Sports and chairman of Team Sky. In 2008, he was a key architect of Sky’s partnership with British Cycling, out of which two ambitious goals were set: to get an extra million Britons on their bikes; and to win the Tour de France with a British rider within five years.

This second goal in particular was something that many people didn't believe was possible, and yet Britain went on to have two winners within four years, as well as enjoying their incredible performance at the cycling events during London 2012.

"The partnership was successful because the two organisations shared the same values," he explained. "You have to have that synergy from the start, otherwise the inevitable small bumps in the road will quickly make the partnership fall apart."

Mr Tansey said it was a real challenge to build Team Sky's vision of establishing "the world's most admired sports team", from scratch, in a global sport that didn't have much public presence in comparison with other global sports brands such as Manchester United.

A fundamental requirement in order to be successful is that everyone in the business has to understand the overall vision. "You have to be jargon free and the vision can't only be held by the marketing department - it has to flow and be adopted right through the whole organisation," he said.

Sky's strapline is 'Believe in Better', and Mr Tansey explained that Team Sky was always looking for ways to improve their organisation and the way they worked. "The British Cycling team looks for small improvements that, put together, make a fundamental difference, something they call 'the aggregation of marginal gains'."

Everyone in the team had very clear targets, and understood exactly what they needed to do in order to achieve them.

Despite this clarity, the journey to medal success at the Tour de France was not without its false starts. In 2009, Bradley Wiggins came fourth overall, six minutes behind the winner. In 2010 however, the first year of the Team Sky partnership, he came 24th, 39 minutes behind the winner.

"We realised immediately what had gone wrong," Mr Tansey said. "We'd spent the two years previously making improvements in the athletes' track cycling skills, and translated that straight across to the Tour de France - a road race - without looking at the basic skills they needed to be competitive on the road."

After that, the team stepped back and began the complex process of working out what three or four fundamental things they needed to achieve in order to put them back on the road to success, namely ensuring the athletes could climb well in the mountain stages, and could deal with altitude and the extreme heat they would face.

"When faced with a complex problem, it's easy to loose sight of the fundamental things you have to do," he warned. "All the training we did afterwards was then based around these key things. It's only when you have the foundation in place that the other, marginal gains become important."

Cycling is a sport where teamwork is fundamentally important, particularly in the Tour de France because while there is only one winner, that cyclist can't succeed without the support of all the other athletes who ride with them. While every member of the team is an elite athlete at the very top of their sport, only one will have the glory of being named the winner.

So, how do you get extremely driven, competitive and motivated athletes to accept that role?

"You have to give them a clear understanding of what they're expected to do, and then the recognition they deserve when they do it well," said Mr Tansey. "It's the same in business. People in business can't succeed without support, but you need recognition to get people to sacrifice their own wants and desires for the good of the business as a whole."

Making sure everyone in the organisation understands and supports the business' vision is key to this, he added, using the example of a US President who once visited NASA. During the visit he met a cleaner who, when asked what he did for a living, said: "I helped put a man on the Moon."

Leaders within a business also have a responsibility to recognise and acknowledge the work of their team, he said, which in turn would help to encourage loyalty from their employees.

Finally, Mr Tansey spoke of the importance of creating the right culture within the business, noting that hiring people with the right attitude can be more important than their skills.

"You can teach people new skills over a period of time but you can't teach someone the right attitude," he said, quoting figures from the Harvard Business Review which claims that a good, positive culture within a business, particularly a customer-facing one, can give that business up to a 30% competitive edge.

He advised delegates to identify the winning behaviours they need in each department of their business and, by extension, they would also identify the losing behaviours and what people need to avoid.

"To win, you need to get rid of the people who sap the energy, no matter how good they might be at their job," Mr Tansey concluded. "And always keep learning, or you will eventually start to fail."

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