You may have noticed that there is a major sporting event going on at the moment. Athletes from around the world are wowing us (well they’re certainly wowing me, anyway) with their fitness, strength, agility and drive. Just watching them on television makes me want to grab my running shoes. But while these individuals may be exceptional sportsmen and sportswomen, can they help us to improve our performance in our day jobs, too?
In my view, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. I’m not saying that swimming for four hours a day will make you a better manager (though it might, I suppose, and it will almost definitely make you a better swimmer) or that eating twelve scrambled eggs for breakfast each day will improve your accounting skills. But we can, nevertheless, apply much of what our athletes do to drive improvement in our own working lives.
1. Have a dream
One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that the key to doing something well is to want to do it well. We need to have picture of what we want things to be like; something that we can aim towards and use to inspire us when things are looking a little bleak. Call it a target, call it a goal, call it a dream. Whatever. Just make sure you have one.
I once went on a management development course and the instructor got us to draw this picture. I’ve long since lost the actual bit of paper but I remember the image vividly – and I make sure that I work towards it every day.
Perhaps you want to be a brilliant manager or a top notch accountant or the go-to person in your particular specialism. That’s great. That’s your dream. If you don’t have something that you’re aiming for in your job, then think about where you’d like to be in five, ten or twenty years time. Think about what you really want to achieve. And don’t worry if it’s something unusual or different. It’s your dream.*
2. Develop your skills
Just as a swimmer needs to master the strokes and a rower needs to be able to row, if you are going to do your job well then you are going to need the right skills. Some of these you may have already, some you may have some awareness of and some you may need to develop from scratch.
There are lots of ways for us to develop new skills. You could go on a course, for example, or engage in some part-time study. You could read some books or magazine articles on the skill that you want to develop. Or you could find a colleague who has already mastered the skill and get them to teach you.
And don’t stop when you’ve developed the skills that you need. If you’re an IT specialist and a new piece of software becomes the norm in your industry, then you need to learn how to use it. If you’re an accountant, then make sure you stay on top of new accounting standards or tax rules as they are issued. Time moves on and we – and our skills – have to move with it.
3. Practice… and practice again
Our diving team doesn’t just turn up at the pool and hope for the best. Our horse riders don’t just come to the competition having done a couple of laps of the park to get into the swing of things. Our canoeists don’t just leap into a kayak and figure it out as they go along. They practice. And they practice. And they practice.
When Ben Ainslie comes up to the top mark in his Finn sailing dinghy, he has rehearsed that tack thousands of times. When Hannah Miley turns gracefully at the end of the pool, it’s a reflex from hours and hours of training. And when Andy Murray makes a perfect serve, it’s because he’s practiced it time and time again.
But how can we do that at work? Preparing a budget or running a seminar appear, on the face of it, to have little in common with cycling around a velodrome or sprinting the hundred metres. But if you think about it, it’s obvious that the more you do something the better at it you’ll become.
So if you want to be a better writer, write more. If you want to be a better speaker, find more opportunities to speak. If you want to be a better financial planner, do more financial planning. If you can’t find opportunities where you work, offer your services to friends or volunteer to help a local charity. If there’s one thing we can learn from our athletes, it’s that practice makes perfect – or at least very close.
* I did, after all, leave a well paid, respected and relatively secure job to start up a business called Sockmonkey Consulting, so am hardly in a position to criticise.