Why the best teams don’t need to cheat

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Team Sky and their Captain, Chris Froome, are the hallmark of excellence. In this year’s Tour de France, they are miles ahead (literally!) of the competition. Commentators and fans are lauding them for their efforts, and competitors aspire to reach the same levels of success.

Sadly, a large proportion cannot accept that this level of success is possible. Instead they have decided and are happy to decree that Team Sky, and Chris Froome in particular, must be cheating.

One unconvinced commentator said: “It is surreal to see just how superior Froome is.” His performance is “so difficult to achieve that it leaves us speechless.” The great difference between him and his rivals “make me feel a bit uncomfortable.”

Similarly in business, instead of aspiring to learn from and emulate the behaviours and culture of the most successful firms, the standard defence for shortsighted, underperforming firms is to discredit the best firms – to employees, clients and the wider market place.

In reality, the best firms don’t need to cheat. There is no secret formula. When you look deeper, the reasons for their success are clear.

The best organisations (and sports teams) in the world have a deep-rooted value set that drives all behaviours. Everyone shares the same values and works towards a common objective. Successful firms believe in doing things the right way.

Unfortunately for resentful competitors, behaviours, values and culture take time to become automatic and instinctive. They cannot simply be created overnight.

So what role do values, behaviours and culture play for the best firms in practice?

Should there be an unforeseen crisis, such as an attack from a competitor or a bump in the road (literally for Team Sky!), the best firms have plans for these eventualities and their culture ensures team members are given the flexibility and self-determination to follow their instincts for the situation as it develops. The right behaviours have become automatic. Despite the challenges, everyone in the team has absolute faith that the values of the organisation will see them through in the end.

The best firms and teams have a clear objective that is communicated to, and shared by, everyone throughout the entire organisation. No one is in any doubt what the end result needs to be and everyone knows the strategy. Should someone in the team need help at any stage or conversely, should an unexpected opportunity arise, it is quickly communicated between the team and the required support arrives. This collective collaborative behaviour stems from the deep-rooted, shared values of the organisation.

The most successful teams are exactly that: A Team.

While the Captain (or CEO) may eventually the plaudits, the established culture means everyone in the organisation takes pride from the collective effort taken to achieve the objective.

Continuous learning and improvement are embedded in team culture and critical thinking is wholeheartedly encouraged. Winning firms ask: What is the key insight that others may have missed? How can we continue to improve our people? What can we do, no matter how small, that will give us an edge over our rivals? What can we do differently and better?

Finally, Team Sky and the top performing organisations employ and develop the best people. Whether it’s someone to provide the engine to pull the Captain over a climb, a lead out man for the final sprint or another domestique to fetch food, these individuals are handpicked because they are the best at what they do. What’s more, because success breeds success, the best organisations have no trouble recruiting the most talented individuals.

There is one caveat though.

All of these excellent individuals have to be willing to share the same goal, demonstrate the same values and embrace the culture of the collective team. The winning firms are brutal. Should you not conform to the team’s values or meet the standards expected, you can expect to be let go. The case of banned British cyclist, Jonathan Tiernan-Locke, is a prime example.

It’s clear that identifying the components that make the most successful organisations is easy.

So why don’t all professional services firms have a winning mentality and adopt a winning culture?

Because it is difficult.

In practice, sharing and adopting values, changing culture and knowing the right behaviours is not easy. It takes time, effort and buy-in. For many organisations this transition is simply too hard: “that’s the way we’ve always done things around here.”

Accusing the successful team of cheating is much easier.

Image ‘De Tour passeert in Crest’ by Flickr user jvanattenhoven used under Creative Commons License