In 1958, as NASA began it’s search for aerospace pilots, the job description listed the need for the following characteristics;
· Male (how 1950s?)
· Approx 5’11” /180cm
· Aged between twenty-five and forty
· A science degree
· High intelligence
· High mathematical ability
· Experience as a jet test pilot.
There were just six technical requirements.
The job description then listed the need for a host of personal characteristics and experiences.
· Ability to command
· Ability to follow orders
· Decent and psychologically stable
· Experience in dangerous and stressful situations
· Ability to sit still in a dangerous situation!
NASA knew that the undetermined endeavours of space exploration and lunar landing would not only require the ability to calculate co-ordinates, fuel levels and trajectories etc, but the events would involve the very essence of what we call today VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous). The candidates would need to use their own personal character and skills to manage, adapt, solve and progress situations – their lives depended on it.
In 2008, after the Beijing Olympics, as we took one big breath in before the London 2012 Olympics, along with other leaders in performance (sports science, coaching, operations), we committed to doing our very best to providing the same quality of equipped support staff for the athletes that would be putting themselves on the line (quite literally).
“If we expect Chris Hoy to be a high performing athlete, then he should expect a high performing team around him”, was the mantra I adopted.
The pursuit of people at recruitment and the support and development of people within, began to take a new focus. No longer was it enough to sit there at supposed CPD, cross your arms, take pot shots at the technical merits of a project, asking questions of impenetrably detailed nuance that it could only serve to display your mighty intelligence. It took time to get people on the same page in discussing more than just the ‘what’ you had done.
How did you convince the athletes?
How did you know that was the idea to go for?
How do you bolster your confidence when you’re at an Olympic games?
How did you have that difficult conversation?
These were the areas* that gave the most value, these were the questions that created common empathy, unity in the team; the vulnerabilities, the honesty and the imperfections were where the insights lay.
I’m convinced that substantial competitive advantage was yielded with the shift. I can say that looking back because I remember people increasingly referencing how they had picked the phone up to each other to share an idea, work something out, co-support each other. I am even more convinced today as over the last decade I have visited, spoken at or consulted for 10+ similar level systems and can say where success lies – they’re working on these personal skills and where it doesn’t, they’re not.
I’ll give you an example to illustrate my broad sweeping statements. In 2013 I was speaking about ‘determinants of performance’ at an international sports science conference. I presented my work in rowing, triathlon, running, but at the end of talk I put two slides up urging the audience to think about their own personal craft skill as determinants of performance, in the same way as they would consider power, endurance or flexibility components of sporting performance. I then got into a conversation with a leader of the host institution, who asked how I go about recruiting people for applied science jobs. I said that after selection of the best qualifications and experience. Then at interview we prioritise character, open-mindedness, sports specific application and problem solving. He compared that they look for sports specific experience (as an athlete or coach), then technical knowledge. I asked, what they did if the coach or athlete didn’t like the person they selected, “Then we transfer them to another sport”. I asked what if the next sport don’t get along with them either. “We get them to work in the labs”.
I have seen this pattern all too often in sports and performance science work (and now in my work with corporate clients too). Here’s why I think these characteristics are avoided when it comes to development – they have emotion attached to them. If I were to advise you to follow a different method, protocol or procedure, I’d wager you’d be ok with receiving that feedback. But if I were to tell you that your body language was negative in that last meeting and that it made me feel uncomfortable as it seemed to affect the openness of a group – well that’s a much harder conversation.
That’s because it strikes to the heart of what we give to the world – our behaviours are the vehicles to communicate to the world the essence of who we are.
Over time I have come to realise that you can all the qualifications, but if you haven’t got the character and mind-set to contribute in a positive, constructive, open, leader-ful way and/or you’re not willing to develop it, then you’re going to struggle in the vast majority of work environments now and increasingly in the future.
I have termed these skills our CORE skills, with a handy acronym as to why they should be consider so;
· Collaboration – the world is so inexorably connected, that the dynamics, bonds and relationships between people are the ones that make the difference to our effectiveness and productivity.
· Ownership – craft skill development requires people to take full individual and team accountability of what they do and how they do it. No longer is it good enough to say, “Computer says no” or “I did my bit”, as industry demands an ever capable workforce, these will be replaced with, “Let’s work it out” or “Are we on track?”
· Results – personal skill isn’t a nice to have, because we want everything to be nice, and non-threatening. If you’re interested in your idea taking flight then you need to interested in spending time and effort getting to know what makes your collaborators tick – then you’ll be accelerating your performance and the performance of others. Daniel Goleman’s pivotal work showed that two-thirds of workplace problems came from a lack of emotional intelligence. Personal skill delivers performance.
· Emotional –personal skill requires you to tap into the emotions of how you feel and how the people around you feel. We are built on desires, hopes and fears with a stress based response that flairs at an alarming frequency. How we feel undoubtedly affects how we perform. We are organic beings, not machines. Get over yourself and tap into your emotions and those of the people around you!
From what I see around some of the leading performance systems around the world, whether that is sports, military, emergency services, as well as a growing number of charities, businesses and educational establishments. Environments that are pushing boundaries, getting the most out of their people, work on the following;
· Self-awareness: Who am I, what makes me tick and how can I flex my style under pressure?
· Professional reflection: What have I experienced and how can I learn from this?
· Communication: How do we relate to each other and best convey, discuss and progress our ideas with a common agreed language?
· Team priorities: How can I continually connect with a goal and purpose bigger than my own or myself? What are the norms of the way this team works?
For those looking at this quadrant and thinking that makes a tidy little plan for some CPD, then go for it, but the best teams I have seen, work on these areas continually, unremittingly and unashamedly – because they are CORE.
Personal craft skills aren’t easy to develop, in fact they’re HARD, they’re CORE, they’re HARDCORE – and they are the ones that separate the best from the rest!
*For those wondering if I am talking about soft skills, well I think they used to be dubbed that yes, but that term is out of date. They’re so rarely;
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