Beyond the podium developing athletes at O2

Written by
Changeboard Team

12 Oct 2011

12 Oct 2011 • by Changeboard Team

Recruiting top performers at O2

It’s less than nine months until the Olympic torch will be burning in London. In the run up to next year’s Games, athletes across the UK are fiercely training in the hope of being selected for TeamGB.

Alongside rigorous training, 11 of these hopefuls are working with O2, to help bring winning behaviours to the business. In return, O2 is supporting the athletes with their own career development away from sport.

In June 2011, O2 launched its Athlete Development Programme. They’ve recruited elite athletes – all Olympic potentials hoping to be selected for London 2012 – to work with them on a part-time basis for 12 months. The campaign is funded through O2’s Think Big programme, a £5 million CSR agenda designed to back young people across the UK.

The programme aims to offer tailor-made opportunities for the athletes to pursue careers alongside their sports training. “The athletes are so focused on getting to the Games, it’s a real concern to them what they might do after sport. We wanted to give these Olympic hopefuls real hands-on work experience in business,” explains HR director Ann Pickering.

“We wanted to help the athletes as individuals – we knew from the English Institute of Sport [who O2 partner with on the programme] that the athletes needed support. Likewise, we wanted to support our own employees by bringing athletes in to inspire them.”

Working approximately 2-3 days per month, the athletes have been deployed across all areas of O2; including corporate sales, retail and HR. Ahead of the programme they were put through a demanding assessment centre to establish what areas of the business matched their skills and aspirations. The scheme is designed to fit in with the athletes’ training schedules while providing much needed extra funds.

Working in partnership

As well as exposure to the business to augment their own careers, the athletes have been working with current employees, leading classes in call centres, participating in live demos, roundtables, Q&A sessions and meeting customers.

“Imagine visiting your local O2 store and being greeted by a potential Olympic athlete. It really engenders a great enthusiasm and excitement in the Games,” says Pickering.

So how has the programme impacted the O2 workforce? “The athletes have proved to be really inspirational to our teams,” reveals Pickering. “The experience they can draw on around tenacity, teamwork, drive and determination has been fantastic.”

Employee engagement scores have also ‘increased significantly’– a clear suggestion that the workforce is reacting positively to the initiative. The anecdotal feedback, she says, has also been hugely encouraging – the programme has created an ‘exciting’ connection between both athletes and employees.

Winning behaviours

Pickering describes how O2 employees have been hugely influenced by learning about high performance from a different world. Hearing stories about how sporting teams work together to drive high performance gives managers within the business a new perspective on how to lead their teams.

One athlete who has really touched Pickering is JJ Jegede, a long-jumper who finds out whether he’s been selected to compete just six weeks before the Games. “I was blown over by that,” she admits. “He’s telling us how to maintain determination and drive that he has to retain right up until six weeks before London. That’s incredibly motivational.”

Creating a feedback culture

For Pickering, the similarities between Olympic hopefuls and business leaders are ‘amazing.’ The key ingredients, she says, for elite performance within an organisation are highly engaged and highly skilled employees. And the key skill for great leadership? It’s all around feedback. “I’m a real advocate of constant feedback. To be a great leader you have to give regular, effective feedback,” she reveals.

“The athletes talk a lot about it. Hearing about the athletes’ relationships with their coaches, for example, and the fact that feedback is given constantly to increase performance is fascinating. Stories like these help us understand what it takes to engender high performance and then roll these behaviours out across the company. ”

Post Olympics

And after the Games, will there be opportunities for the athletes, should they want to return to O2? “Nothing formal has been agreed,” Pickering states, “but now we’ve built a close relationship with the athletes we would love to keep in close contact.”

Indeed, even Pickering admits she’s been surprised at the amount of parallels that can be drawn between sport and business. “I never thought there were so many transferrable skills. The athletes understand teamwork, dynamics and motivation. There’s a natural fit there.

“I’d definitely encourage recruiters to think broad, not narrow, when searching for new talent. There are people out there who might not be obvious but they can add so much value. These athletes have been a breath of fresh air.”

Hannah Lawrence - Olympic hopeful

Hannah Lawrence is a fencer, hoping to compete at the 2012 Games. She’s currently working in HR for O2.

How did you get involved with O2?

I approached many companies hoping for unpaid work experience. Competition was fierce – other graduates were willing to work full-time so I couldn’t secure a placement.

The Telefonica UK scheme seemed too good to be true. It’s a paid opportunity that’s flexible around training and competition.

How has your career developed?

I didn’t want to be disadvantaged in a competitive job market because I chose to follow my dream to compete in the Olympics.

It’s very difficult for athletes to get into business – training schedules are so demanding. Many athletes have to put their careers on hold, but here I am developing my skills. I’ve gained confidence and knowledge about the corporate environment. Working in HR has given me exposure to retail, operations, marketing, sales and legal.

What lessons can businesses learn from sport?

In business there’s lots of talk about vision. Sometimes you might lose sight of the vision, feel lost or ineffectual. Athletes have to set small, short-term goals to reach their targets.

Sometimes the vision to compete in the 2012 Olympics seems too overwhelming for me. At other times I use it to inspire me to get up for training. Athletes understand how the vision must be compelling or engaging enough to motivate everyone in the company, but must also be supported with short-term goals to get there.

Athletes thrive in challenging environments. We understand the co-operation needed to succeed together with coaches, physios, family etc. We’re also used to communicating under high levels of stress (i.e. competitions) with different personalities and still reach our goals.

Being an athlete is about dedication, commitment and passion. My colleagues are shocked at my training schedule – I regularly run before work and train for three hours afterwards. This shows true dedication and the effect it can have on you when you really love what you’re doing.

We constantly give feedback and must take it and adapt accordingly, otherwise it can affect the team’s achievement. It’s the same in business. The higher you become in an organisation, the more important feedback and support is from your colleagues throughout the company.

Self-belief is vital – gained through achievements and knockbacks in your career. This is essential in any team, whether the goal is the Olympics or to deliver a workshop. One person’s self-belief in a team is infectious and can inspire great achievements, in the sporting or business world.