David Bolchover is the co-author of The 90-Minute Manager, which outlines the lessons that business managers can learn from football managers. His next book, The Living Dead: The Shocking Truth about Office Life, will be published by Wiley-Capstone in October.
In the fourth of our articles on lessons that business can learn from sport David Bolchover talks to Britain’s Olympic rowing coach Jurgen Grobler as he looks forward to success at Beijing in 2008 and, he hopes, London in 2012
STOP a man in the street, ask if he has heard of Sir Steve Redgrave or Sir Matthew Pinsent, and he would probably be surprised that anyone would waste their breath asking. Of course he has heard of them. But mention the name of Jurgen Grobler and you would probably be met by a shrug of the shoulders.
Yet this quiet, unobtrusive coach has been the indispensable influence behind the scenes during the past 14 halcyon years of British rowing. The limelight doesn’t interest Grobler. Only his athletes getting gold medals does. “I see my job as a service, helping young athletes, motivating them to the podium,” he said. “If you read the newspapers, you will see only the athletes’ names. That’s right. I have no problems there.”
Public recognition does come along sporadically. In 2000, Grobler won the BBC Sports Personality of the Year coaching award and four years later he was given a lifetime achievement award by the UK Coaching Foundation. He was awarded the freedom of his adopted town, Henley, on his return from success at the 1996 Olympics. But after each award, Grobler returned eagerly to the background.
Grobler’s business equivalent is not the charismatic, rent-a-quote chief executive so beloved of the media, but rather the unsung middle manager who devotes his life to extracting the last drop of potential from the human resources at his disposal.
At least, that’s what a corporate middle manager should be doing. The conclusion from recent research based on Gallup interviews with more than 1m employees across a broad range of industries in different countries leaves no doubt as to the value of good managers: “Talented employees need great managers. The talented employee may join a company because of its charismatic leaders, its generous benefits and its world-class training programmes . . . but how long that employee stays and how productive he is while he is there is determined by his relationship with his immediate supervisor.”
Grobler certainly knows this. “To be successful again and again, I think every athlete needs a coach,” he said. “You notice when a good athlete wins, the first person he thanks will be his coach. He knows how important the coach has been to him, setting the right programme, preparing everything.” And Redgrave, speaking after yet another Olympic gold in Sydney in 2000, knew it too: “Without his (Grobler’s) support and help we wouldn’t be here.
Too often business ignores the lessons of sport, epitomised by the likes of Grobler. During our conversation at the history-laden Leander Club in Henley he repeatedly referred to an overriding desire to help young people make the most of themselves. The history of sport is shouting at business that teams can only achieve excellence under the guidance of a talented people manager who forfeits the pursuit of his own achievements to dedicate himself to helping others achieve.
Professional sport, the most competitive environment there is, has not only long recognised the sheer power of effective and committed people managers; it also understands that such individuals don’t grow on trees. Whereas companies continue to promote people to management positions just because they happen to be good at what they do, sport has learnt that true managerial skill is much less common than functional expertise, the ability to perform well doing the job or playing the game.
So, in Grobler, who never even attempted to forge a career as a rower for himself, we have the embodiment of some of the key messages sport can convey to business. He is a type of individual you will rarely come across in the business world — a man asked to do nothing but get the best out of others.
From as far back as he can remember, as a youngster growing up in the rubble of post-war Magdeburg in communist East Germany, Grobler was both fascinated by the sport of rowing and resigned to the fact that he would never make it as an athlete. “I just didn’t have the right body shape to be a successful international athlete,” he said. “But I was always interested in the sport — the teamwork, trying to find out how far you can push your body. I knew I couldn’t do it myself but I wanted to help young people achieve their goals.”
So he enrolled on a five-year degree in sports science in Leipzig, then the leading university in that field in the country. On graduating, he returned to his local rowing club in Magdeburg and first attracted attention in his midtwenties when he won the club its first medal, coaching Wolfgang Guldenpfennig to the bronze in the single sculls at the Munich Olympics of 1972. He then went on to coach the coxless pair Bernd and Jörg Landvoigt to successive golds in 1976 and 1980.
His record now is remarkable. He has a haul of 15 Olympic gold medals, eight with crews he has coached personally and seven as head coach or technical director of the rowing team, first with East Germany and then, since 1991, with Great Britain. Redgrave won three of his five Olympic golds under Grobler’s tutelage and Pinsent all four.
Add on countless World Championship golds, and you start to wonder what it is about this seemingly unremarkable man that makes him such a supreme manager. What differentiates the average managers from the Alex Ferguson’s and the Jurgen Grobler's, men who achieve success consistently over decades, with different organisations and despite changing personnel?
According to Grobler, it is “how much you love the job, how motivated you are as a coach”. This might, at first glance, seem trite, but many businesses still ignore the essential truth contained in it. To be really good at anything, you surely have first to love doing it. But any ambitious individual who wants to ascend the corporate heights normally has to push early in his career to become a middle manager of some sort, whether he has any desire to manage people or not.
The result can be uninterested, weak management and a consequently sluggish workforce, as workplace surveys bear out with disturbing regularity.
A paltry 2% of UK Human Resources professionals interviewed by Personnel Today in 2003 stated that the people management skills of line managers in their companies were “excellent”, while 74% blamed ineffective line managers for low morale.
Grobler’s love of coaching has two primary effects. First, it enables him to think nothing of working flat out for all hours to go that extra mile, examining every last detail to prepare his athletes for victory. His own work ethic, enthusiasm and total commitment, he believes, also produce farreaching knock-on effects. They are in themselves a galvanising force, rubbing off on the athletes and making them strive harder to achieve their goals.
“As in any other business where you want to be successful, this is not a 40- hour-a-week job. You have to devote all the time necessary to make the young athlete achieve. You have as a coach always to be in front, in the driving seat. You have to say to the athletes, ‘Look guys, I can’t do the training myself, but I will be there an hour before you so that everything is set up. I will help you.’ I always think that’s a big motivation for the athlete. They know there is someone there who will really help them and believe in them right through the tough times.”
The second consequence of Grobler’s passion is that his thirst for more work destroys any potential for complacency, prevents him from resting on his laurels and pushes him forward to strive for future goals. When I asked him if he had any regrets, there was a telling silence. Eventually he shook his head and said: “I’m always thinking about the next one. Always looking forward.” And right now he needs to do plenty of looking forward, to 2008 certainly and possibly to 2012.
Redgrave retired in 2000. Out of the four who won the coxless four Olympic gold in Athens last year, Pinsent and Ed Coode have also now retired, and James Cracknell is taking a year out. There is clearly much rebuilding to be done before the Beijing Olympics in 2008 if the British rowing team is to continue its remarkable run of success.
Grobler said the monumental task of sustaining the level of achievement in the face of the departure of these rowing legends has provided him with a renewed sense of mission, and, if he needed any, yet more enthusiasm. “This is a big challenge. I am maybe even more motivated than I was at the Athens Games,” he said.
Grobler’s doubters should remember that the German is a proven master at bringing change and improvement. First he revitalised the ramshackle rowing club in Magdeburg, putting it on the Olympic map with a hotel and state-of-the-art fitness centre.
When he arrived in Henley in 1991, invited to replicate his East German success by the British rowing establishment, “it was just like Magdeburg 20 years before. A boathouse and a river, and nothing else”. With the help of lottery funding and driven by Grobler’s vision, the Leander Club now boasts the best training facilities and a refurbished boathouse, decked with trophies and myriad memories of triumph.
Dilapidated facilities were one fundamental difficulty he faced on his arrival in Britain. The other was a dearth of the professionalism to which he was so accustomed in East Germany, where sport was “the Mercedes-Benz”, the prized asset of a dysfunctional system. “In my first Olympics here, it was all about ‘taking part’. I didn’t understand ‘taking part’. This was something totally new to me. I had to go there and win,” said Grobler.
He might have learnt in detail the methodology of sports science and fitness training in East Germany, but coaching for him is much more than reading from a manual. It requires combining technical knowledge with a profound understanding of the mental and physical attributes of the individual he is dealing with.
“A coach might have a training programme to follow, but he will have a feel as to whether the athletes have to back off or push on. You need to find that line, that ceiling. Not to go too far. Push them two steps forward and then back off a little bit. That’s feeling.”
Each athlete is an individual and no coach can afford to ignore that, he said. “Matthew (Pinsent) and James (Cracknell) and Steve (Redgrave) are not copies. They are totally different. In one way, you have to bring them together as a crew. The result has to be the same, going as fast as possible from A to B with each rower. But to motivate them, to bring them to the same level of performance, you will have to go a different route with each athlete.”
Because Grobler treats each individual in a different way, there is always the chance that some may consider that others are receiving preferential treatment. This is where mutual trust comes in. The coach must know, on one side, that the athlete will not shirk any effort to achieve. On the flip side, all athletes must learn that the coach only has the good of the team at heart — there are no favourites. “The coach has to establish a partnership with the athlete. Like all good partnerships, it has to be based on trust. Nothing should be kept under the table.”
Grobler constantly conducts one-to-one discussions with athletes so he can gauge the mental state of his charges. “A successful athlete-coach partnership must be coach-driven but the coach cannot function without good feedback from the athletes. An important part of the coach’s job is to listen.”
Few people like confrontation and the amiable Grobler is no exception. But he forces himself to engage in honest criticism: “It’s never nice. But you must always start from a base of trust, partnership and openness. We shouldn’t be shy of bringing things out on the table. We could just make every day nice, with no problems. But you will never improve that way.”
Grobler normally reserves his sharpest criticism for one individual — himself. If an athlete is underperforming despite his or her best efforts, he takes it personally, and he challenges himself to come up with a more effective strategy for that individual. “I feel responsible and always say that we are in the same boat,” he said. “If the athletes win, it’s their victory. If they lose, then it’s the coach’s fault. I feel a lot more down than the athletes sometimes. I am always first say to myself, ‘Maybe I made a mistake’.”
It is difficult to imagine Grobler losing his temper. But if an athlete threatens the trust that has been painstakingly built up between the two of them, then self-criticism and constructive feedback fly out of the window: “If I see they are cutting corners again and again, then I get very upset . . . I always say the last stroke counts. The last stroke last year made us Olympic champions. They all have to learn that in training.”
That last stroke in Athens won an Olympic gold for the coxless four crew of Pinsent, Cracknell, Coode and Steve Williams by the margin of 45 centimetres — or 0.08 seconds. This victory was particularly sweet for Grobler, because it came in the wake of a highly controversial and widely criticised shift in selection policy in the weeks before the race.
Pinsent and Cracknell were originally down to compete in the coxless pairs. But Grobler decided that the best chance for a British gold would require them to switch to the coxless fours, displacing a devastated Rick Dunn andToby Garnett.
The ruthlessness of the decision inevitably created considerable tension in the squad. Grobler was again prepared to sacrifice a cosy atmosphere in the pursuit of excellence. “I don’t do things just to make trouble or show how powerful I am,” he said. “But nor do I run away from the job.”
The German is happy and settled in Henley, describing himself as “more British than the Brits”. Filled with energy by the prospect of the rebuilding process that lies ahead, he hopes shortly to get the nod to continue in his current role until the London games in 2012. Doesn’t he want to start to wind down, to relax a bit? “I relax in the morning when everyone comes in on time.”
Jurgen Grobler's leadership lessons:
Love your job. Enjoy helping others achieve their goals
To be a good manager, you have to love managing. This passion will ensure your dedication to the job. It will also be infectious, increasing the commitment of others and inspiring them to attain their own goals.
Mutual trust and openness are key — guard them jealously.
No manager can operate effectively without trust. The team must believe that the manager treats them with honesty and integrity and hides nothing. For his part, the manager must know that each team member shares his goals.
Question yourself before you question your team
You are responsible for the underperformance of any member of your team. Always analyse your own performance as a manager before criticising others.
Don’t run away from tough decisions
It is easy to sit in your ivory tower and avoid confronting awkward issues. Some decisions might antagonise certain individuals. That doesn't mean you shouldn’t make them. It’s your job. You’re a manager.
No two people are the same — deal with them differently
If you deal with everybody in an identical way, you will not get the best out of your team. It is your responsibility to find out what makes each individual tick and then manage them accordingly.
No criticism means no progress
For your people to improve, they have to know where they are going wrong. Criticising others might not be pleasant, but having a nice, cosy life should not be your goal.
Managing others is not a one-way process. Always listen
Listen to what your team is telling you. If you don’t, you won’t understand them. And if you don’t understand them, you can’t manage them.
Shun all favouritism. Performance is all.
There is no room for cronyism in any team or organisation that strives for excellence. Who is best able to carry out a specific task or fulfil a particular role? That is the only relevant question in selection and recruitment.