We kicked off our 2023 event programme at London’s Home House last week and despite it being a particularly cold day in the Capital, a morning of inspiring conversation certainly made up for the wintery commute.
The event was hosted by our Founder & CEO, Anna Rasmussen, and five-time Olympic rower, Frances Houghton MBE, who made for a fascinating guest speaker. Frances was the first British woman ever to be selected for five Olympic Games in rowing and retired in 2016 having made history as part of the first ever British Women's Eight to win an Olympic medal. On top of her Olympic medals (Athens 2004; Beijing 2008; Rio 2016), World titles (2005; 2006; 2007; 2010), and European gold (2016), Frances held two world records during her career.
Needless to say, she’s a high performer.
Today, in her post-rowing life, Frances mentors young athletes and is a strong believer that the key to high performance lies in enabling human connection and understanding. For those of you familiar with OpenBlend, the similarities with our own philosophy are palpable - and it’s why we invited Frances to be our guest speaker.
So what led Frances to embrace this “human element” in the latter stages of her career, and why, in her own words, did it make the difference between a silver and bronze medal in 2016?
Beijing vs Rio: same medal, different mentality
One of the most revealing moments came when Frances talked about her polarising experiences at the Beijing (2008) and Rio (2016) Olympics. In the years leading up to both games, Frances trained relentlessly. She dedicated everything to improving her own performance and that of her team. She also won a silver medal at both games, so what could possibly have made the two events so different?
In Beijing, Frances was intent on winning a gold medal. This was her very definition of success and in the quest to achieve it, she struggled with emotional stress that manifested itself in the form of physical injuries. Perhaps most telling of all, Frances said: “When I crossed the finish line in Beijing knowing that we’d won a silver medal, I was devastated but also overwhelmingly relieved that it was over. It felt like we had failed, yet deep down I knew that even if we had won gold, I would still have felt relieved, rather than ecstatic.”
In the weeks following, Frances realised that if she were to continue rowing at the top level she would need to do things differently - and it led to a game-changing decision. She decided that winning gold would no longer be her goal or her definition of success. Instead, she would strive to become the best team maker in the world.
And do you know what? As soon as she re-framed her thinking in that way, Frances not only felt much calmer, but for the first time, she was motivated to perform both for her own fulfilment, and for the fulfilment she wanted her teammates to experience. It was no longer about avoiding failure or meeting other people’s expectations - and it was a shift in mindset that removed much of the pressure that was actually impeding her performance.
The human factors for performance
In the run-up to Rio 2016, and in addition to the necessary legwork, Frances spent a lot of time trying to build a better understanding of her own personality traits and needs, as well as those of her teammates. She realised that these are the factors which really make a difference in performance terms, or as she succinctly put it: “The training makes you capable, but delivery is human.”
Frances outlined three human factors that could (and would) impact their performance in the boat:
1) Understanding myself as an individual
2) Understanding myself as an individual within a team
3) Understanding us as a team under pressure
Asked whether there is a common thread that underpins each of these factors, Frances was quick to respond: “Quality conversations that support an understanding of the people around you - their differences, skills, personalities, circumstances, challenges”.
It’s a process of self-learning and discovery that Frances likens to a jigsaw puzzle: “We used continuous and meaningful conversations to support one another and ensure that all the pieces came together in the right way. I’ve no doubt that, ultimately, this is what made the difference between us winning silver and bronze in Rio.”
Conversations: the gateway to performance
So if this model of continuous, broad, human, and effective conversations works in sport, surely it also presents a way to help people thrive at work?
Absolutely, it does - and it is.
Of course, not all managers are natural leaders like Frances. The vast majority recognise the value of talking to their employees; of getting to know and understand them on an individual level; but they still need help. In fact, our own research shows that managers lack confidence when speaking to their employees about informal issues such as wellbeing and work-life balance. It’s the human stuff that they struggle with.
HR can help by equipping their managers with the training and tools they need to help employees reach their full potential at work, and this is why OpenBlend exists today. Our bespoke conversation frameworks guide and support managers in how to have effective and human-centric conversations that engender trust, encourage resilience and support high performance.
So regardless of whether you’re training for the Olympics, working in retail, advertising, or whatever, the bottom line is that if we unlock meaningful human connection and understanding, we’ll improve performance every time.
Ready to create a culture of human connection and conversation in your organisation? Get in touch with our team today.