Fifth in the Olympic medal table: how did we do it?

Team GB last night leapt up the medals table for the Olympics, only a couple of places behind China and the USA.

by Michael Northcott
Last Updated: 19 Aug 2013

First our men’s canoe slalom team took gold and silver, and within minutes, Team GB had taken gold in shooting, too. Next came Sir Chris Hoy’s cycling team, which took gold in the team sprint track race. And all of that in a single day. So how is it that the UK has managed to pump out such a world-class team of athletes? Well in cycling, at least, a lot of it is down to, Dave Brailsford, British Cycling’s performance director. 

Brailsford is the guy that took the Great Britain cycling team to Olympic glory in the Beijing Olympics four years ago, where they won 14 medals, before announcing plans for a British cycling team to produce a winner in the Tour de France by 2014. Brailsford’s ambition paid off two years early, with Bradley Wiggins winning the Tour de France this year, so becoming the first Brit ever to do so. However, Brailsford’s plans for gold in the men’s cycling road race at London 2012 were thwarted when Mark Cavendish’s efforts were scuppered by a peloton determined to put paid to any British success.  

Under Brailsford’s stewardship, Team GB adopted his ‘aggregation of marginal gains’ strategy: meaning tiny improvements across ten vital areas that result in a massive advantage over the opposition. His unique management style – he thinks of himself as an orchestral conductor – puts the power and the discipline in the hands of the cyclists. So what can business learn from this type of managed transformation? Well for one, British Cycling’s sponsor, Sky, is absorbing Brailsford’s management techniques amongst its employees. It’s no wonder Sky chief executive Darroch is getting on the same page: the Great British cycling effort went from nothing to a podium-storming triumph in the space of five years. Sky was nowhere 20 years ago – now it’s a front running UK broadcaster, threatening to knock the BBC off its perch.  

In a recent interview with MT, Brailsford explained that: ‘I believe that a group of people have far greater expertise in their individual fields than I will ever have, so there's very little point asking them to pass me their instrument when they play it wrong so that I can have a go.’ Any CEO would do well to analyse Brailford’s way. Such romping success surely betrays management techniques that business can emulate. 

With Men’s Team Pursuit cycling taking place later this afternoon, it is certainly possible that Team GB could add more gold to the already impressive pile. With such momentum and the nation’s hopes for victory being rewarded, Brailsford could well find himself on the board of some FTSE firm a few years down the line…


To read MT's 2010 interview with Dave Brailsford, click here

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