Those who scale Everest or sprint for gold are our heroes, but can they really make us better managers? It's a lucrative living for sports stars and explorers hired to rouse departmental staff with tales of stamina and mutual reliance, but what's in it for the company? Peter Stanford reports.
His shirt is crumpled and his tie would be more appropriate for a schoolboy than a man in his early 40s. His sleeves are rolled up and his hair close-shaven, but not in the style made fashionable by David Beckham. At first glance, you would think twice before buying a raffle ticket from him, much less expect him to be addressing 1,000 lottery managers at the Scottish Exhibition Centre in Glasgow. Yet Robert Swan has his audience spell-bound from the platform.
It is his trousers that give half a clue to his day job - combat style with big side pockets. For Swan is an explorer and expedition leader, one of that small but well-publicised band of mavericks who set and meet the most gruelling physical targets in the most extreme conditions. Swan was the first person to walk to the North and South poles. In the case of the latter, his was the longest unassisted march in history; he and his team had no radio contact with the outside world and carried all their own supplies.
Beamed up behind him are slides of the Antarctic, but this is not intended as a recital of a Boys' Own adventure story of survival against the odds. For although Swan is drawing on his own experiences, his gaze is fixed firmly on his audience's home territory. He is talking about how to be a better manager.
'What we did at base camp is crucial to teamwork. We took the trouble to listen to each other, to learn each other's languages, each other's hopes and fears' - he's counting them off on his fingers now for added emphasis - 'because if you don't understand what makes people tick, they will not tick'.
And as the analogies keep coming - creating a 'can-do' culture, defining aims, achieving them against the odds - he carries his listeners with him. The theme of the day - one voice, one vision - comfortably embraces both his world and theirs.
Major companies have long seen the value of inviting big-name speakers from outside the corporate world to come along and add a bit of lustre to sales conferences or graduate events. Delegates leave feeling that they have been fortunate to rub shoulders with the famous. It is an extension of the after-dinner speaker circuit, where for between pounds 500 and pounds 2,000 you can get any number of ex-England football captains to lead the cabaret with a mixture of jokes and recollections about what really happened in the Old Trafford dressing room on the way to Wembley.
Swan, though, is in another league. For he and others like him - all individualists, mainly from the fields of sport and exploration - go beyond the anecdotal and autobiographical and try to make those who listen excel in their jobs. They are not add-ons after the main event but part of it, and they've adjusted their price tag accordingly. A handful of the biggest sporting names command five-figure sums for a single performance, while between pounds 7,000 and pounds 10,000 is the rate for the likes of Steve Redgrave, Sir Ranulph Fiennes and even the jobless Harry Redknapp. If the engagement - which can range from addressing 15,000 pyramid sellers to an awayday at a country house with the main board of a merchant bank - involves getting on a plane, the fee will be even higher. British Airways, BT and IBM are among those who have turned this circuit into a lucrative business for a small band of choice names.
Swan seems to knows as much about corporate life as he does about Antarctica. The audience certainly thinks so, but is it an illusion? For Swan - and others, such as the mountaineer Chris Bonnington (around pounds 8,000 a time) and the gold-medal winning athlete Kriss Akabusi (a snip at nearer pounds 5,000) - have precious little hands-on knowledge of what makes a big company tick. Nasser Hussain can have spent little time in an office, but with a couple of Test victories under his belt, he'd be able to up his fee by about two grand.
Bonnington was, he says, a Unilever trainee 'for about 15 minutes a long time ago'. Indeed, there is a counter-argument to the line that Swan was peddling in Glasgow which says that these people are the very model of corporate misfits, lone wolves who would never slot into any conventional structure. This may be precisely the quality that helps them succeed in the extraordinary missions they undertake, but it is of little use in a workaday office context.
As the training manager of one of Britain's biggest investment banks remarks, off the record: 'I cannot see how these chaps add value. They are a 'nice-to-have' if you are organising a jolly disguised as training, but if you are serious about improving things at the coal-face, they have nothing to offer. I'd rather spend the money on a decent training programme for my managers.'
There may be a buzz of motivation while the speaker is on the platform, but by the time the audience are back in work, all they have left is a warm, fuzzy feeling that will not help them to change anything. Being 'love 'em and leave 'em' by nature, the speakers seldom offer any follow-up training.
An awareness of this failing led Adrian Moorhouse, a swimming gold medallist at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, to set up his own management consultancy, Lane 4. It now works with human resources departments to develop more thorough-going programmes based on Moorhouse's own insights into coping under pressure.
Keith Antoine, a popular motivational speaker who has worked both in business and as a coach with Sydney medal-winning sprinters Darren Campbell and Katherine Merry, is convinced that sport or acts of great physical courage can have a valuable place in motivational work. 'It is something most people can relate to. They know the language and it is probably something that at some time we have considered or dreamt of. But you have to be careful. If what you're talking about is so awesome that your audience thinks: 'Well, there's no way I'm ever going to be able to do that', then it ceases to work for you or for them.'
Swan and Bonnington are in demand, thanks to a surge of interest in tales of derring-do, which has inspired management theory constructed around the polar exploits of Victorian heroes Scott and Shackleton. But the penchant for motivational talks by explorers and sports stars can be traced back to the late 1970s.
'Then I used to be invited to attend big sales conferences,' recalls Bonnington, 'where I would be wheeled on as the flavour of the month and talk about my recent success in climbing the south-west face of Everest. This grew into smaller, more compact training sessions with less rah-rah talk and a much more precise brief of applying what I do to what my audience does. Then these small sessions moved onto the main platform and now I much prefer doing the new stuff and getting a message across.'
It was in America, however, that the overlap between sport and management was first exploited. One pioneer was Timothy Gallwey, a former tennis player and naval officer, who in the mid-70s began producing his series of books The Inner Game of ... aimed at tennis players, golfers, skiers and musicians. It charted how improved mental attitude could boost performance.
The books have now sold several million copies, but Gallwey quickly spotted the potential of using his techniques in the corporate market. He started working with organisations like Coca-Cola, Apple and AT&T, applying his sports psychology to their needs through another book, The Inner Game of Work.
His fans particularly like Gallwey's sports-based pitch as an alternative to standard management theorists. 'It's about learning to use your natural learning ability,' says Joe Simonet, a senior learning consultant at Coca-Cola in the US, 'which is far more powerful than any tool or process created by an expert.'
Others have been eager to follow. In 1998 the New York Times demonstrated that the most successful chief executives of big companies also had the best golf handicaps and speculated that natural athletes were also natural leaders. The respected management writer David Hurst is now completing a book on what business people can learn from these golfing links.
In Britain, a similar furrow was ploughed in the mid-1990s with great success by Will Carling, captain of England's Grand Slam winning rugby team. The Way to Win: Strategies for Success in Business and Sport, was co-written with former MT editor Robert Heller. It added a new dimension to Carling's profile, but his plans for a lucrative post-retirement career on the motivational circuit had to be substantially amended following negative publicity over his private life.
Some said people were buying Carling's book only because he was a name and refused to take what he said as seriously as they would, say, a tome by John Harvey Jones, Richard Branson or Anita Roddick. Other criticisms have also been levelled at the new breed of unlikely management pundits.
For all their talk of teamwork, for instance, there's a difference. If Bonnington's team falls apart halfway up Mount Everest, its members will most likely die. If the lottery managers listening to Swan descend into acrimony, the worst that will happen is that they lose their jobs.
But the view is rejected by Bear Grylls, the rising star of that world, who in 1997 became, at 23, the youngest Brit to climb Everest. 'Yes, the end scenarios are different, but the qualities that you need to avoid those scenarios are similar. I talk about honesty, which businessmen tell me is often absent in their offices, and I talk about how important it is to go that extra mile for your team. That is what determines who wins and who doesn't, whether it be staying alive on a mountain or getting in your bid for new business as part of a team in the office.'
But isn't he just putting trendy management-speak gloss on a standard celebrity talk? Grylls disagrees. 'The analogy between what I did and what my audience does is a useful one. Sure, I don't try to give them ready-made answers to their work dilemmas, because that is something I know nothing about. But I do try to make them think and draw lessons from what I am telling them.'
Not all those muscling in on the circuit are oustanding performers in their chosen field. 'I've been approached by several failed dot.com executives,' says Dominic Morley, director of Speakers-UK (www.speakers-uk.com). 'I'm not saying one can't learn from failure, but most of those guys have no experience at all. They really have nothing to offer as motivators.'
Brendan O'Connor of the London Speaker Bureau identifies two types among the new generation of motivational speaker. First, those who concentrate on their own stories to offer a general message of inspiration and encouragement to their audiences. 'They tell it as if they are going back to their old school, with lots of derring-do,' says O'Connor. The second consists of those 'who can explore the metaphor of challenge in a way that means something more to their audience than hearing an exciting story'.
Those in the first group tend to have a short shelf-life, providing little more than expensive entertainment. Stephen Thain, a senior officer with IBM, recalls hearing a talk by Mick McCarthy, Republic of Ireland football manager: 'I think he was speaking about team-building, but all I remember are good footie stories. It didn't help my team-building skills one little bit.'
The second category has no sell-by date, for even when the instant-recognition factor has passed and their entry in the Guinness Book of Records has been ousted by young pretenders, they still excel at making links between management and their own achievements. Bonnington, for instance, is now 66 and unlikely to match his eye-catching exploits on Everest. Swan first made news a decade ago and now spends time on environmental campaigning.
For such people, speaking has become a second career. But it's an uncertain one, facing encroachment from one side by those with a more systematic approach to motivating managers and from the other by the remorseless circus of celebrity speakers. Perhaps, though, it's the very tenuousness of the venture that appeals. These are, after all, people who thrive on taking risks. l
MONEY TALKS - BUT WHAT PRICE FAME?
Enough for a personal appearance by the entire England football squad, an A-list movie star or Jonathan Ross three nights running. Only one motivator commands this kind of money - Tom Peters, the Pele of pep-talks. But he's hard to book.
pounds 10,000-pounds 15,000
Sporting legends like Kevin Keegan, Terry Venables and Sir Alex Ferguson, plus the odd TV celeb with business cred, like Clive Anderson.
pounds 7,000-pounds 10,000
Former Olympic stars like Steve Redgrave and Roger Black and top-flight adventurers such as Chris Bonnington and Sir Ranulph Fiennes.
pounds 5,000-pounds 7,000
Celebrity business people such as bargain hi-fi supremo Julian Richer and TV chef and restaurateur Anthony Worrall-Thompson, plus less-well-known sporting achievers such as the Olympic gold medallist Kriss Akabusi.
pounds 2,000-pounds 5,000
What you pay for someone you've at least heard of - say, explorer David Hempelman-Adams, Richard Branson's balloonist Per Lindstrand, yachtswoman-turned-management consultant Tracey Edwards.
Under pounds 2,000
Speakers in this bracket are new to the circuit and largely unknown. They have no reputation to push the price up, so you might get the next Tom Peters, but it's unlikely.