Sport is next psychological step forward

Techniques used by elite sports stars are helping to rewrite the staff development rule book and improve the performance of marketers on all levels of the career ladder.


A new approach to training is seeing an increasing number of businesses including Morrisons, Unilever and Eurostar taking a lead from the high performance approach used by Olympic gold medallists.

Brand consultancy Clear has been working on the fusion of sports and business training, sharing its insights exclusively with Marketing Week.

“Marketing is half art and half science, which gives you two key areas to work at improving,” explains Steven Melford, Clear’s founder and chairman. “Great marketing performance requires a blend of skills and behaviours which is highly analogous with sport.”

Nearly 80% of UK brands and businesses set aside money for training staff, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. But Melford feels the types of training that businesses offer can be too technology-focused.

He thinks the time is right to “reframe how we think about developing great marketers”. Melford says: “Companies have become too reliant on processes and tools to solve problems. But it is people and their inherent understanding of the challenge, the context and the reality of what can be achieved that are at the heart of any great solution. You can train someone to go through the motions, or run a research programme, but it is the quality of thinking and commitment to a way of behaving that actually yield results.”

Clear gained insights from the high performance directors at UK Sport and the Australian Institute of Sport, along with the GB cycling and sailing teams to come up with five principles of building high performance in sport that are equally applicable to marketing and business.

This new approach puts the emphasis firmly back on people

These principles move training away from the stuffy classroom, get-the-hours-in training techniques, to a more pragmatic approach that can be applied every day.

New habits

Melford explains: “We put much more focus on the way marketers think and the behaviours they adopt. It doesn’t start and stop. It doesn’t take more time. It simply requires the formation of new habits.

“For example, we look at how marketers can be more insightful. How they can build curiosity into their everyday routines. It might be taking a different route to work, or trying a new radio station that is a favourite of their customers. This new approach puts the emphasis firmly back on people.”

He points out that Clear’s assessment of one customer market insight team at Unilever found that it spent an average of just four days a year formally looking for insights.

Melford says insight is too important and critical to growth to be left to formal workshops alone. “As a key driver of enduring brand growth, insight should be inspiring marketers weekly if not daily.”

Unilever is not the only brand to benefit from Clear’s reframing of how it develops great marketers. Supermarket Morrisons also brought in the brand consultant and has put thousands of its senior managers through training at the UK Centre for Coaching Excellence in Leeds at a reported cost of £1m.


Morrisons HR director Norman Pickavance says: “We share a similar mindset with those in sport hard work, discipline, practice, high standards. Creating a coaching approach will ensure we have a strong foundation while ensuring that our senior managers are performing at the top of their game.”

With over a third of Morrisons’ senior management starting on the shop floor and 95% of all store managers appointed internally, the company has a heritage of growing its own people something Pickavance says it shares with at least one Manchester football club.

“Look at the ethos at Manchester United where manager Sir Alex Ferguson has saved millions of pounds by nurturing young talent. That logic of shop floor to top floor is one we have here too. But you need to identify the right training, for the right people at the right time,” he adds.

Morrisons marketing director Richard Lancaster has recently been through the company’s Advanced Leadership Programme. This links business improvement with individual development by taking each participant through a rigorous personal development plan and giving them responsibility for a board-level project.

Lancaster led on the company’s lab projects, the learnings from which will inform the development of a “store of the future”. Pickavance adds: “Richard has led some major improvements to our business as part of his involvement with the lab projects through his training. It’s a significant investment, but with huge returns.”

Eurostar sales and marketing director Emma Harris has also benefited from some unique sports-related training. “I can’t think of a discipline where the parallels between sport and business are more prevalent than in marketing,” she says. “The high competition, the small margins for error, the list goes on.”


Harris says of the “athlete at work” programme she took part in: “It’s all about long-term change. It was a real life-changer for me. Late nights and endless coffee are synonymous with marketers preparing for bids, presentations and meetings, but the course taught me that it isn’t all about the tactics but about controlling the things you can control and focusing on mental preparation and visualisation. I now drink a lot less coffee and get much more sleep.”

So, can sports training provide a wake-up call for the world of marketing? Helen Moss, manager of marketing and communications at the recruitment consultancy Badenoch & Clark, says: “We’re seeing increasing demand for those with insight skills rather than generic marketing skills. Brands want people who genuinely understand their customers and to have that strength in their team to deliver a return on investment.”

Those that are engaged in sports-based training concepts also point to the fact that the investment does not mean any training that has gone before has been wasted.

Chris Shambrook is the psychologist for the GB rowing team and has worked with Eurostar. He notes: “This isn’t a new tactic, it’s about exploiting all the training that has gone before it and how to best cash in on that.

“We are experts in human behaviour and our clients are experts in marketing, so we want to combine those to make the difference. It’s all about fine tuning.”

Melford at Clear sums up the benefits of sports-based training: “This new approach puts the emphasis firmly back on people to solve problems and equips them to approach the challenge in a much more effective way.”


Brand in the spotlight

Q&A: David Ashley

Head of learning and development, HMV

Marketing Week (MW): Is money being wasted on training?

David Ashley (DA): Not if you spend it well. By being really focused, you can carry out a clear needs analysis, set objectives that reinforce the organisation’s strategy, develop interventions that capture the imagination and build the development back into the day job. It’s something we like to think we’re doing with our Fast Forward stores, where we are increasingly the range of technology products that we stock and, therefore, need our store colleagues to offer support through their service to customers.

MW: How do you identify the people who need high performance training?

HMV: combines individual coaching sessions with inspirational inputs


We identify the roles that are critical to the success of the current strategy and the skills that are needed. We then use our internal performance review system and external assessment sessions, which feeds into our succession planning process, to generate individual development plans.

MW: What kinds of things do you train people in?

DA: For our key roles we run the One Programme, which combines individual structured coaching sessions with inspirational inputs on subjects key to the success of our strategy. Last year, it was creative thinking and strategic thinking followed by a group strategic project with findings and recommendations presented to the UK board.

MW: Many competing brands will have similar budgets and tools, so can staff make the difference?

DA: For an organisation to be successful over the long term, it has to continually change and develop, which can only happen if its people are also continually changing and developing.

MW: What are your thoughts on using sports training techniques in business?

DA: It makes a lot of sense. The ideas from sport could easily be applied to the commercial world.

I do believe, though, that the higher up you go it becomes more about generic skills in terms of creativity, strategic thinking, leadership, positive influencing and commerciality, rather than deep technical expertise. After all, some of the most successful football managers did not play the game at the highest level and some of the best players have been failures as coaches and managers.


Applying sports training to marketing

Benefits of core strength training to an athlete

  • Greater efficiency of movement
  • Improved body control, stability and balance
  • Increased power output from the core musculature and peripheral muscles
  • Reduced risk of injury

The benefits of building a strong core to businesses

  • Greater efficiency of other marketing and business activities
  • Improved balance of skills
  • Increased output from both the core activities and the secondary activities, as well as from other departments and agencies
  • Reduced risk of brand and innovation failure
  • Improved balance and stability of workforce

Five principles

From Clear chairman Steven Melford

1. Have a common aligned goal

“The sports we reviewed were all fanatical in aligning every part of the organisation around a clear vision of what it takes to win.”

2. Tailor training to the individual

“In high performing sports, each athlete is benchmarked against what it takes to win. From this, individual training programmes are developed.”

3. Develop the right behaviours

“The difference between a gold medallist and the rest is not natural ability, but discipline around everyday behaviour.”

4. Start at the core

“Building a strong core before getting into specialist training is critical to athletes achieving world-beating results.”

5. Develop real expertise

“The best coaches in the world have an in-depth knowledge of the sport, as well as being former athletes themselves.”



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