Episode 35 is an interview with John Steele, currently Executive Director of Sport at Loughborough University.
Through the years, John has had some powerful sporting positions including CEO of organisations like the RFU – and UK Sport. He’s been an army officer, an athlete, a coach, and as well as his role at Loughborough he’s also Chairman of The English Institute of Sport.
We talk about the sporting system, creating high-performance environments, and how you go about maintaining a leadership focus when you have so many competing pressures.
John Steele has a unique blend of experience in creating and leading high performing teams, developed as a professional sports coach and Chief Executive in the private, public, and not for profit sectors.
He served as an army officer having been trained at the prestigious Royal Military Academy Sandhurst to lead teams in high pressure environments. On leaving the army he worked in the corporate world before becoming a professional rugby player. On finishing a playing career that spanned over 400 first class games,including matches against Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, John turned to coaching and successfully led Northampton Saints to become European Champions. He became Executive Director on the Saints Board during a period of unprecedented off field growth including a share issue and stadium development. Johns experience in rugby union also saw him serve on the England Rugby Board during the successful world cup campaign of 2003 and be appointed as CEO of the Rugby football Union.
The winning of the bid for the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics saw John take up post as CEO of UK Sport, which he led for a six year period through Beijing and into London. His Team GB involvement spans nine different Games including the record breaking Rio Olympics and Paralympics, and the recent winter Games in Pyeongchang.
Having served as Group Chief Executive of the Youth Sport Trust, he is now leading an ambitious change programme as Executive Director of Sport at Loughborough University.
Building on his life long passions of leadership and sport, he founded Unforgiving Minute, a niche consultancy with unique leadership development expertise from high performance sport.
John succeeded Steve Cram as Chairman of the English Institute of Sport. The EIS delivers a range of performance impacting sport science and sport medicine solutions to over 40 Olympic and Paralympic sports along with a select number of non-Olympic sports.
THE TRANSCRIPT BELOW WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, WE CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.
TX: 3.1.19 – Ep 35. John Steel – On leadership in high performance environments
HOST: TAMMY PARLOUR
T: Welcome to a Question of Performance. I’m Tammy Parlour and in this series I’ll be talking with leading figures from sport and business about what improves, limits and drives performance. Join me for 20 minutes of discussion twice a month to hear a range of views on what it means to be successful, how to cope with failure and what people have learnt along the way.
Episode 35 is an interview with John Steele, currently Executive Director of Sport at Loughborough University. Through the years, John has had some powerful sporting positions, including Chief Exec of organisations like the RFU and UK Sport. He’s been an Army Officer, an athlete, a coach and as well as his role at Loughborough, he’s also Chairman of the English Institute of Sport. We talk about the sporting system, creating high performance, environments and how you go about maintaining a leadership focus when you have so many competing pressures.
Loughborough University is such an iconic sporting incubator. I first wanted to know what he thought the role was of an institute like Loughborough.
R: It’s the sort of question we ask ourselves all the time, because you could come at that from a Higher Ed perspective. So, we’re a University and if you look at perhaps where we were 20 years ago, we weren’t sitting amongst the nation’s elite academically, so the focus and the reputation was built on sport and in an amazing way over a number of decades and we now have that global reputation in sport. But what’s also happened in the last, sort of, ten years is that the academic attributes and capability has massively improved, to a point now where we’re right up there in the top five in The Times and Sunday Times league tables, your Guardian and so on and so on.
I: What’s enabled that to happen?
R; Well, we’ve had a very good, and I have to say this, ‘cause he’s my boss, but I do mean it, we’ve had a very good Vice Chancellor who has made things happen, who has changed people’s perspectives of us, so Bob has really looked at driving academic excellence, driving us up the league tables which are very big in Higher Ed, because of, you know, students, parents, people look at those to decide where they’re going to go, but suddenly, Loughborough is up there. You know, you’ve got your Oxford’s, your Cambridge’s, your Durham’s, suddenly Loughborough’s started to be in that cohort. But Loughborough is here, primarily, to give a really high quality student experience to people that have come here. But at the same time, we have a broader, what we describe as ecosystem here, so it’s not just about come here, play sport for your Uni, we have people cited here that value an excellent sporting environment and the infrastructure and the facilities we’ve built, the people we’ve got here, we’ve got National Governing Bodies based at the Headquarters here, we’ve got other sporting organisations at Sport Park. All of these different stakeholders create this interaction and this synergy which is like no other place and, you know, many Unis, sort of, say, well, we can take on Loughborough at this and that, you know, often aren’t their first teams will be playing our seconds or our thirds, because our first teams are in National leagues and performing very differently. I have to say, that Higher Ed sporting competition is getting greater and great and a lot of Universities investing a lot more in facilities, but we remain there as a global brand in terms of the sporting university, and what we’ve done recently is, we’ve integrated our academic offer, so a very very strong School of Sport with the doing sport here, and getting out there and actually applying what you’re learning.
I: What the point of sport?
R: I suppose, for me, sport for sport sake, so what’s the point of art or music or anything, there’s just the joy of it, it’s one of the, you know, there are better scholars than me, but whether it’s an extension of play or whatever it might be, there’s a human need for me to have sport and everyone is better off for being involved in sport, not necessarily participating, you could be a volunteer, you could be a coach, you could be anything, an official, but your life is slightly richer for having it. So, for me, there’s a, sort of, social benefit, there’s a personal benefit, there’s a health benefit, there’s a mental health benefit as well as a physical health benefit. It’s an aid to learning, it’s a way of reinforcing behaviours we might find desirable in our society, it’s a way of developing traits, leadership, capability, teamship, all these things. There’s the joy of doing them within sport, and then there’s how do I apply these for broader benefits in life and sport is brilliant at those broader benefits.
I: You’ve been an athlete and a coach, you’ve also been CEO at organisations like the RFU and UK Sport…
R: If you’re wanting to parallel those two things, you’d probably go back to some basic principles and I think one of those principles where you could say an individual performer, an assistant, is focus, so I think where systems fail or become cumbersome or clumsy but where they lose focus on what’s important, they try and be all things to all people and it’s the same with an athlete or a player, but actually if they really understand what’s the most important thing for me to focus on, and focus on it, they tend to be successful and if you let that get clouded, they’re less successful and then I think you’ve probably got of the, sort of, values of principles of sport. I think if we forget those, either as individuals or systemically, we’re at risk of not being successful and that might be the integrity that comes with sport, fair play, opportunity, the sorts of principles that we hopefully don’t take for granted, but are so embedded sometimes, they can be forgotten.
I: But in a number of high performance environments, have there been quite similar difference? Can you compare and contrast that a little bit?
R: Yeah, it’s interesting you say that, because I think, with experience and time, I realise how similar they are and that could be corporate world, it could be the Military, it could be sport, but actually some of the basics remain consistent through all those sectors, however much we analyse and we look at things and, for me…
I: What would you say the basics are?
R: Well, I think the basics are, and this is going to sound slightly peculiar, but there has to be…I mentioned focus before, there has to be an element of selflessness and where, and it sounds a bit fluffy that one, but where I’ve seen either individuals or systems become too self-serving, they lose what they’re about and, you know, there has to be a number of people and organisations and systems that are doing stuff for others, they’re supporting others, they’re the unsung heroes behind the scenes. If you have a cohort of those, anything’s possible, but if those are undermined in perhaps a society that likes taking selfies and I say that as a grumpy old man with teenage daughters, but in my day, if someone looked at my old Kodak camera and found on my film of 24 frames that 20 of them were of myself, I probably would have been teased and they would have said, what on earth, you are the most egotistical person I’ve ever met. Now, that is the norm, so on people’s cameras, they’re even designing cameras to take selfies, so in a world where it’s about putting self front and centre, you need to have a lot of people who are prepared not to do that to keep health in any system and sport especially, so that selfless bit, you need those with focus, it’s all about performing, then you need a huge cohort of selfless people to support that.
I: Just delve into that a little bit, you talk about focus being important, it must be incredibly hard to keep that focus when you’ve got so many competing pressures, you’ve got media, you’ve got politics, you’ve got funding pressures on you, how do you maintain the focus?
R: I think the, you know, there’s a lot work being done with the Institute of Sport and UK Sport about what it takes to win and in a way that’s the pruning, if you like, of the secondary noise, it’s getting rid of some of that…’cause you’re right, in a world where there’s a lot of noise, how do we maintain and find focus? Well, we’ve got be really accurate, we’ve got to say, this is most important, two/three things, and that is what we’re going to focus on, regardless of the noise and that takes a discipline and a resilience. And there’s always been noise, but I think probably the advent of the digital age and social media means that that noise has become louder and coming from all sources, so all the more reason to have the discipline to know what matters and how you stay on that matters.
I: So there’s something about making sure one articulates it as well, in order to keep coming back to it.
R: Yeah, and I think in an environment when you’re always looking for progression, it’s easy to grab and maybe it’s the, sort of, antithesis of marginal gains, let’s grab as many small things as we can, but there’s a limit, sometimes let’s actually focus on the big thing, that isn’t the 2%, it’s the 98% and it’s the, you know, it’s the super strengths which, you know, sports psychologists talk about actually, if we get that right, the 2% is less important isn’t it, obviously? So I think, you know, in a time where you’re always looking for ways of being better, just doing the basics right is still paramount.
I: When you look back at all the positions or roles that you’ve had, what, sort of, pops out of your head as something that you were proud of?
R: I think, I mean, you mentioned it at the start, I think, with time, I’ve worked out, kind of, what makes me tic is being part of a team and that’s…it sounds a bit yell, whenever anyone says that, but it’s what either motivates me or demotivates me. If I’m part of a team that I’m proud of and I’m proud of the interactions, might not always be successful or might not always agree, might be a certain critical tension in the team, but if I have that, I’m happy and I’m even happier if I can create those teams and be part of leading them, then I’m really ticking. What disillusions me very quickly are when those teams either don’t have the right values or principles within the team or there’s something within the team creates disloyalty or fragmentation, that’s disillusioning, so, you know, for me, when I was a rugby player, the greatest feeling, or as a coach, on earth, is sitting in that changing room, shoulder to shoulder with a group of people and outside that room, you can hear the noise, you know you’re about to go and face the opposition, the adrenalin’s pumping, what a wonderful feeling and similarly win or lose, afterwards in the changing room, it was a collective experience. You sit there with your colleagues, with your team mates, and there’s no feeling like that, so when you’re too old and long in the tooth to do that as an athlete or a player, recreating that, sort of, togetherness with other teams in the workplace, for me, is not quite as good, but nearly.
I: So how do you go about shaping a culture to create that and to get the best performance out of athletes, or out of colleagues?
R: I think, there’s a good old saying about work/life balance and every time it’s used now, I, sort of, say to people, I think it’s a bit antiquated, there is no such thing, this, sort of, belief that there’s a divide, you have work and you have life, you now just have life and inside that is work, emotion, social, it’s all mixed now, because social media has, sort of, bridged the gaps where everything pervades everything else. So, actually, for me, you have to care about the whole person, you have to lead the whole person. So this 9-5 idea that you’re leading a JD or a Job Description of a person, doesn’t work anymore, you can’t lead that person without knowing them, without knowing their fears, without knowing what motivates them, what inspires them, all that is one person, so, to create a great team and to lead and do justice to that team, you have to be able to know all the individuals in it and then the collective dynamics of all those individuals, so when is one person hurting or struggling, another person’s fine, when does that flip round under a different environment? And there isn’t one size fits all, you can’t say, you know, this is how this team is going to be run, it’s about situation or leaderships, leaders that go in there, know their people, care about them and show they care about them and then suddenly, and this is what happens in the Military is, those people know they’re being looked after and you create a loyalty, so when you want more from that person, when you say, look, we’re in trouble here, we need more from you, over and above what you could reasonably be expected to do, they say, I’m prepared to give that, ‘cause you cared about me. So there’s this develop…you develop trust, you develop care and support and you get discretionary performance, not just the minimum.
I: It’s interesting what pops into my head was, how does someone in a leadership position, like yourself, also get that?
R: Well you ask for it when you need it, you know, the idea of the…and I come from the, sort of, you know, Military and rugby and, you know, as a young man, the belief that to show weakness, you’re just showing something that could be exploited, but, of course, there are times for leaders to show their vulnerability and be authentic. There are times when they shouldn’t do that because they need to be strong, but at the quieter moments, you can say to your team, look, I’m experiencing this at the moment, I’m struggling a bit, I just need you to understand that and then, you know, good followship, good teamship will support the leader. So, there’s this give and take, but it’s all based on a mutual respect and a loyalty created by you having given in the first place, you know, don’t expect to get a return if you haven’t invested.
I: When I first started doing these interviews, one of the first people I spoke to was Goldie Sayers about how she felt being awarded an Olympic Bronze Medal eight years later, because of another athlete’s doping situation. How does someone in your role respond, so think and feel personally and professionally, when you hear news of another doping incident coming on?
R: Well, we can only do what we can do and if we can say to ourselves, we’ve done everything we can systemically in the past and then, of course, technology catches up, then it’s very sad. No-one could compensate Goldie, ‘cause people talk about, well, what with the financial aspects of being, what about the pride, what about…no-one can compensate her, so, yes, it’s good that it’s now, you know, justice has been done, fairness has been seen to be done, but sadly, that still doesn’t undo the feeling of being cheated and not just her, just the system but I think, you know, we have UKAD, we have robust and really driven anti-doping system, we’ve got broader ethical issues within sport now, not just doping, which we’re addressing in terms of culture and things, so I think, sad though it is, I don’t look at our system and say, we dragged our feet, I think our system did what it could in the time it…and the technology it had at its fingertips at the time.
I: What do you think is the next challenge to be faced by sports leaders like yourself?
R: I think hard decisions. The problem with systems and we’ve been talking about, you know, high performances in this country, if you’re not careful, you can look for systemic answers to people challenges. So, what I mean by that is, when there were cultural issues started to come out, we introduced lots of governance checks. Now, of course, our governance has to be right, that is the framework we have to work with it, but freedom with a framework is the way I like to lead, so I’ll give a framework, but then you have to have freedom within it, you have to be empowered, you have to be able to express yourself, everyone has to be different. The more rigid and tighter you make that framework, you squeezed some of those personal differences out and governance solutions to leadership challenges are misplaced. You will not change leaders’ behaviours by introducing more governance checks. In fact, it puts them into rooms to fill in forms, not where they need to be, which is in amongst their people, role-modelling, challenging, making sure behaviours are right. So, it might help us because we can rag rate issues and say, look, we’re looking at this, but what do we do with that, how is that driving behavioural change and if the answer is, well, we don’t know, but look, we’ve monitored it, we’re on the wrong path. If the answer is, we’re getting more leaders standing up for what they think is right and leading their people more closely, then that’s fantastic.
I: How do you define success personally?
R: I think, it’s changed for me quite a lot, I think most people, or certainly me in my younger years, it’s usually onwards and upwards and if you can take an incremental step up the ladder, whatever that ladder is, you feel like you’re achieving, and some of that might be linked with job satisfaction, remuneration, there are lots of different factors. I think I’ve got to a point, I’ve been very fortunate in some of the roles I’ve had, and people I’ve worked with, so I’ve got to the point where it’s not onwards and upwards for me, it’s about trying to find things where I’m close enough to sport, because I have had jobs where, and you could be in any industry, because you’re, kind of, you’re leading almost generically, so the job I have at Loughborough here is fantastic, it’s got me closer to sport. I Chair the English Institute of Sport, which I thoroughly enjoy, it’s innovative, it’s dynamic, so that works for me, that combination, so I suppose success for me at the moment is, can I impact directly on sport? Satisfaction for me at the moment is, I need to be closer enough to sport, you start as an athlete, you cross the white washer and you get too old, then you coach, you’re quite close but not, then you go from coach to leader and you’re getting further and further from the playing surface. I quite like being a little bit closer to it, without getting too close that I look ridiculous at my age.
I: Just talking about close to sport, are you still playing rugby or any…
R: I don’t play rugby on the grounds that I would be awful now and my knees are shot and it would just be too dangerous, but I enjoy, you know, I played squash for years, I play golf, I go to the gym…
I: Squash is hard…
R: Yeah, I had a knee op last year which ten years of squash created. Funnily enough, no my rugby, but my squash, it is highly attritional , but such a wonderful game, I love it. So, there’s always got to be sport in my life. I found out, when I didn’t do as much sport, I didn’t feel as complete, I didn’t feel at peace, so it doesn’t matter what it is, I just have to be involved.
I: We’re just going to ask you some quick fire questions to wrap things up. What did you eat for breakfast?
R: I have one of these, sort of, supplement shake things, so I have one of those shake things and I put in there mixed grains, oats, some of this powder called Huel, you may…that’s advertising, and also some seeds, different types of seeds, so I put all that in, I put some boiling water in and shake it all up and I have that, but then that sounds, wow, that’s so, sort of, performance-orientated, then I come in here and about 11 o’clock I have a big cookie, so it’ the, sort of, my guilty secret…
I: Good to have the balance, yeah.
R: …yeah, cancels out that, sort of, healthy breakfast and I’m not averse for having a full English when it’s right, but not that often.
I: Favourite piece of kit?
R: Favourite piece of kit, I am, like most sports people, a kit person. I had something and I’m not very technical, but I had something given to me recently, ‘cause I’ve got an Apple computer and it was a, sort of, junction box with as many different leads that you could put in to allow for all the difference that Apple never fits the right plug does it, but this…and it came in a nice little, sort of, leather executive carry case, so I quite like this, I get it out whenever I can and just put it on the table to show people, so that’s my latest gimmick. But I am very susceptible to kit and gimmicks.
I: Sporting hero?
R: Sporting hero, wow. Yeah, it’s…I’ve got a lot of time for Wayne Smith who was in the All Black coaching team for many many years and when I was Director of Rugby at Northampton Saints, he was Head Coach and just a wonderful man. His people management, his leadership and his understanding of what matters in sport was absolutely right up there, hence the fact that he stayed coaching one of the world’s most successful sporting teams for so many years.
I: Most useless piece of advice that you’ve been given or given to somebody else?
R: Probably, and this takes me back, before the Pilkington Cup Final at Twickenham, Saints v Harlequins 1991, in front of a full Twickenham, we travelled down on the morning in the coach from Saints, I was a player there, and our coach insisted we all had an enormous English breakfast, which included sausages, bacon, the lot, because that would help us fuel up for the day and throughout the whole final, I just felt slightly nauseous.
I: Nauseous all the way through.
R: And it wasn’t nerves, it was definitely a dodgy breakfast.
I: I wonder whether this has anything to do with your current breakfast choice?
R: It maybe does, maybe that’s just stayed with me and we lost in extra time, so, yeah, I’m not bitter, but I think you’re right.
I: Greatest passion outside of sport?
R: I think, I’m a student of leadership and I’m very very passionate about it, it’s about interacting with people, but I think my greatest passion is time with my family and that sounds, yeah, but everyone always says that, but I just love it, it’s just…I have teenage daughters and they’re wonderful company, incredibly supportive wife, a couple of dogs that I enjoy walking and all of that now is a passion to me, whereas 20 years ago, I wouldn’t have even thought about that.
I: And last question, best performance enhancer?
I: Tell me more.
R: Anyone who has, I find high performers incredibly self-aware, because that’s the fuel of improvement, and if you’re self-aware, and you’re hungry and driven, wow, that’s perfect.
I: Well, thank you very much for talking with me today John, I really appreciate it.
R: It’s been my pleasure.
I: Thanks for listening, you can follow the conversation on Twitter, Facebook and also don’t forget to subscribe online to a questionofperformance.com.