Episode 43 is an interview with English Institute of Sport’s Head of Performance Pathways – John Alder. John is a people development practitioner whose life mission is to help individuals, teams and organisations flourish while promoting culture-driven leadership.
We talk about leadership, the complexity of the sporting landscape, and the challenge of prioritising particularly when you are managing multiple stakeholders.
A former junior international rugby player, John has worked with Professional, Olympic, and Paralympic leaders and coaches from five continents, including a three-year stint with the New Zealand rugby league team, the ‘Kiwis’. John is currently the Head of Performance Pathways at UK Sport / English Institute of Sport (EIS), leading a team of talented practitioners tasked with supporting the development of people, pathways, and systems to enhance the transition of athletes from talented juniors to world class international performers. He holds a PhD in High Performance Sport Management with a focus upon leadership, culture, and organisational change, and as a lifelong coach, John’s interest lies in the human side of sport, and how best we can support leaders and coaches to develop inspired and inspiring people. Follow John on Twitter @LeadCulturally.
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: 21.5.19 – Ep 43. John Alder
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.
I’m back at the English Institute of Sport today talking with their Head of Performance Pathways, John Alder. John is a people development practitioner whose life mission is to help individuals, teams and organisations flourish while promoting cultural-driven leadership. We talk about leadership, the complexity of the sporting landscape and the challenge of prioritising, particularly when you’re managing multiple stakeholders. But first let’s hear what he does in his own words.
J: Okay, yeah, thank you Tammy, pleasure. So, my name’s John Alder, I’m the Head of Performance Pathways at UK Sport and the IS, and in the most broad sense, I suppose when we think of all the success that we’ve had at Olympic and Paralympic level over the last eight, twelve years, for that to be sustainable there’s got to be a pipeline of athletes entering sports, progressing through and getting ready to be able to go and win medals at the games. And so I’m very fortunate to lead a team of 13 talented sports scientists and practitioners who work with the sports to help them develop the best performance pathways they can, so that they can fill those Olympic programme spots, and hopefully to the games and win some medals.
T: What motivates you, the thing that you’re enjoying most?
J: Yeah, great question. I’m a coach by trade, and so come through a coaching…
T: [Over speaking]. Is that rugby?
J: … rugby, that’s right. And I’ve always had a real deep interest in young people, helping young people to realise their potential, to see them grow through challenging experiences and fulfil all of their desires through sport, both sporting and otherwise. So, at the heart of it that’s always been my interest, and it’s probably why I’ve found myself in the development space. And I think when we think of how we can have the largest impact we can, when we move to working with leaders and coaches, the impact can be quite exponential, rather than working directly with athletes, although I do miss the day to day interactions with a lively bunch of rugby players, or rugby league players.
T: What do you think enables talent to come out?
J: I think, and I hope this doesn’t sound cliché, great leadership, great coaching and athletes in the best possible environments for as long as possible.
T: What does that mean in practice? What is great leadership?
J: Great leadership? I think empathic leaders who understand the world of young people and is sensitive to their motivations, their desires and what their life might be like, so the leadership level and the coaching level, being able to identify what young people need, or what young athletes need, and then being able to design learning, coaching sessions, practices and interact with the young people to get the best out of them. And when you scale that up, look at it from an environmental level that’s happening every day. Every time I coach and an athlete to interact, and they say every interaction matters, so what a coach is able to do with every athlete leaves a trace.
T: In your bio you talk about culture-driven leadership – what does that mean?
J: Yeah, good question, and an area that I’m really passionate about and was fortunate to probably spend the last, until recently, 10 years researching cultural leadership and high performance…
T: [Over speaking]… PhD, I believe?
J: … yes. But that was really a vehicle for going after a question that I’d fallen in love with, which the seeds of that were sown when trying to understand what happens with a struggling team suddenly turns things around and has success. And not at a mechanical level, but at a human level, at a cultural level, and through that research and practice journey was lucky to work with the New Zealand Rugby League team in understanding how their leaders interacted and led their team. And from my perspective the very best leaders put culture at the heart of their leadership, so the identity, what it means to be part of that organisation, that team, what they stand for, what matters around here – put that at the heart of their leadership as their anchor for decisions and for the way that they role-model.
T: Is it different working with teams and working with individuals?
J: Good question. Coming from a team sport background I suppose I have less granular experience of working with individuals. But from working with coaches I would infer, I suppose, the emotional, or the relationship dynamics are just so heightened because you tend to work more one-to-one or certainly in smaller groups, versus when you’ve got a squad of 30 players who you’re working with. Having said that, whilst the one-to-one relationship dynamics heighten, as a coach of a team you’re also not only worrying about the relationship dynamics between you and that athlete, but that athlete and their peers and that network I suppose of relationships. Which requires, I would say, a subtly different skillset, but both are equally incredibly challenging jobs and tasks.
T: Part of your role is talent ID, how would someone talent ID your role?
J: That is a good question, and I’m going to do my best to not just hold a mirror up and say, “Well, it’s someone just like me!” I would say I’m very lucky, actually we’ll zoom out and say when you’re recruiting for any role, whether that’s an athlete within a team and you look for how does it complement everyone else. And I’m very lucky that I’ve got 13 practitioners who are very skilled, very experienced in their various fields, so that’s afforded me, I suppose, the opportunity to be more of a generalist, so I wouldn’t have as deep an understanding in certain areas as my peers. But in terms of my role, I suppose, it’s very fortunate that I sit with dialogue upwards into senior leadership within UK Sport, but also have the frontline practitioner team with me, so being able to navigate the two would be a skillset I would look for in a replacement for me. And also being able to navigate the complexity that is the UK Sport landscape and all the multiple stakeholders and all the relationships in that, so it’s as much of a relationship and leadership role as it is a technical.
T: How do you manage all of those, all of those stakeholders and…?
J: That’s a good question. From my perspective it is all about relationships and it’s all about people and, therefore, I’ve always done my best to get on the road, and I find shaking hands and meeting face to face is absolutely ideal, although you can’t always do it, but I’ve always made that a priority. And equally it’s not just about me, it’s about connecting people, connecting the network and ensuring that you do your best to ensure the right people speak with each other and can coalesce around meaty development problems that they’re interested in. Whether that’s a sport and one of our team, or whether that’s the stakeholders’ national sport councils or institutes.
T: Can you talk to me about some of the challenges that you’ve overcome in your role?
J: I think an ongoing challenge internally is that whilst I’ve got a brilliant team, incredibly enthusiastic and motivated, we’ve got only the funded sports and paralympic sports to work with, which is no small number, and we can’t be everything for everybody. And although we would love to do everything for everybody, we have to prioritise. So that’s an on-going challenging deciding how we can best support a sports individual but also a system level, so that on-going challenge of prioritising. And I think, as I alluded to, just the complexity of the landscape, having worked in New Zealand where a smaller nation, less number of agencies in sport and often all in the same building, or at least in the same city, did make for some slightly easier conversations and work. There are lots of interacting bodies here, which is certainly something I noticed quite profoundly coming home.
T: Other than cutting the amount of stakeholders in half, is there anything that you think would improve what you did?
J: I think a real USP of… although it’s complex because of those number of stakeholders, a real USP could be the network, so how you energise and connect all of the various bodies so that they can, like I say, coalesce around how do you create…
T: [Over speaking]. So instead of you going out there and meeting everybody, that it’s a…?
J: … Yeah. And use the network, hyper-connected network as a real USP as you think of all of the knowledge, that would definitely go beyond what I would imagine would be another nation’s with less people and less diversity. There are good things to be had for different agencies and bodies with slightly different perspectives and viewpoints, so how you can energise that network and drive development and performance through that, I think that could be a real USP that could help. At a real practical level thinking back to the performance pathway, one thing I think would be really helpful is if we started to recognise performance pathway coaches and talent coaches for not only the work that they do, because they’re often arguably underpaid, overworked, long hours and unsociable hours. But also recognising… real specific skillset, to be able to develop young people to be able to coach, advance and grow young people is a different skillset to what it takes to get .5% out of someone at the very, very top. And historically by virtue of coaching being a volunteer pursuit, talent coaching has often been seen as the stepping stone into professional coaching.
So, I think if we could get to a point where we acknowledge, we appropriately reward and recognise those operating in that space. And there’s something to be said for being a world-class development coach, that is really, really cool and really good, and it’s not necessarily always just to… and for some people it will be, naturally a growth in their career towards coaching at the Olympic Games. But for others we shouldn’t shy away from saying there’s something incredibly rewarding and incredibly special about being a world-class development coach. If we could tip that narrative, that would be really helpful.
T: How long have you been in your role?
J: In my role? Not all that long, about six months.
T: Six months?
T: So what brought you to this place?
J: So, my predecessor, she’d been seconded into the Performance Director role at British Skeleton, and that created a vacancy, and they approached me and said, “Would you like to head up the team?” Which has seen me move, I suppose, from what we might see as a frontline practitioner to working with coaches, leaders, supporting projects that the team deliver, like the national Talent ID campaigns, into more of a strategic and leadership role.
T: What’s the learning curve been like?
J: It’s been interesting, it’s been interesting, but thoroughly enjoyable.
T: That’s a great word, that.
J: I’m really well supported, both by the institute, I know you’ve had Nigel Walker on here previously, who I think is just brilliant – yes, it’s been very supportive, as have UK Sport. It’s just meant I’ve had to recalibrate my own dial away from being comfortable, not doing so much on the ground work, and trying to think how we can get the best out of the team. We can get the best out of the whole domain of performance pathways and how best we can support the sports.
T: When you look back at your career, so not just the time that you’ve spent here, are there things that stand out as things you’re proud of?
J: Good question – that I’m proud of? Yeah, well, I’d say it’s an uncomfortable question for me to answer. I’m very proud of the group of people I work with, I’m very proud to be part of that team, and currently to be part of the institute. I was proud of my experience in the New Zealand Rugby League in the 2013 World Cup, although the final didn’t quite go our way, I’m certainly proud of that and the learning that came from that. I suppose I take pride in little moments of success, little moments of change, whether that’s in seeing young members of the team step up and grab more significant work, or whether that’s seeing change implemented in sport as a result of interactions we’ve been fortunate to have.
T: Did you always want to work in sport?
J: I think so. I was quite lucky as a 12 year old, my uncle played rugby for Gloucester in the 70s and, as is quite the custom, was invited back to be the kit man. So, through the mid-90s when the game was amateur and then turned pro, I was helping them out in the changing rooms – laying the kit out, running the [unclear 14:04]. And many of the players have since retired and are now coaching professionally, I think as a 12, 13, 14 year old is quite a unique experience to every other Saturday being in the [unclear 14:15] fledgling professional sport. So that gave me a real appetite for working in sport, and when playing didn’t quite work out, I suppose I again fell in love with the question, not the solution, why: if it didn’t work out for me, how can I better understand that? And what it might take for others? So, yeah, had I not worked in sport, what would I…? I might have gone down the music root.
T: Do you play?
J: Piano, definitely don’t sing, no, although the team might say different at a karaoke booth, but, no, I play the piano.
T: This podcast focuses on success and performance and what different people see as success. What’s success for you?
J: Great question. For me success is engaging in meaningful work, meaningful work that leaves a footprint on not only the work itself, but also the people that you come into contact with. Positive footprint, naturally, that’s what will get me out of bed, pursuit of that.
T: Are you successful?
J: Again, an uncomfortable question for me to answer. I would hope the team are successful, and in many ways you may have to ask the guys that that I work with, their read on that question. Again, I take little successes in daily things, rather than anything grand.
T: Has you idea of success changed over time?
J: Definitely, yeah, definitely, I suppose as you grow. As a young man, probably quite an alpha male as a young man, you have these grand views of what success is and what makes you as a man as you’re growing up.
T: Is it age that changes that or experience?
J: Both I think. I think maybe experience comes with age. And, yeah, I’ve definitely reframed my view of success, it’s definitely not quite so grand, in terms of the grand pursuit of being the great man, it’s probably more subtle now.
T: I suppose given that you’ve only been in the role for six months, to ask you what’s next for you, is probably not the best thing to ask now but I’ll ask it anyway. What’s next?
J: Yeah. Next, I think we’re embarking on really an exciting time. Naturally whilst we’ve got the Tokyo Olympics round the corner, our teams work is focused on Paris and LA. So, we’re heading towards the end of a cycle, and with that comes growth and shedding of old skin, and I think they’re really exciting times, and how we might set a direction for the future. I suppose I’m really passionate in my role about giving voice to the importance of development and how we can create great environments and meet the needs of young people so that they can flourish and thrive.
T: Do you think young people are changing?
J: Yeah. I think the world’s always been changing and, therefore, people have been changing with it. I think there’s always that on-going cycle of, as people age they look to younger people and go: … not like it was when we were kids! And so on. I think the big thing is the rate at which the world is changing is the fastest we can imagine it’s ever been, with naturally the one thing we could look to is technology and how that’s shaped the way young people interact with the world, with their peers and how they see themselves. We did a big piece of work as a team last year on… we called it the Next Generation: what does the world look like for young people now? We naturally are primed to see the world through our eyes and in relation to our own experiences. And we did some fun stuff, reminiscing on what it was like growing up with dial-up internet, and for the young people now that it something that they would…
T: [Over speaking]. Or even before the internet.
J: … well, absolutely, I know.
T: [Over speaking]. … the Yellow Pages…
J: And your phones where you dial around the wheel, yeah, those are the things they would see in museums now. And I think by virtue of that, the way the world change, what they look for in sport, what they look for from coaches, what they look for from leaders naturally has changed. And in many ways I think it’s changed for the better, I think it’s a stretch for leaders and coaches to adapt, it means letting go of some things, letting go of how they were coached as a kid. And one thing’s for sure, I don’t think young people… they don’t take orders like maybe previous generations just grew up in that world. I’m interested in what are the pop cultural trends? And you look to things like escape rooms, you look to things like YouTube and you look to things like Instagram. And what does that tell us about the needs of young people? Escape rooms – they want to solve problems with their friends, without an adult telling them what to do or how to do it. Instagram – they want instant connection through images. Then you’ve got YouTube, to be able to create stuff and share it with the world. So, how might we adapt coaching? How might we adapt the young athlete’s experience to meet those fledgling needs, I suppose? Because they’re definitely getting it from other parts of society, but that might be another conversation.
T: I’m just going to wrap up now with some quick-fire questions.
T: What did you eat for breakfast?
J: I had some poached eggs and a black coffee.
T: Very similar to what I had actually. Favourite piece of kit?
J: Piece of kit? Practically, and this is really sad, but definitely speaks to the changing world – my iPhone, I’m not sure I could survive without it. The flipside of that would be my tweed jacket I always wear to any of our learning events, which the guys think is hilarious – so me and my tweed jacket.
T: And a sporting hero?
J: A guy called Scott Gibbs, who played with Nigel for Wales in rugby in the 90s.
T: Why him?
J: It was the way he played, and he played in my position, I aspired to be like him and modelled the way I played off him.
T: A useless piece of advice that you’ve either given to someone else or you’ve received?
J: Calm down! I’m not sure when in the history of being told to calm down has anyone ever calmed down. You only have to ask my fiancée that, and she hits the roof, so calm down is not a good piece of advice.
T: Good to know. Greatest passion outside of sport?
J: Wild life and conservation. Yeah, my fiancée, she’s a vet at Bristol Zoo, so naturally I’ve been swept along in that tide of holidays to go and look at interesting animals, so that would definitely be a passion away from sport.
T: And the last one, best performance enhancer?
J: A good night’s sleep I think, a good night’s sleep would definitely be the best performance enhancer.
T: Do you get a good night’s sleep yourself?
J: Not as often as I’d like, but I’m working on it.
T: Thanks for talking to me today, John, it’s been great.
J: Tammy, it’s been a pleasure – thank you.
T: Thanks for listening. You can follow the conversation on Twitter, Facebook and also don’t forget to subscribe online to aquestionofperformance.com.
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