Adopt a learning mindset to succeed in business

Former Olympic rower Greg Searle has translated lessons from sport to the world of business. In an interview with Kevin Lee-Simion, he outlines some practical advice, from ‘un-learning’ bad habits to building emotional connections within teams

It’s 1992, and the men’s coxed pairs rowing final at the Barcelona Olympics is reaching its climax. 

Team GB –  23 year-old Jonny Searle and his 20-year-old brother Greg Searle – are gaining ground on the leaders, Team Italy. The finish line is approaching. An incredible sprint finish sees the Searles overtake the Italians in the last few metres and win the gold medal.  

Greg Searle followed his success at the 1992 Olympics by winning a second gold medal at the 1993 Rowing World Championships. He went on to win medals in the subsequent seven World Championships in which he competed and has a total of three Olympic medals to his name. 

While training and competing in the late 1990s, Searle became increasingly aware that the lessons he had been learning in sport could be translated to business. After the 2000 Sydney Games, he decided to retire from rowing and, after an 18-month spell sailing in the America’s Cup in New Zealand, he moved back to the UK and began his business coaching career in earnest. 

Reflecting on his sporting past and how he made the move into consultancy, Searle explains: ‘I worked with organisations even as I was rowing. I felt I had an understanding of how to get the best out of myself and the best out of teams.’

Rowing ‘smarter’

The temptation of a home Games brought Searle out of retirement to train with the GB men’s eight for the 2012 London Olympic Games and he was rewarded with a bronze medal. He believes his experience as an executive coach enabled him to be a ‘smarter rower’: he put into practice ideas had he learned in the business world to help his team achieve success. 

For example, he had more honest conversations with team members, encouraged the giving and receiving of feedback, took responsibility for his actions and asked for help when he required it.

‘I loved the ethos behind London 2012 of inspiring a generation,’ he says. ‘I felt that I could be part of a great team and I could do something that was genuinely me at my best and encourage others to challenge themselves too.’ 

Now Searle is once again focused on executive coaching and his varied work includes advising business leaders on performance, engagement, change, emotional connections, resilience
and adaptability. 

He firmly believes that, in both sport and business, passion plays a huge part in working towards, and achieving, a goal. 

‘The most important thing is to find something you’re passionate about and really care about what you’re doing,’ he says. ‘There needs to be an intrinsic motivation. Then, I think work doesn’t feel like work.’

Searle believes individuals can find this ‘passion’ by considering four key aspects: ‘First, you have to find work that is meaningful to you,’ he attests. ‘Second, you need to be in control; third, you need a sense of belonging within your team; and fourth, you have to be good as possible at what you do, and get recognised and rewarded for it.’ 

Searle identified a passion for both rowing and business, but needed to complement this by adopting a learning mindset – a will to improve and develop on an ongoing basis – in order to stay at the top of his game.

He explains: ‘Once you attribute your success solely to your talent and ability, you stop learning new things. I thought I was really talented because I won a gold at the Olympics at the age of 20. I didn’t work as hard for the 1996 Olympics, and didn’t achieve a gold medal.’ 

Adopting a learning mindset

Putting this into the context of business, Searle adds: ‘Individuals, organisations – and MBAs particularly – need to keep learning and remain open to feedback. I was rowing at my best when I had a clear goal and I saw every day as an opportunity to improve. MBAs and business leaders need to do the same.’ 

Searle advises people to adopt and retain a learning mindset throughout their careers, asking themselves: ‘Do I have an attitude that says today is an opportunity to learn, so in the future I can take on bigger projects and face bigger challenges? 

‘I want to learn every day – and tomorrow I want to be slightly better than yesterday,’ he stresses. ‘That’s the learning mindset people need to take into work.’ 

If an entire workforce takes on this learning mentality, it follows that the potential of the whole organisation will be maximised. But Searle also emphasises the importance of what he calls ‘un-learning’, which he defines as the ability to forget a habitual way of doing something, so that you can learn a new, and better way. We all have past experiences but we have to decide whether the past comprises the tools that will help us in the future, or whether the past consists of “baggage” holding us back,’ he says.’ It depends on how you filter you past.’ 

By this he means that individuals must take a step back and really evaluate their past experiences, in a bid to identify and interpret the lessons within them as well as the ‘tools’ that can help them move forward. It is important to note that individuals must be careful not to misread the past, to ensure that the things that used to get in the way do not influence the future.  

Moving forward

‘Un-learning’ helped Searle to move forward in his rowing career.

‘I was coached by Jurgen Grobler, the Head Coach of GB rowing for the Sydney Olympics, but I didn’t like his methods at the time, so I tried to prove to him that my way was the best way,’ he explains. ‘As a result, I was competing with Jurgen, and didn’t want to see him be successful. I needed to un-learn my filters about Grobler and his coaching methods.’ 

Searle misinterpreted the past, and brought the wrong ‘tools’ into the present, and this led to incorrect preconceptions about Grobler. 

He adds: ‘It wasn’t until I missed out on a medal at the Sydney Olympics, that I realised I was the one misreading the past – and this was a factor in our unsuccessful campaign’. 

To prepare for the 2012 London Olympics, Searle analysed his past – in particular the events involving Grobler – and identified what he, himself, had done wrong. This meant that he was no longer competing with the coach. 

 ‘When the London Olympics came around, I recognised that my coach offered a lot of wisdom,’ he acknowledges. ‘With un-learning, I was able to white wash the painting and start again.’

Emotional connection

Un-learning was important for Searle and, as a result, he didn’t make the same mistakes in London as he did in Sydney. He realised the importance of the role of the coach and of forging a sense of togetherness rather than internal conflict; one of the elements of an effective team is an emotional connection.

Searle says: ‘One of the most powerful examples I can give about the importance of  of an emotional connection is a story about the French pair to whom I lost in Sydney. During the race, my team mate was just urging me to pull harder while the French bowman was shouting the names of his team member’s children. They pulled even harder and won the gold medal. There is something about having a psychological and emotional commitment to your teammates and these connections  can be developed in any team, sport or business.’ 

However, for this emotional connection to have any sort of effect, let alone push a team to gold, a lot of work has to be done to nurture this bond, as Searle explains. ‘In 2010, we decided, as a team, that the medals we won at the World Championships wouldn’t be defined by what we did on the day but what we did in the next 50 days leading up to, and during, the World Championships.’ 

Having a shared set of values means that the whole team is working towards the same goal, which further strengthens the emotional connection. 

‘We came up with four key words about how we were going to be, leading up to, and during the World Championships: long, relaxed, hard, and connected,’ says Searle. ‘We would row long; we could stay relaxed and enjoy what we were doing; we would be hard on ourselves; and we would be connected [to each other] emotionally, and to the water. 

‘To enhance this emotional connection, we would remove our sunglasses before the de-brief so we could look each other in the eye.’

An emotional connection builds an effective team, and with teams, it is what about what the group achieves together, not individual accolades. Searle relates this to how the role of the leader changes in business and sport. 

‘The coach gets very little recognition and very little reward,’ he says. ‘The coach might have a big ego but must recognise it is his or her job to facilitate the performance of others. In business, the boss gets the recognition when the team performs well.’ 

Athlete to coach and student to leader

Relating this to MBA students, he explains that they need the attributes of both coach and athlete. 

‘You might decide to study for an MBA because you’re a good performer, but after you graduate, you need to facilitate others and sometimes help them do things you couldn’t even dream of doing,’ he explains. ‘So essentially, an MBA student is the athlete, and the MBA graduate is the coach’.

MBAs can take lessons from sport, and these teachings can then be used in business, as Searle points out: ‘Sport is useful because it is so clear where the finish line is. You have a clear focus and can methodically work towards it and check your progress. We can translate this to business by using quarterly/annual goals to measure progress.’  

During the period between Sydney 2000 and London 2012, Searle’s experience in executive coaching allowed him to take the lessons he learned from business back into sport. This included a greater ability to have honest conversations, being prepared to give and receive feedback, taking responsibility for his actions and not being afraid to ask for help. Ultimately, when preparing for and competing in London 2012, he used his role in the team to get the best out of himself and the people around him. 

Analysing failures

In addition to his undeniable success, Searle has experienced ups and downs in his career, and recognises the importance of analysing mistakes. This may help to avoid repeating them in future, but it is also worth considering whether you could have changed outcomes had you behaved differently. 

‘It’s important to think about attribution,’ he advises. ‘When something doesn’t go well, I try to recognise my role in the problem. Then I see if I could have done something about it, or if the problem was out of my control. I say “control the controllables, and control your reaction to everything else”.’ 

‘I love the quote “if you win, have a party; if you lose, have a meeting,”’ he continues. ‘But if you do this, you miss opportunities in both cases: sometimes you win with luck and sometimes you lose even though you did everything right. I would say celebrate the things you’ve done well, regardless of winning or losing, and learn from the things you didn’t do well. It comes back to attribution, and taking a real look at your performance.’ 

Challenging and stretching people

In terms of Searle’s coaching style, how does he use his experiences to coach people in all aspects of the business world? 

He explains that he simply brings in various aspects of the things he has learned himself throughout his career, such as un-learning. 

‘I use my experience to challenge and stretch people,” he says. ‘I try to help them recognise the influence the past has on their performance, and show them how they can get the most out of their life and the people they work with.’

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