Top Team Performance

14 years, 8 months ago


The PR sector has much to learn from professional sport on what it takes to create a winning team, says Simon Quarendon.

Nearly every news story about international sports will refer at some point to the winning team’s – or individual’s – ability to cope with the pressure. Mental strength is now seen as a vital ingredient in the formula for success adopted by winning teams, alongside superior technical skills and carefully developed physical skills.

In fact, nowadays, in most sports environments, all the competing teams or individuals may have exactly the same level of technical skills; exactly the same physical skills and exactly the same motivation or burning desire to win. And yet it is the team or individual that displays the greatest mental toughness that wins the day.

Why can some teams and individuals cope with pressure. And some can’t? Why do some teams ‘choke’ at the last minute. And some remain calm? Is this ability something that is inherited at birth, or can it be acquired, like any other skill?

Lessons For Us

In an industry as renowned as the PR industry for pressure, what lessons can we learn from the world of sports that might benefit our industry and help us to turn in better performances.

Because the desire to turn in better performances is not, of course, just limited to the sports world. PR Agencies and in-house departments alike, are just as keen to prove their worth to their clients or employers. In fact, an agency’s ability to perform to a higher level than its competitors may be enough to win the pitch or for a staff member, to win a promotion.

But there’s the rub. Because the very act of raising performance levels exerts more pressure. And increased pressure can have unfortunate side effects. When faced with more pressure, individuals display very different ‘coping mechanisms’. Some may become aggressive. Some may become defensive. Some may become passive and withdrawn. In extreme situations, some may even mentally ‘check out’ or refuse to take part.

Emotions may run high in these situations causing team members to leave, or feign illness. (In fact the illness may not even be imaginary, but actual, as in stress-related cases).

Sound familiar?

Failures in Feedback and Decision-Making

In all these situations, two things deteriorate quickly. Firstly, the teams or individuals are unwilling or unable to accept feedback. And honest and constructive feedback is one of the hallmarks or a high performing team. Secondly, decision-making suffers. And when poor quality decisions are being made, then the team’s performance as a whole declines.

Paradoxically, then, management’s attempts to improve performance may have the opposite effect. And in these situations, the only beneficiaries are the recruitment consultants!

To improve performance levels, management needs to recognise that three elements need to be present. These are:

1. skillset
2. mindset
3. structure

A permutation of two out of three of the above is not enough. Every aspect must be in place. So let’s examine each element in turn.


No team or individual can turn in a good performance if they don’t have the requisite or necessary level of skill. The higher the required performance, the higher the level of skill that is required. But skills can and must be constantly refreshed, refined and practised if performance levels are to go up.

Question. How highly skilled is your PR team? Do they have the right sort of skills currently to do the job? Are they constantly developing and refining these skills to make them better practitioners?


No team or individual can turn in a good performance if they have the right skills, but the wrong attitude. And there are innumerable stories in sports of teams whose skills were inferior to their competitors but won the day because they were more highly motivated to succeed. (i.e. wanted it more badly).

Question. How motivated is your team? Do they display a winning mentality or are they there just to make up the numbers? What motivates them to succeed and, more importantly, what demotivates them? Can you remove this malign influence?


The third element in a performance framework is the most misunderstood. Sports teams have game plans. Businesses have business plans. PR teams have PR plans. But these rarely provide the same level of ‘robustness’ that help sports teams when the going gets tough.

Question. Does your team have a clear structure that guides its actions and provides a blueprint for success? More importantly, is the plan regularly reviewed with sufficient scrutiny so as to detect areas where it can be improved?

High performance sports teams will constantly address all three of these factors and will ascribe the same level of importance to each. Each on their own is not enough to carry the day.

Another important lesson that PR teams can learn from high performance sport teams is, perhaps unfortunately, the least inspiring. It is their unstinting dedication to developing the basics in order that they may be executed superbly.

In fact, in sport, when the pressure is at its greatest, it is more often than not the team or individual that is able to execute their basic skills most effectively that will triumph. The teams and their coaches know this and therefore willingly accept the discipline needed to reach these levels of execution under pressure.

How many PR practitioners can make the same claim? We are, I believe, sometimes guilty of either not recognising or not accepting that ‘simple things done consistently well’ is the answer to most business challenges, however complex they may appear to be.

If this maxim resembles an unpalatable truth, then my final one may be no less easy to accept. Virtually all successful sportsmen and women, when questioned on the secret behind their success will usually answer, “I just focused on the process, not the outcome”.

Hardly inspiring, I’ll admit, but it does give another insight into what a PR team needs to do to turn in a top performance.



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The Author

Simon Quarendon

Simon Quarendon is the Principal of The Lean Agency, a consultancy that provides teams and individuals with the tools and skills needed to improve their operational performance. He is a past Secretary General of the International Communications Consultancy Organisation (ICCO).

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