When Karen O'Neill became CEO of the Canadian Paralympic Committee early last year, she inherited a truly Big Hairy Audacious Goal: to become the "world's leading Paralympic nation."
Looking at the data it was clear that not only was Canada not 'world leading,' the gap between the world leaders and us was widening. Faced with these circumstances it would have been understandable for the CPC Board and staff to scale back ambitions. This is a story about a team that took the harder road.
It is a story that is far from over: we are not the world's leading Paralympic nation – yet. But, as someone who has had a ringside seat for the past 14 months – I think there is much to learn for any leaders who are facing high expectations with high visibility and multiple stakeholders.
Key Insight No. 1:
Strategic leadership is about saying no to good ideas
The first thing that we encountered on the journey to world leading was good ideas. Piles and piles of good ideas. Good ideas from the CPC team, from summits, from focus groups, from working teams, and from benchmarking studies.
These ideas provided a road map to become world leading at every individual piece of the competitiveness puzzle: athlete recruitment, athlete development pathways, coaching, facilities, sport science, and so on. And, unfortunately, almost every one of them made terrific sense.
Faced with such ambitious expectations, there was a powerful tendency to tackle them all. When we stopped to really look at the countries that are currently world leading, however, we discovered something interesting: they are only truly 'world leading' in two or three areas.
China, for example, excels at athlete recruitment – but is actually profoundly uncompetitive in other areas (international hosting, for example). Why? With one billion people, all they need to do is find "one in a million" athletes and put them in a great competitive environment, and the rest will take care of itself. If they waste resources on getting to 'world leading' in other areas, it will distract from their key advantages. Does it work? Well, they won 95 gold medals at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, more than double second-place Russia.
And so, we became incredibly focused on identifying the two or three key things that would define Canada's unique path to world leading – namely: athletes, coaches, and the daily training environment – and at saying 'no' to the rest.
This is something that I believe leaders get wrong consistently: strategic leadership is fundamentally about saying no to good ideas. It is rare that there is a lack of ideas – what is usually lacking is a disciplined framework to eliminate the many good ideas that aren't the right ideas.
Key Insight No. 2:
Saying no to good ideas requires a great process
As it turns out, saying no to a lot of good ideas doesn't naturally endear you to the people who came up with – or have a stake in – many of those ideas.
This was particularly problematic for the CPC, where the success of any strategy relies on 30 member organizations, Own The Podium, Sport Canada, the Canadian Sport Institute network, the Coach Association of Canada, and numerous others.
So, how do you ensure that people are still with you after you've said no to a lot of ideas they care about? With apologies to former U.S. presidential campaign strategist and CNN Crossfire host James Carville: it's the process, stupid.
The CPC team solicited input at two points: first, a broad group of stakeholders were involved in creating a variety of different paths that could be taken. And then, the group was convened a second time to help shape the criteria we would use to decide between the options.
This approach provided key stakeholders with influence and ownership – without getting bogged down in 'strategy by consensus.' Were choices made that were unpopular? Absolutely. But everyone felt they had been heard.
Key Insight No. 3:
When you finish 'what,' you better have armed your people with 'how' Focusing on the right things is important – but once you've focused, the tough part starts: improving faster than the competition. The CPC team kept returning to one key statistic: to close a 20-per-cent gap in one area – athlete recruitment, for example – we need to improve 1.6-times faster than the current leader for eight consecutive years (assuming they continue to improve at 5 per cent per year). Let that sink in: 60 per cent faster, every year, for eight years.
Knowing where you're going is crucial – but often organizations assume that once the vision is clear, rapid improvement will follow. Not true. Improving abnormally quickly requires abnormal leadership and execution. And so, at the same time as the strategy was being developed, the CPC focused on upgrading the skills of leaders across the Paralympic system – enabling them to create environments where extra effort and continuous improvement are the norm.
Now, most of us are not aiming to dominate the podium. But many of us are dealing with high expectations, tasked with numerous priorities, and working with multiple stakeholders. The tighter your focus, the better your process, and the quicker you equip your people with the new skills needed to execute, the more likely you are to succeed.