The following is a guest Sustainable High Performance blog from one of our clients and followers, Jean Marc Huet, CFO of Unilever. He is a Tignum fan and avid tennis player, so we appreciate his taking the time to share his passion for both with our clients.
As I was watching the highlights from the first week of matches at Wimbledon, I was reflecting on the similarities between the most successful and sustainable top seeds in professional tennis and their equivalent from leadership in business.
Those who know me well recognise the value I place on striving for balance in life. As I get older, this becomes something that I consciously and proactively manage. Aside from my family, tennis is a real passion of mine and a great source of energy. This energy is often put to good use in the workplace.
Whilst I gave up regular tennis at university, I picked up my tennis racket again five years ago and now play regularly with a coach named Paul Kozak. Paul and I normally find the time to play once or twice a week, usually before work at 6am. Coach Kozak is an excellent tennis coach, was formerly ATP ranked and has played, travelled and practiced with many of the world’s best players.
Coach Kozak is totally oblivious to what I do professionally. He cares about my footwork, how I string points together, how I improve shot variety, and how I should capitalise when momentum is on my side. The reality is that I am a pretty average tennis player and on some days, a woefully poor player. I share this because the humility I gain from these lessons as well as the energy it provides me are so important in making me more effective at work.
In summary, our morning sessions and wide ranging discussion all centre around a shared passion for Sustainable High Performance and so here it is – Coach Kozak and my thoughts on some of the striking similarities between a pro tennis player and a business leader:
.01 Great players raise all the other players
Have you ever noticed that tennis goes in waves? There is a wave of great players and then there is a lull. Switzerland only has a population of 8mln and yet Federer and Hingis have been able to inspire the likes of Wawrinka, Timea Baczinszky, and Belinda Bencic. Serbia is another small country (7mln) that has never historically been a tennis nation, but Djokovic has been able to raise the bar for other Serbian players such as Janko Tipsarovic, Ana Ivanovic, Victor Troicki, and Aleksandra Krunic.
Business operates in the same way. A great leader raises the bar not only for his/her business, but often also for the industry in which they operate and even sometimes for the entire international business community. Take the example of Google for instance. Founded by Larry Paige and Sergey Brin in 1998, the company not only goes from strength to strength but has also produced some incredible Googler talent in those years – such as Marissa Mayer (Yahoo!), Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook), Ben Silbermann (founder Pinterest), Biz Stone and Evan Williams (co-founders Twitter), and Kevin Systrom (founder Instagram). These are just a few of the examples of how high performers created new levels of innovation, productivity, and culture building that have had unprecedented, far-reaching impact.
.02 Building, riding, and re-creating momentum is critical
Every tennis match is a tug of war for momentum. With momentum the impossible becomes possible. Without it, you feel like you are stuck in quicksand. The key in both tennis and business is to be acutely aware of momentum – to recognise when it starts and how to maximise it when it is there. Likewise, to recognise when it’s ending and how to employ the weapons and tools to regain momentum when you can.
The all-time master of momentum has to be Pete Sampras. When things were going well, he really stepped up the pace of his game – taking a really short time between points – on average around 14 seconds. However when things weren’t going well, he would take much longer – on average 22 seconds – using that time to reframe and refocus. Once Sampras managed to get a break, he would always step up a gear and never look back.
Arantxa Sanchez Vicario was another brilliant momentum strategist. She would play very short points if momentum was on her side and stretch out the points if she needed to regain momentum in her favour. She also used to check her opponent’s body language on a regular basis: when negative she would deliberately slow down the play and when positive she would often speed up to make them work much harder – thereby putting their positive momentum under pressure.
Currently peer to peer platforms such as Airbnb and Uber are in the grips of positive momentum. Take the example of Uber. Founded as “Ubercab” by Travis Kalanik and Garret Camp in 2009, the app was launched in June 2010. In 2012 Uber began to expand internationally. In 2014, it experimented with carpooling features and made other updates. As of last month, the service was available in 58 countries and 300 cities worldwide and it is estimated that Uber will generate $10 billion revenues by end 2015. Uberification has become another word for momentum.
Top performers and leaders know how to create momentum. They give energy to others to keep momentum going and they quickly root out any possible momentum killers. At the same time, they are mentally agile and flexible so they can direct that momentum in the best direction to win. They start with a plan A, but like Sampras and Sanchez, are not afraid to pull out plan B or C if that’s what is necessary.
.03 Building resilience and awareness
Brilliant tennis players and business leaders know how to conserve and utilise their energy. They spot the important shots and know how to deliver a winning shot when it matters most. Roger Federer has always excelled at this. He actively conserves his energy by patiently playing routine high percentage tennis so he can turn up the heat when the opening to end the match presents itself. His match against Gael Monfils in the French Open fourth round this year was a case in point. He won 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-1. Their fourth round match was suspended for bad light on Sunday, tied at one set each. The real turning point was in the third set at 3-3 and 40-0 in Monfils favour. Monfils hit a poor shot in the net and an hour later Federer had won the match. It was that one point that mattered so much! When asked about his energy, he said on winning, "What's important right now is that I am physically fresh for the back end of the tournament.”
With this in mind, the mindset and resilience of our employees has been at the top of our agenda across Unilever. We are actively encouraging each and every one of us across the globe to become our own CEO (Chief Energy Officer), CSO (Chief Sustainability Officer), CRO (Chief Resiliency Officer), and CMO (Chief Mindset Officer). Whether it’s meditating every morning, doing our Daily Prep movements, setting clear daily intentions, doing circuit training in one of our gyms, or as in my case playing tennis with coach Kozak, we are encouraging everyone to bring their best to everything they do (both at work and away from work).
Indeed, we are starting to appreciate in the business world what professional athletes have known forever – the value of energy and recovery. In fact, one definition of fitness is how fast you can recover. As leaders, we need to manage our own energy and help others to understand the importance of health, nutrition, exercise, rest, and recovery – only then can you be fit and only then can you perform at your peak!
.04 Variety in your game is a key to winning
Variety and adaptability are extremely important qualities for winning. To intrinsically remain yourself and tap into your own unique strengths, while still being able to adapt to different situations and circumstances – that is the key for success.
The all time tennis great who was great at this was Brad Gilbert, who reached world no. 4 in 1990 and who coached several top players including Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick, and Andy Murray. To watch him play was utterly disconcerting. In fact, he prided himself on “winning ugly”. Gilbert may have outwardly appeared to lack the grace of a Federer but his use of variety was uncanny. He wrong footed and beat legendary greats like Boris Becker, John McEnroe, and even Andre Agassi.
The current VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) environment in which we all operate now requires a new agility, resilience, and variety never seen before. The past few years have seen previously unthinkable corporate behemoths, from banks such as Lehman Brothers to iconic car manufacturers such as Saab, be felled by scandal, economic turmoil, or by unforgiving customers and tough rivals. The average lifespan of a company listed in the S&P 500 index of leading US companies has decreased from 67 years in the 1920s to just 15 years today. Today's rate of change is at a faster pace than ever and by 2020, more than three-quarters of the S&P 500 will be companies that we may not have heard of yet (source: Prof Richard Foster Yale University).
So in a world with so much change, it seems apt to ask: How long can a company survive without being agile and adaptable? The answer – not very long. As leaders, our role is to recognise and understand that change is constant and to be on top you need to continue to change yourself or someone else will. In fact, when you look at the tennis greats I have mentioned, their continuously evolving approach to the game and constant search for improvement is what helped them stay at such top levels for so long.
.05 When to Leave
One area that I often wonder about in pro tennis is the difficult decision of when to leave the game. Andre Agassi stayed 5 years longer than Pete Sampras and in that time won his heralded French Open title. Yet, when Sampras retired it felt perfect because he left at the top of his game, always to be remembered as one of the best. This personal decision is no doubt based on many factors such as physical condition, love for the game, and drive to be remembered in a certain light. I just recently decided to hang up my metaphorical racquet at Unilever after more than five very rewarding years helping transform the company and having fully achieved what I set out to do in 2010. Of course there is the similar concern of having the energy necessary to continue to excel at this level and constantly drive a big change agenda, but there is also the honest reflection of knowing when your time has come and when the business would actually benefit from some new blood, new ideas, and even some new energy. In tennis, the sport does not suffer from a player staying too long or leaving too early (the tournament just plays on), but in business somehow if you don’t call your time right, this has the danger of really impacting an organisation. I guess this is one topic for Coach Kozak and me to further debate when we go to see the semi-finals next Friday!
Guest blog by Jean Marc Huet // CFO of Unilever