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The long win: redefining success to maximise performance

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 05 May 2021

What does winning in business look like? Following a year like no other, moves to shift the focus on the definition of success have accelerated following our experiences of working in a pandemic.

So says leadership expert and Olympic medallist Cath Bishop, whose book The Long Win: The Search for a Better Way to Succeed urges us to challenge the framework we put around winning, competition and success to consider how we might do it better. 

Speaking ahead of her keynote address at ICAEW's Financial Controllers’ conference 2021 (taking place on 18 May), Bishop says this isn’t a blanket rejection of all winning, competition or the desire to do our best, nor is it about lowering standards. Instead, it’s about embracing new metrics for success that allow us to pursue ambitions that could go far beyond simply coming first. “In particular, what might business success look like over the longer term if the perspective focused on employees, the local community and wider society?” Bishop asks. 

It’s a school of thought that resonates loudly with many as we look to emerge from lockdown and place the experience of the past year into some kind of meaningful business context. “The experience of the last year has meant that people are so much more open to re-evaluating what matters and what success means and they are far more open to the idea of approaching things differently,” Bishop says. The crisis has forced us to step back and think about longer term values, about the balance of life, how we go about our work and, more fundamentally, what work is, she suggests.

We have all had an experience that has changed us, Bishop adds. In particular, lockdowns have had a profound impact on the way many of us work and the way we connect with others. Most companies are already rethinking their flexible working policies and their approach to management. Even at senior levels, spending time working away from the office isn’t the career-limiting factor it once was. “Of course, we need to be collaborating and connecting again but the whole notion of what success looks like in the workplace and for ourselves as individuals has shifted,” Bishop says.

When it comes to more traditional views of winning, Cath Bishop is all too familiar with the experience. As a rower, Cath won the World Championships in 2003 and competed at three Olympic Games, winning an Olympic silver medal in 2004. Then working as a diplomat for over a decade, Cath specialised in conflict issues, with postings to Bosnia and Iraq, and leading in Whitehall on the UK civilian contribution to stabilising conflicts around the world. 

But it is also precisely these experiences that equipped her with leadership, negotiating skills, resilience, and the ability to deliver outstanding performance under extremely challenging circumstances which she brings to her current work in leadership development.

Bishop says the time has come to shift our view of success away from outcomes and instead towards performance criteria described by Bishop as the three Cs of the long win; clarifying broader success criteria, constant learning and connection. “Because most people’s outcomes were swept away last year, we’ve had to think about what else we value about what we do and that sense of a clearer purpose. 

That broadening of success criteria should be more about how you do things rather than what you do. In practice that’s about balancing a very task-driven environment that has made us slaves to the electronic calendar and the crutch of a to-do list and instead thinking more about the quality rather than the quantity of things that we do. “See meetings not as tasks to be ticked off but opportunities to build meaningful relationships and impact others, to learn from them, for them to challenge and support you.” 

Similarly, there’s an appreciation of the importance of experimentation, innovation and the ability to think differently because that has enabled companies to survive. “Learning is the engine of performance and constant experimentation and learning can help us to become more resilient and helps us to manage change in the world around us.” It can be about going on courses but feedback and reflection and being curious with every interaction you have is just as valuable, Bishop says. 

Finally, Bishop says success should be framed in terms of connections and how you develop your network. “Do you have people to go to who will inspire you, challenge you, help you on strategy, connect you to others, champion you.”

Bishop believes the potential bottom-line benefits of focusing on the long win are huge but warns that organisational culture is critical to embracing these new success criteria. “We’ve started to make a shift towards that greater inclusive approach and a sense of enabling people to be all of who they are. The challenge and opportunity now is to continue to create workplaces where people feel that they can be themselves and therefore perform at their best, where they feel able to draw on their talents rather than feel threatened and constrained by their organisations.”

 Cath Bishop will deliver the keynote address ICAEW’s Financial Controllers’ conference 2021, taking place on 18 May. This one-day virtual event will include presentations from finance leaders at Oliver Bonas and Rolls Royce and practical tips from experts on the value of mentoring to building a successful career.