Managing talent for excellence - in conversation with P Gopichand

At an event titled Thinkers League, organised by Lenovo, we discussed how he manages talent and shapes them for excellent performance

Published: Oct 17, 2018 02:20:21 PM IST
Updated: Oct 17, 2018 02:42:58 PM IST

g_109975_p_gopichand_280x210.jpgImage: Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

P Gopichand is only one of the two Indians who have won the All England Badminton Championship – the highest sporting award for a badminton player. All England for Badminton is equivalent to winning Wimbledon for a tennis player, world cup for a football team or the gold medal at the Olympics for a 100-meter sprinter! That by itself is stuff of legend. However, after his retirement from active sports (he is still fit as a fiddle and looks ready to jump into a court) he has been doing something incredible. He runs a badminton academy that has produced three men in the world top twenty and two women among the world’s top ten. Except in cricket, India’s record in the world of sports is hardly anything to talk about. Indian coaches are hardly known outside the players’ circuit. While there are several reasons for this, probably among the top would be the absence of a sporting ecosystem that identifies, encourages, nurtures and sustains sporting talent. Sports in India still seems to be characterized by sporadic success stories such as that of Abhinav Bindra, Mary Kom or Vishwanath Anand who have succeeded despite the constraints that the ecosystem posed before them. This is the reason why Gopichand’s efforts are so remarkable and inspirational – he seems to be solving the mystery of developing an ecosystem (howsoever small it maybe at present) for talented players to excel, rather than putting all his efforts towards developing one brilliant individual.

In a country like India where there is no dearth of talent, such efforts of developing an ecosystem are sure to result in long term improvement of the state of sports, provided we understand the cause of his success and how we can scale and replicate the same. However, this article is not about development of sports’ ecosystem – it is about whether one can translate insights learnt from sports to the world of management. More specifically, if Gopichand is creating an environment for nurturing talent in his academy, can his methods and philosophy inform leaders and managers who also need to nurture talent in their organizations? Metaphorically, all leaders are coaches who want to derive excellent performance from their employees by identifying, encouraging, nurturing and sustaining the talent pool in their organizations. In a business world that is increasingly becoming volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, talent management assumes paramount importance because the shelf lives of systems, processes and structures – the bulwarks of high performance organizations in the industrial era - are shrinking. While enabling structures and processes will never lose their importance, leaders are now, more than ever, trying to understand the role of purpose, passion and identity in deriving the best from their people.

I got the opportunity of meeting Gopichand in an event titled Thinkers League organized by Lenovo where we discussed how Gopi manages talent to shape them for excellent performance.

The first question that we asked Gopichand was how does he identify talent; how does one know who is talented and who is not? Gopi surprized us by saying that the term “talent identification” is disrespectful. He considers everyone to be talented, but differently so. Moreover, our norms and techniques of evaluating talent are imperfect and constantly evolving. Therefore, his task as a coach is to map talent – who is good at what kind of sports – rather than to judge that someone is talented and someone else is not. If we create the right conditions, people will surprise us with what they can achieve. This was quite an eye opener and I remembered an old leadership lesson about “everyone gets an ‘A’ grade” and the leaders’ task was to enable her followers see the world of possibilities and inspire them to live up to it. It is about having a deep respect for people and their capabilities and then taking the responsibility of creating the space in the organization where talent can realize its full potential. Gopi gives the example of a young player who he has advised to play doubles rather than singles because he believes that this boy can become a world beater as a doubles player, but may not reach such heights if he focusses on singles. How often do we do this in our organizations?  If someone is not meeting his sales’ targets or made a mistake in coordinating a supply chain, do we ask ourselves whether his talent lies somewhere else? Maybe the sales person who is missing his targets, if inspired, will become an excellent manager of human resources and the struggling operations manager is possibly best suited to do research and development.

“If I ever had a dream, it was to become a state champion”, said Gopi to make the point that developing talent for excellence is an evolving journey of living up to personal standards rather than those imposed by the external world. Competing with others – something that he called “referential excellence” takes away the joy of the journey. Competition, if at all, should be with oneself, of exceeding the limits that one had reached the moment before and that would ensure both excellence and happiness. At one level, this sounds surreal – Sachin Tendulkar not living for 100 centuries or P V Sindhu not giving her best for the gold medal but being primarily driven by their love for the game, for their passion, to seek self-actualization. But that’s what they all tell us - even Aamir (Rancho) Khan in Three Idiots! We know its not easy, but it’s worth giving it a try. There is no denying that the world around is so much about competition – market share, targets, relative grading, beauty contests. But all of these are consequences of excellence and cannot be primary drivers of excellence.

Sports, according to Gopi is a great leveller, it keeps you humble because right after you have won the World Championship, you lose in first round to an unseeded player! So how does Gopi and his players deal with failures? How much and what kind of analysis, one wonders would Sindhu and Gopi have done after Sindhu lost to Okuhara so narrowly in the World Championship finals? Hardly any, told Gopi. “We rarely discuss failure or analyse losses beyond 2-3 minutes, because it makes people very defensive. Let it go. Instead, when you win, discuss the mistakes that you did. The worst scenario is when you have succeeded despite making lot of mistakes – it gives a false sense of accomplishment. We need to accept failures as part of life and let go the fear of failure.” In business and management, we exhort about learning from failures, we claim that failures are the best teachers. Gopi and his team are no exceptions to that rule. It will be wrong to assume that they gloss over their failures. But this is about ensuring that such learning and analysis do not make us risk averse, do not take away the joy of doing the activity as much as realizing that there are lot of uncontrollable and random factors that contribute to both our successes and failures. We need to trust the process, more than the outcome and introspect more when we succeed so that we stay inspired as well as grounded.

We next asked Gopi how does he keep his star players grounded? How does he ensure that despite achieving success and fame the stars keep alive their passion for the game, give their best in practise? “You should see the glass as half empty when you step on to the court and see the glass as half full when you walk out, even if you have lost. You don’t want depressed players outside the court, you don’t want satisfied players on court”. Gopi also encourages healthy competition among his players, where every junior player is encouraged to challenge the senior players and the senior players are told to respect the junior players. That is something that resonates very well with management principles of creating innovative organizations. Successful organizations, like successful players, often fall into the complacency or “exploitation” trap. They continue to live off or exploit their past success without making efforts in exploration. They continue to follow the past formula of success even when the formula or model has become outdated. One of the ways to build exploration into the organization’s culture is to give enough freedom and courage to new employees to bring in new ideas and challenge the existing beliefs and dogmas as well as to ensure that such new ideas, howsoever irreverent are respected by senior managers and leaders. “The culture of a sports academy”, Gopi continued “is determined by how you treat your star players, what values you instil in them and not really by disciplining the junior most players”. Very often, organizations are guilty of having different standards for their star employees. Successful employees are allowed to get away with infractions and misdemeanours because leaders feel a dependence on them, even when they expect junior employees to be a model of ideal behaviour. What Gopi said is just the opposite. If we want to build institutions that will be driven by a strong sense of purpose and uncompromised set of values, our star performers should be expected to set the highest standards of behaviour.

“Performance in sports is a public activity, weaknesses are easy to spot. Sooner than later, the opponent will figure you out. Therefore adaptability is what makes a top player. If you do not change, adapt and unlearn, you will lose”, says Gopi.  Even though performance in the corporate world is not as transparent as in sports, we all realize the need to adapt and change in a volatile and dynamic world. Therefore, as an individual and as organizations, we need to be constantly in a mode of sensing the change that is happening around us, learning and then adapting to the change. While we all know this, I wonder whether we are doing enough about it.

Gopi then moves on to the aspect of developing a group of talented players where he describes the top talented players of the group forming the head of an arrow while the average performers as the tail. Both the head and the tail are important to move ahead, they have a complimentary nature. However, if someone in the tail slows down the entire arrow, s/he becomes dysfunctional for progress. This brings to the fore the importance of a team since in the business world hardly anything can be achieved through a solo effort. Thus, it’s important to keep in mind the roles that each member of a team plays in bringing about successful performance, despite the fact that not each of them may be equally talented in a specific aspect. Very often, we make the mistake of focussing only on the rainmaker of the team forgetting all those who play an enabling role and may be working in the shadows of the stars.

Towards the end of our discussion, we talk about the general condition of sports in India and Gopi observes that we seem to be losing our touch with being physically literate because as a nation we focus too much on intellectual and numerical literacy. The physical education teacher needs to be given a lot more importance in schools, and such teachers need to pay attention to those students who are weakest in sports, rather than focussing only on the top sporting talent. Coaches should not only be judged by the number of world beaters they have produced but also by the number of good players they have nurtured. Everyone needs to participate in sports because sports makes us happy, it develops team spirit, provides us with a healthy attitude and you learn to take the wins and losses in your stride. And above all, it teaches you to establish personal standards of excellence without worrying too much about what the world expects you to be.

-By Professor Sourav Mukherji, Chair, Centre for Teaching & Learning at IIMB and faculty in the OBHRM area. Prof. Mukherji is a keen sportsperson and runs marathons.

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[This article has been published with permission from IIM Bangalore. www.iimb.ac.in Views expressed are personal.]

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