19 February 2018

On 13 February 2014, Lizzy Yarnold stood at the top of the Sochi Olympics ice track, preparing for her last run in the Games. What she was about to prove was that Olympic success can be engineered. There are a million and one factors that go into Olympic success, and no two Olympic champions are the same. But the chances of a non-ice nation winning the Olympics with a non-ice woman are simply laughable. Unless you get your engineering spot on.

If you are brought up as a kid in a German town with an ice track, you will very likely spend Wednesday afternoons after school doing PE on it. The women that Yarnold was competing against had therefore had around 15 years’ experience in the sport; Yarnold had had five. Her story told a simple truth: find the right talent and give it outstanding training and you can beat the traditional accepted systems of sporting success. There were no 10,000 hours here, nothing close.

Greg Kirk had been the prototype for British skeleton. Seven years after finding Kirk, Timson et al had refined the profile of what a skele­ton Olympic champion might look like, so that when they first clapped eyes on Yarnold at the Manchester velodrome on a warm weekend in June 2008, they knew she might be a decent fit. This was the key to their success: the more precisely you can establish what success might look like, the higher your chances of finding it. She had been a regional level heptathlete and had answered the call of a Talent ID campaign called Girls4Gold which was intended to find future Olympic champi­ons in a variety of different sports. All she had to do was fill in a short questionnaire, get weighed and measured, and then complete a vertical standing jump and a 30m sprint. After the Manchester try-out, the let­ter she received said that she had made it through the first filtering stage as a potential athlete for skeleton. She did not know what skeleton was.

The Talent Lab

'Yarnold, conversely, was so relaxed that she had prepared in the Olympic Village by knitting and watching episodes of Downton Abbey.'

Fast-forward five and a half years, and she was in Sochi. At the Sochi Olympics, the kind of danger that skeleton presents was experienced by Noelle Pikus-Pace, the American regarded as Yarnold’s greatest rival. On one of the final training runs before competition, Pikus-Pace had had a serious crash when the G-forces created on the ice had caused her to black out mid-run and bang her head. Pikus-Pace had dusted herself down sufficiently to make it to the start line. Yarnold, conversely, was so relaxed that she had prepared in the Olympic Village by knitting and watching episodes of Downton Abbey.

After the first two runs on Day One, Yarnold had built a lead over Pikus-Pace of 0.44 seconds. In skeleton, that is considerable. On the first run of Day Two, when all her rivals needed to start reeling her in, Yarnold broke the course record. For her fourth and final run, she was a dead cert. She would win gold by 0.97 seconds.

Chapter learnings by Chelsea Warr

The common denominator of any high-performing organisation is having hugely talented people. When people discuss talented people, they often say: ‘They’ve just got “IT”.’ But what exactly is ‘IT’? How can we confidently know they really have ‘IT’, and how can we separate performance from potential?

Put square pegs in square holes. We would never have heard of Lizzy Yarnold if she had stayed in heptathlon. How many of your employees are working in the wrong roles? How often do you encourage job swaps to optimise a better matching of talent to task? What might Talent Transfer look like in your business?

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