Easy to be cynical in January, but a great time to sharpen the saw

“If your answer is to work harder than before, then that’s probably not enough. Everyone works hard these days”. — Paul O’Connell, January 2018

Easy to be cynical in January, but a great time to sharpen the saw

Everyone in the world has 168 hours in the week. The question is whether you are getting the most from yours.

That was the context for the above quote from Paul O’Connell at the recent Pendulum Summit in Dublin. In his early career, O’Connell explained how he had always looked for answers in effort.

In higher levels of work rate. Then, as his body struggled to maintain the levels of training intensity that it had endured during his 20s, he was forced to find another way. A better way. He spoke of the power he found in the review process.

O’Connell explained one of the key performance indicators he always tracked was the number of sprints he completed in a game.

Generally speaking, he knew if his GPS figures revealed he had completed over 11 sprints in a game, he was working hard.

For him, this ‘process goal’ usually correlated with a good performance. So when he noticed his sprints had dropped to seven or eight on a recurring basis, he knew he needed to do a review.

Watching back the games, looking at his own performance and also looking at the footage of those players who were completing the highest number of sprints, he spotted something.

O’Connell was simply spending too much time on the ground. Hitting the deck with such frequency, in tandem with the corresponding effort it was taking to get back on his feet and going again, appeared to be sapping his energy.

His focus immediately switched to balance work, some ankle rehab and a very simple conscious effort to not hit the ground as easily when tackling or being tackled.

For O’Connell, this intervention yielded big gains. His sprint efforts went back up and his performances greatly improved well into his 30s.

Ironically, this performance improvement did not come off the back of an additional 6am flog session. He was working smarter, not harder. He was sharpening the saw.

The lesson in O’Connell’s story was a simple one but it rang true for many in attendance at the event.

People wear their work ethic like a badge of honour and rightfully so, but increasingly the evidence is showing that more effort beyond a certain point is counter-productive.

A consistent level of high exertion will eventually compromise performance along with other parts of one’s life, parts that probably provide the balance that is inevitably required for a high-level performance in the first place.

January is an easy month to be cynical about a business and self-empowerment event. However, taking the time to listen to stories like this one from O’Connell and reflecting on them, it’s hard not to think about sharpening your own saw or that of your organisation.

This term was coined in the landmark self-improvement book, The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People by Stephen Covey.

He explains that we can often become too busy hacking at ‘the tree’ and that we don’t take the opportunity to step back. The effort will be mis-placed relative to what could be achieved if we took a moment to ‘sharpen the saw’.

This sharpening exercise can then allow us to take a few well aimed swings with a refined blade.

Think Jonny Wilkinson and his repetitive strain injuries before he gave pause to discover the power of visualisation.

Or Pádraig Harrington before he read The Pressure Principle by Dave Alred.

Or entrepreneur James Caan, who also spoke at the Pendulum summit, on the success he had when he took an opportunity to reflect on his business mistakes before refocusing on what he was truly good at — recruitment.

Caan, who is now a CBE, was a Pakistani immigrant when he arrived in the UK as a young child. He grew up in London’s East End, left school at 16 before going on to become a millionaire through his entrepreneurial activities.

It was hard not to be encouraged by his level of self-awareness. Caan spoke about his repeated business failures on his journey towards an estimated net worth of £95m.

The Dragons’ Den star explained that after early success in business, he had to learn very quickly what he wasn’t good at and then re-orient himself back towards ultimate success based on an acceptance of his failings and the commensurate lessons learned.

That level of honesty continued in the on-stage conversation with headline act Richard Branson. In a conversational style, the billionaire refused to be drawn into explaining his success through a magic pill type story or epiphany moment.

Branson appeared authentic in explaining his success was driven not by 20-hour working days.

Rather, he insisted his achievements (and his amazing work life balance) has been generated primarily by taking each of his ventures to the point where they didn’t need him at all, as fast as possible.

He took on every project in the same way, sourcing equity and then hiring people who were better in the business than he was before then having the discipline to ‘let them get on with it’.

His key message was that while you do not build a business without hard organisational science, all of the much needed organisational design and operating model work in the world is pointless unless you put the coaching and development structures in place to empower the people around you.

The highlight of the summit came in the form of the on-stage conversation between the unequivocally successful Dr Bob Rotella and Paul O’Connell which was facilitated by Gary Keegan.

The conversational balance between O’Connell’s reflections and Rotella’s insights into his work as an applied sports psychologist with golfers such as Darren Clarke and Pádraig Harrington was fascinating.

It would do them a disservice to summarise their thoughts but the common theme appeared to be unrestrained self-belief, but with an awareness around the opportunities for further self-improvement.

Rotella’s key insight was that people generally tend to become the person they really and truly perceive themselves to be.

January is indeed an easy month to be cynical but it’s also a great time to sharpen the saw.

Conor McCarthy is a senior manager with EY’s People Advisory Team, lectures in UCC’s Department of Applied Psychology, and co-founded the Kaizen Performance consultancy.

Email: conor.mccarthy1@ie.ey.com

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