MyPeople Meets is a series of articles featuring influential business people embracing workplace change. Uncovering their unique experiences, industry insights, what motivates them, why they do what they do and their views on team trust. This month we meet Cam Spencer, with a strong belief in the connection and transference of lessons from the sporting arena to the boardroom, Cam is on a mission to help teams nurture environments to change the world.
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Tell us a bit about who you are and what you do…
I’m a father of three beautiful children and a husband to my rock, my wife. A novice chef, lover of the oceans and an obsessed Australian sports fan. I often say I lead three lives, none of which are ever in balance, but then again, what is balance? I call it life. First and foremost, I lead a family life which truly matters most to me; secondly, I gain great energy from being a rugby union coach, helping teams and players reach their aligned aspirations; and thirdly, I have a working life where I have been involved in the performance development of teams and organisations through enhancing a learning culture, evolving the people systems and supporting the continuous development of leaders, to nurture their own performance environments. Essentially, I love helping organisations and teams adapt and lift the way they perform so that they can create the greatest impact possible.
As a Senior People Leader and Community Rugby Union Coach, do you think there is a correlation between the sporting arena and the boardroom, and are there key lessons that you think are transferable?
I am a big believer in loose connections and the power of teams, and the transference of lessons from the sporting pitch to boardroom is a classic. Just about everything you can observe from an elite sporting team performing at the highest levels, can be transferred into the corporate environment.
Sports have embraced the science of performance for years, even decades, and so many aspects of high performance correlate directly to the high performing corporate teams and organisations.
High performance is a mindset. High performing teams and elite athletes all possess a desire to continuously improve, grow, learn, and adapt faster and more efficiently, so that they can outperform their opponents. The greatest teams and athletes are the ones that are driven by something greater and more powerful than a trophy or a title. They are driven by the opportunity to make a difference, create impact and change the world. They don’t focus on the goal, they focus on the performance that will give them the outcome they aim for.
There are so many similarities, imagine what the world would look like if corporate teams aimed for something bigger than a numerical target.
One of the biggest challenges is when the corporate world wants to replicate the elite sporting world in terms of its approach to performance development. The nature of sport means there are generally long cycles between performance moments, such as World Cups or even weekly matches during a season. This cycle means there are structured moments to train and develop. A Premiership Rugby team will train 4-5 days in a week for an 80 minute match. The corporate world can’t meet that ratio of training time to working time.
However, what can be replicated is the approach to performance development, coaching, emphasis on culture and mindset, learning in the moment as well as the way in which teams embed micro learning moments into the performance. For example, there are breaks in play during a football match where the players can converse and share what they are seeing in terms of opportunities, and form a plan to try to break through the defence. When the corporate world can see the opportunities to stop partitioning learning from the world of work, and embed learning moments into the way of work, then imagine the immediate gains in performance.
Coaching is one of the most crucial factors in developing, sustaining, and increasing performance. In your opinion, what does it take to be an effective coach, on and off the pitch?
To start with, coaching is not about you as the coach. It can’t be made simpler than that. Athletes can be selfish and in some respects, they have to be, particularly in relation to their clear aspirations and goals, but an effective coach is selfless. It’s all about service. Good coaches can empower players to achieve their potential. Great coaches are the ones who have the ability to get the most out of the uniqueness and extraordinary talents and traits that exist across the diverse team. They leverage the superpowers of all team members toward an aligned purpose.
Of course, there are skills like listening and questioning, but a great coach is someone who does that and more, on and off the pitch, at the time when it is needed most. They also know how to create a safe stumbling space, where team members can learn safely under pressure, make mistakes, and be thrown into the deep end.
They are there in the good times but create true value in the challenging times. So presence and availability are two key elements to being a great coach.
In an interview featuring Sir Clive Woodward, he was quoted saying “the biggest thing that helped me coach was the 18 years’ experience I had in business,”. Coaching a team and heading up a business require the same leadership traits, “the key is not the team, but the dynamics between the individuals within it”. Do you agree and have you had similar experiences?
Teams are complex because they are made up of humans. There is no system more complex to understand than the human operating system. The teams that I have experienced that perform at the highest of levels when under extreme pressure are also the ones that are continuously investing in the development and strengthening of both the dynamics and the mechanics. The mechanics are processes and systems that enable the team to do what it does. The dynamics are the trusting relationships that exist and count when it matters. A team that can learn and adapt faster than its threats, whether on the sporting pitch or in the corporate environment, is often the one who outperforms others and sometimes end up leaving some form of legacy by setting the new standards.
I’ve witnessed an environment where great investment had been made in the mechanics and very little into the dynamics. Layers and layers of process and bureaucracy, rules and regulations, which all created an environment where there were no relationships, no trust, and significant fear and disengagement.
There needs to be a balance but I would say that when a common purpose has been identified, something that would align everyone in the organisation, then effort can be made into ensuring the right dynamics are then nurtured, with the support of the appropriate mechanics that will help the team members drive toward their aspirations.
The exciting opportunity I see emerging now is the power of diverse teams. When you can harness the unique superpowers of every individual in a team and leverage the superpowers of others around them greatness could ensue. Thankfully, gone are the days where we want everyone to fit the mould. Be you. Be unique and create the coaching challenge for the leader.
How do you build trust in your team relationships – what is the critical factor?
There’s no simple answer to this, and as a former colleague of mine often said, “You can’t just go to the supermarket and buy some trust.” To build trust in competence we need have opportunities to show what we are capable of. When we can do something under pressure, when it really matters, we can then call that a skill. That’s trust in competence. However, trust in character is a different ball game. It takes time, effort, honesty and a willingness to be vulnerable.
Moments where I have seen trust built are those moments when someone was under significant pressure, and then experienced that someone else had their back. They were supported, no matter what. A team that has an environment of selflessness is one where trust builds and strengthens. When you feel isolated, there is no trust. Sometimes the level of trust that is built goes beyond the performance environment, and into the realm of life.
After 20 years of working with individuals and teams in various operating environments to maximise performance, do you think culture is the most important ingredient for a winning formula in any business?
We’ve all heard that saying “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” I’ve never seen an organisation that has a flawless strategy, or a team with an unbeatable plan. There’s always something that changes and requires the plan to change. I define culture as the way stuff gets done. If the culture is rigid and not adaptable, then the plan will break. However, a team without a plan may never achieve its desires and aspirations. A plan also helps team members understand how they are going to get to where they aim to go.
I would say the most important ingredients are; having a common purpose, autonomy & empowerment, shared awareness and trust. If you have all of these ingredients, nurtured by leaders, then you have a great environment in which high performance can be achieved.
I guess the other important factor is what’s meant by winning? Is it reaching a goal, target, objective, achieve the mission, or is it creating everlasting social change through the impact of the work that is done. What’s most standout in high performing teams is the high performance mindset – the attitude and drive to perform at the highest possible levels. The results are the outcomes of the performance.
An organisations structure is only as good as the people operating within it and how well they’re matched to their jobs. Is it important to monitor employee abilities to be sure there is still a good fit with responsibilities?
A mentor of mine speaks often about understanding the team profile. When you know the strengths and capabilities of the team members, you can then define the collective team strengths. When you can leverage individuals and collective strengths and nullify any weaknesses then “amazing” can be achieved.
The old way of doing things was for an organisation to define an Organisation Chart with a competency framework to match. Imagine what could be achieved if we had people who had superpowers beyond the box they are expected to fit into, and the sense of belonging and autonomy achieved, when they create more impact than was expected of them.
I’ve heard another very highly regarded international rugby coach talk about ensuring that players in the squad meet the standards and expectations, and perform somewhere between 70-80% most of the time. However, there might one or two players who have an “X factor” and bring something to the team that just can’t be harnessed and better that there’s freedom for them to be unleashed. When they perform above 90% when it truly matters the entire team lifts.
Imagine if we had a corporate environment where every team member was able to execute with their own superpowers and leverage the superpowers of others around them. Provided they were all aligned to the common purpose, who needs a box to fit in?
If we have an environment where the players (co-workers) are continuously developing, it’s also hard to see them in a box of responsibilities. It’s not very motivating either. If we can have an environment where we want everyone to have that high performance mindset with continuous performance development, then we need to have the systems to be able to adapt and evolve so that we don’t stifle the team members. Structures are often rigid, where systems can adapt.
I’m excited about the work happening with organisations experimenting with being more networked organisation or with autonomous teams. This breaks the constraints of the old ways of work and could allow for freedom to respond at a greater rate when opportunities present themselves.
How do you ensure a Talent strategy is aligned with an organisation’s objectives and priorities?
Continuous conversations that ensure there is alignment. As I have already mentioned, a common purpose and shared awareness are two key ingredients. What’s important is that the conversations need to be as future oriented as possible. We all know it takes time to develop talent, whether through acquisition or through development. There is no immediate plug for a gap.
What we also know is that organisations that develop and nurture their talent from within, also create a strong sense of belonging. We know that people will move and shift across multiple sectors and jobs throughout their careers, so a talent strategy needs to have multiple modes of developing the people capability, and be fast moving and adaptable. A rigid and time consuming approach to talent will not meet the time sensitive nature of high performing environments.
Whatever the talent strategy looks like for an organisation, it must be seamlessly connected to be the business strategy, so they are one. This also means the way in which talent is developed needs to be just as adaptable, timely and impactful as the business operating model.
As more organisations focus on return on investment, it has never been more important to create an effective development and learning strategy. What are the key pointers to developing a learning strategy where organisational, functional and an individual’s learning goals are aligned for the good of the organisation?
What’s for the good of the common purpose of the organisation will be good for the organisation. Plenty of organisations have complex, all encompassing learning strategies and they work. They are also very expensive. Why is learning so expensive when it’s a fundamental human trait to be curious to adapt and evolve?
The old way is that we grow up learning through school and academic institutions and then enter the corporate world where they teach us how to be corporate. I firmly believe organisations should focus on developing the dynamics and allow access to the skills development content when it is needed. Make it readily accessible and relevant.
If there were two investments I would make… there is always a good return when investment is made into the abilities of leaders to coach. If leaders at all levels can nurture their teams and performance environments, and take an active role in developing others, then collective gain will be made. Secondly, develop teams to work to their highest levels of performance. Team development is not about playing paintball for a day (albeit great fun and highly beneficial taking people out of their comfort zone – a second important belief of mine), rather it’s about continuous development on a daily, weekly, monthly and annual basis. It never stops. It’s in every moment. If you can combine leaders as coaches and continuous team performance development, you will have a simple and effective form of organisational development.
Importantly, we need to have blended and balanced learning environments, where everyone can access content when they need it. Let’s not forget that often the first resource we turn to when we don’t know something is a peer. So developing a learning environment where everyone can learn from all sources at anytime is the ideal.
In terms of ROI, it’s essential. What is fascinating is the connection between investment and impact. If we can find ways to define the desired business or team impact and then clearly identify the actions needed to create that impact then we are part of the way there.
What measures can you take to ensure successful implementation of this strategy?
Having alignment at the senior leadership level is important, but the data and people analytics to back it up is essential. I would also ensure the strategy is dynamically adaptable to the changing needs of the environment. And finally, it needs to be relevant to the learners. Having their involvement in the co-creation of the strategy is a great way to ensure relevance.
Finally, having the mechanisms to regularly capture, unpack and analyse the people and performance data is essential. This also allows for rapid adaptability if needed. You never know when the next crisis might occur.
What advice would you give to people researching the different training resources currently available, such as e-learning, classroom learning, and coaching?
Explore and go wild and don’t get fixated on an off the shelf solution or implement what Google does. Great companies like Google invest a significant amount into people analytics to deeply understand what matters most to them before they get anywhere near making a decision on learning content and platforms. They don’t make off the cuff decisions.
There are so many exciting developments in the world of learning, and the rate of change of technology and platforms enable an incredible learning environment. Take for example AR, VR and AI. It’s incredible! Who really knows where these platforms will take us in the future, but why not explore them as something that could enhance your performance.
Importantly, understand your environment, and what contributes to your high performance and the move toward achieving the agreed common purpose. Then, and only once you’ve identified the performance gaps and the learner needs have been deeply analysed, should you explore and create multiple solutions that will be able to evolve and adapt as quickly as the people need to.
The world took a rapid shift to eLearning or digital learning environments over the last six months, despite the digital learning sector rapidly growing over the past 10 years. However, I would urge organisations to carefully consider whether 100% content accessed digitally is the best way forward. Humans are social and can be very tribal & crave connections. This poses a great opportunity for people to rethink how they best utilise the built environment to foster a sense of belonging and deepen personal connections.
Does the future of learning have a changing perspective for L&D Leaders?
Definitely. The nature of the way learning happens is constantly evolving. So in some respects, it’s very difficult to determine what the future looks like. What’s important is that the way learning happens is aligned, adaptable, accessible, relevant and learner led. What does that mean in terms of the role of the L&D Leaders? I guess it is has now been shown what a force multiplier the learning leaders have on organisational performance and the way in which an organisation can dynamically adapt to a rapidly changing environment.
If the approach and culture of learning is effective in an organisation, the performance shifts upwards. What we have also seen is that while the learning team learns and adapts, the organisation continues to learn and adapt. When the learning environment stands still, the organisational performance may be slowed. Therefore, the learning leaders need to continuously learn, ensure alignment to the bigger picture and deeply understand the people analytics that present the internal picture.
I would also say that speed and the ability to rapidly shift and adjust is essential for learning leaders. Have a deep look at the processes, policies, systems and see where they impeded the ability for teams and people to perform at a dynamic and rapid rate.
Following the recent pandemic, how are you reflecting on the new world of work?
To me it’s an incredible opportunity to “blow up” the archaic and constraining old ways of work. The bureaucracy and process that were previously created to support rigid organisational structures and hierarchical ways of working, to a more dynamic and adaptable environment away from rigid structures and frameworks to continuous loops of performance development. It’s exciting.
There’s so much scope for evolving and adapting to a new way of working that may have never presented itself previously. Not every organisation will be able to or even want to adopt a working from home approach, but at least every organisation has now had the opportunity to consider whether or not it’s right for them and maybe experiment with the idea.
No one person is the same and we are all superheroes in our own way, it’s our extraordinary abilities and attributes that make us all unique. What are your superpowers and how do you leverage the superpowers of others?
I sometimes see the best way to help people identify their own superpowers is by helping them dive into the deep end, feel stretched and way outside of their comfort zone, while feeling safe, curious and excited. I find fulfilment when I see people and teams progress and to me, success comes in the performance development, not the trophy, title or hitting of the sales target.
What would be your next dream career move?
Coaching teams to change the world… all the while barefoot and in board shorts resetting my internal operating system, with saltwater sea air and re-grounding myself with the sand between my toes.
Get in touch to let us know your workplace interventions and how you build TRUST in your teams!