Photo by Graham Watson: grahamwatson.com

The start of the Tour de France seems a good moment to write a post on management technique from one of the influential moments in last year’s Tour. It’s been in my mind since I read David Walsh’s book Inside Team Sky. The moment is during the rest day, after the Sky team had disintegrated on the Stage 9 to Bagneres de Bigorre. The passage in the book, about the Team Sky manager David Brailsford, says a lot about his management style.

Working for the team

Some background first, for non-cycling fans. Cycling is as Brailsford wrote recently, “a team sport in which an individual becomes the ultimate winner”, and this is never more true than on the big mountain stages of a Grand Tour such as the Tour de France. The team leader, especially when they have pretensions to overall victory, should never be left unsupported by team members, except perhaps in the final kilometres of a climb. At a minimum, they do a lot of the work, especially the tactical work of managing the race. At the worst team members will give up their bike or their water bottle if the leader has a problem. A three-week Tour can be won or lost on such things.

And some context. On Stage 8, the first of two mountain stages before the rest day, Sky had been utterly dominant. Chris Froome, Sky’s leader, had won the stage to take the yellow jersey and his lieutenant Richie Porte, who finished second on the stage, had also climbed to second overall in the race. It was one of those days when cycling fans who suspect that Sky has found a new way to circumvent doping controls were out in force in the internet. (Walsh, who hounded Lance Armstrong until the truth came out, is dismissive of such claims).

Falling apart

What a difference a day makes. The next day, another mountain stage in the Pyrenees, an early crash involving Sky’s Peter Kennaugh derailed their plan, and the rest of the team, including Richie Porte, disappeared to the back of the race as the pace started to pick up. Froome was left to ride alone for the best part of 100km. Fortunately for him, the other teams seemed so surprised that they failed to attack him effectively. If the first day was a dominant display of team riding, the second was one of the worst I have seen. Sky also lost one of their team members, who finished the Stage outside of the time limit.

That evening, Brailsford did nothing.Walsh quotes him in the book:

“Our urge as a management team is to want to talk about it, most people cope with stressful situations by talking about it. But in reality it’s not the best thing to do from a rider’s perspective, we tend to leave it.”

The pieces of the jigsaw

In the morning, at the start of the rest day, he and the other coaches went out with the team on their rest day ride, a couple of hours of so.

These are men who who spend their working lives in the saddle and talking frankly while riding comes easier to them than while sitting across a desk. So one by one they drop back and open up, and by the time the ride has ended Brailsford has gathered together the pieces of the jigsaw.

What do you think about the other guys, he asks them, is everybody contributing, do you think?Are you contributing as much as you can? What should change?

By the time of the team meeting before the start of stage the following day, Brailsford has formulated a plan. I’m not going to go into the detail here, which is probably only of interest to cycling geeks (if you are a cycling geek, it’s pages 139-143). But in essence it’s this: some of the team are under-performing because after a week of the race they aren’t at the level they expected to be. Others feel that the team hasn’t helped them take opportunities the race has thrown up. (Even riders who are at the Tour to support a team leader have some ambition).

Contribution and respect

And what Brailsford does is to help the riders who have been below par by shifting their roles so they can feel like they are contributing to the overall team performance; move a rider who’s riding strongly to a tougher role (effectively a promotion); and give a couple of riders permission to pursue their ambitions provided it doesn’t upset Sky’s chances of overall victory. In effect, he helped the people who were worried they weren’t contributing enough to contribute differently, let people who are doing well take on more, and make sure that everyone feels respected.

There are always risks in translating lessons from elite sport into less rarified management situations, if only because the margins between success and failure are so much smaller. But it’s also the case the Brailsford was restricted in ways that other managers aren’t; you can’t draft in new riders half way through the Tour. And since everyone wants to do well at their work, it’s worth just summarising the lessons here:

  • Don’t rush to judgment in the frustration of the moment
  • Listen to what people are saying – and give yourself some thinking time
  • Help people to find ways to contribute as much as they can, and make sure they also feel respected.

The picture at the top of this post, of Quintana attacking Froome on Stage 9, is from Velo News, and is used here with thanks. The picture is by © Graham Watson – more at his website.