Olympian Roger Black: Gambling, insanity & goal setting

The star-struck, twenty-something lady next to me was beside herself, having apparently won an [almost] fist fight with her boss to attend the launch, listen to and, I suspect, avidly watch, the medallist, motivational speaker and ex-medical student, Roger Black MBE.

The accomplished athlete, who has won more than 15 Championship medals, was at the event to share his stories, struggles and his strategies for sporting – and business – success. It was a breakfast event and I am a cynic so I wasn’t sure what insights the track legend turned management and leadership guru was going to offer me in real terms – what did he really know about the challenges of running an SME and was it too early in the morning for me to take it all in?

As it turned out, he was fascinating, funny and, on occasions, refreshingly honest. I don’t think any of the businesses in the room could have failed to have taken at least a few top tips from Black and usefully apply them to their business growth strategies. For me, these were Black’s five key lessons:

1. A fear of failure is not enough: Having a fear of failure is a brilliant motivator but it’s not enough. You have to have a high need to achieve and some, but not too much, fear of failure. Find out what really motivates you. As Black said, when he was deciding whether or not to leave medical school to take up sport professionally, he was asked: “Do you want to enter a stadium and have 10,000 women screaming your name?” As a young man, he apparently found this quite a motivating factor!

2. Seek out synergy: Finding the right person to take the journey with is vital. According to Roger, the single greatest asset we have is the people we choose to share our professional journey with. Finding a person with the same goals and that has a synergy with our approach can mean that 1+1 doesn’t always equal two. Black’s long term training partner was Kriss Akabusi and Black credits much of his performance to this productive relationship noting if he hadn’t had Kriss, he believed he “wouldn’t have achieved half of what I did”.

3. Goal-setting can change your life: Throughout Black’s career he says there has always been one constant, he has always had a clear picture of his long term goal(s). However, ten months before the Atlanta Olympic Games, a conversation about goal setting “changed his life” and set him on the path to his Olympic medal. Black noted that he’d always been good at goal setting, however, he hadn’t considered just having one goal on and off the track, and being able to identify it – to run his perfect race – enabled him to focus, visualise and create a “wave of productivity” that took him all the way to his silver medal success.

4. Gamble: Have the courage to take risks and even change winning formulas. Using the 1991 British 4x400m Relay Team’s stunning Olympic Gold performance as his example, he explained how the team decided to change the recognised foundation winning formula of putting the fastest man in to run last. Calling an emergency meeting with their managers the night before the Games, the team outlined their plans. One manager heart-warmingly said: “In the end you are the four that are going out there and we will be sitting in the stands watching. If you believe in each other, who are we to stop you?” Another manager said: “On your heads be it!” Luckily the gamble paid off and Black counts this as his second greatest achievement, after his Olympic Silver in Atlanta.

5. Sustain performance: If you’ve got a talent for something, it’s easy to succeed once, but it’s sustained performance that will earn you respect and make you a permanent high achiever. Black talked about his “period of insanity” in the run up to the Atlanta Olympic Games and his struggles to get back to form after injuries and operations. He spoke of the Olympics consuming him and how it was a combination of influences that enabled him to continue to perform. Black spoke of his sporting heros telling us that Daley Thompson taught him to love and savour his sport, Sebastian Coe taught him to take it seriously and Kelly Holmes inspired him with her personal fight against adversity.

Black said, as he has fairly recently begun his business, he identified with the entrepreneurs gathered in room and was excited about what the University of Derby Let’s Do Business programme, that offers a wide range of free business support to SMEs and pre-start businesses in Derby, could achieve. In fact, in the first two weeks more than 50 SMEs have already signed up and in less than two weeks the free business support begins, and will be on offer until April 2015 – so if you’re based in Derbyshire and are an SME or you’re thinking about setting up a business, then surely it’s worth finding out more?

Now a 47 year old father, of seven year old twins, who runs performance development firm BackleyBlack with fellow athlete Steve Backley OBE, Roger Black’s life is full of different types of success and he acknowledges that he has far different work / life balance now. Success is very personal and you have to define success on your terms Black notes. Referring to his Atlanta Olympic Silver and what he believes his greatest sporting achievement and his ‘perfect race’: “It might look like silver to you, but it’s gold to me.”


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