The FA’s Pippa Grange: How culture coaching improves performance

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The 'working through' model, storytelling and role-modelling can help improve resilience and performance in sport and business

Culture coaching improves performance on the sports field and in the workplace, according to Pippa Grange, head of people and team development at the Football Association (FA).

The FA hired Grange in 2017 with the task of improving players' resilience in major tournaments, including in the men’s and women’s England football squads during the World Cups. Speaking at Robertson Cooper’s 2019 Good Day at Work Conversation, Grange explained how coaches are the most important people when building or improving culture.

“The first thing to say is the coach in a team is the custodian of the culture – they need to explain why it matters and how it feels,” she said. “They’d ideally specify 'these are the things we care about'.”

Yet a coach or leader can’t impose the culture or values on people; they should inspire them, Grange said. Storytelling is the best way to inspire people, she added: “Coaches that tell you why this is the best way or why they want to do this get the best outcomes.”

The coach’s changing-room talks after games are especially key to culture. “The practice of standing and talking authentically on how you feel, and that you’re proud, and what went well and didn’t go well [is really important],” she said. “If leaders go missing from storytelling that can be really detrimental in moments of high pressure.”

For example, if a leader goes off and does something technical during high-pressure situations it can have a negative impact on the team’s performance, she explained: “If the leader sits in the middle of the orchestra that can be detrimental as people need that guidance. It sounds simple to stand and say what’s happening when people can see what’s happening, but it’s really important.”

The style of the story leaders tell must be authentic, Grange urged, recounting very different styles among coaches she has seen over the years – from extroverted speeches to a coach sitting in the middle of players and asking what they think.

“People won’t respond to inauthenticity or over-glossed dramatics,” she said, adding that if “it’s his or her way then that’s the right way to tell it”.

Role-modelling is also important to inspire teams, Grange continued, pointing out that this doesn’t just mean role-modelling positivity but also role-modelling vulnerability. She recounted one coach she worked with who, after their team suffered a big loss, said to the team he “didn’t know how to lead [them] now. He said ‘all I know is I’m inspired by you but I don’t know how to lead you in this moment’ and I thought that was inspiring”.

Grange went on to explain what she calls the “working through model”. “The working through model describes the emphasis on knowing why you are going after something… the doctors, physios, coaches, ops teams etcetera can all talk about and understand how they’re going to get that thing done. For example, what would they like to personally be more resilient on, or like to see the team be resilient on and how they can achieve that in their worlds.”

Adding that she is known as the “team shrink” at the FA, Grange said her job is to be the “conductor of the orchestra of the thing we’re going after – which is resilience”. “I don’t get to play the trumpet… [but will be] at the back helping people play the notes to get it right.”

It’s “tough work” focusing on the culture piece of a team or organisation, added Grange, given that few will think to prioritise things like employees being “less fatigued”. “So it’s important for the culture coach to keep an eye on what’s beyond – and know that people won’t understand what you’re doing right now.”

While culture is critical to team and organisation performance, resilience is most important, Grange said. “Resilience is the cornerstone piece in a journey that is unpredictable and uncontrollable and involves more luck than people think – on the pitch and in the business world,” she said.

But many don’t understand what resilience really is, Grange explained: “Resilience is not just about bouncing back. Toughness is a block – it’s immovably hard. Resilience is flexible… it’s got give in it. Resilience also is to have moments where you’re on the lower side of OK. Sometimes we get caught in the idea that resilience means always confident, always OK and always brilliant and it’s not.”

Instead resilience involves being able to approach challenges with the right mindset, plan for difficult things and understand the environment, she said.

Grange also dispelled the idea that coming up against adversity will always lead to increased resilience in individuals. “When faced with adversity leaders learn or build resilience from it when they have reflected on what it means, when they’ve been able to understand it, file it and move forward,” she explained. “Adversity of any kind doesn’t necessarily lead to improvement or an improved leader – you need to make sense of it.

“The critical bit of resilience is how you make sense of what happened,” she said, meaning that trauma “in isolation” doesn’t help boost performance.

When asked about research that suggests people who have experienced negative life events go on to succeed, Grange pointed out it doesn’t show whether people had strong relationships that helped them overcome those events. “If we only look at the adversity or tragedy they go through, not what helped them get through it, then you’re not looking at the bigger picture,” she said.

Relationships focused on “care and intimacy” are critical, she continued. She gave the example of the wider team, such as physios, being visible by the pitch during major games. The purpose of this, Grange explained, is to show that everyone is part of the win or defeat. “If you know people are in the trenches with you then there’s a sense of safety in that – a sense of home and belonging,” she said.

One of the challenges of building relationships in national teams is that the 'love hormone' oxytocin means people feel protective of their local teams, and yet players can quickly go from being competitors at a local level to teammates at a national level, Grange said.

“The only thing you can do is elevate their identity – show that the national identity is bigger than their individual identity or area they come from,” she said. “From the oxytocin point of view that can generate quick loyalty – and in terms of wellbeing it’s something they can feel good about.”

Grange also spoke of the importance of psychological wellbeing to performance and explained the psychology behind the famous image of the men’s England World Cup squad playing on inflatable unicorns in a pool during the tournament. “The idea with anything like that… is that you create conditions for someone to have a laugh,” she said. “Allow people to release tension and feel ‘OK, done with that’… and just have a moment where you don’t have to be on show or be perfect or strive to achieve something.”

Grange referred to what she calls “the other 22 hours”. “Your peak performance moments in sport or work are relatively small compared to the rest of the day – if you try to stay in your performance role all the time you will burn out," she said.

This means psychological space is critical, Grange explained. She described this as moments where someone has mental freedom and genuinely switches off. Psychological space is as – or even more – important than the “physical stuff like sleep and exercise,” she said.

Further reading

HR magazine tries... acting techniques for storytelling

The importance of authentic leadership

How to develop your resilience as an HRD

The importance of psychological safety

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