Chris Boardman MBE, Olympic gold medal cyclist and founder of Boardman Bikes, took time out of his busy schedule for an exclusive interview as part of our NMP Live Meets... series. Chris talks about the parallels between sport and business, winning a gold medal, as well as what you can expect from one of his talks. Watch the full interview or read the transcript below.
In conversation with Chris Boardman MBE
Where did your hunger for competitive sport come from?
Ultimately the difference between the very best and the also-rans is that the very best need it, as opposed to the people who enjoy their sport and love it, who want it. When it really comes down to the death, that can be the deciding factor.
I wasn’t bullied at school, as I mentioned previously, but I didn’t have a great time. I left with quite low self-esteem, low self-confidence; I was academically ordinary at best; sports-wise ordinary; everything was ordinary. And so from sport I got some self-worth; everything was vested in the sport, so it was very important to me, and it made me dig that bit deeper than a lot of other people. That, I think, is very common to top performers. If you actually look in their background, at their childhood, you will often see that it’s not necessarily traumatic, but something occurred that means they need it more than the other person.
What was your experience of the Olympics in ’92?
From the outside looking in, you probably had a better perspective of what happened in ’92 than you did on the inside. For me, I was trying to win a bike race and everything was focussed on that, and I didn’t really consider the history of the event, or the magnitude of the event or at least I tried not to. I tried to focus on what I could control; the bits of it that were about going faster, and the result is whatever it is when you finish and look back at the result board, only afterwards really did I fully start to absorb it.
Months afterwards, the magnitude of what this meant sunk in; the first cycling Gold medal in seventy-two years. And it unlocked a lot of funding, so the Manchester Velodrome – which became the home of British Cycling, dubbed the medal factory – was pretty much signed off on the back of that event back in 1992. You don’t realise the ripple effect of a single event.
What are the parallels between sport and business?
The parallels between sport and business are enormous because, fundamentally, they both involve human beings – human beings with very basic instincts of fight or flight, for example, or fear of failure – and so they are all the same things that you have got to deal with.
If you can create a fascination with the journey and with the process of being better – as opposed to being the best – then you’re in a much healthier place. You are more likely to get the best result because you focus on the things that are going to make a difference, and ultimately will lead to your being the best. So, again, it is subtle psychology; but a focus on the journey, rather than the destination, gets much better results.
How did it feel to win Olympic Gold?
To win an Olympic Gold medal is sort of like the ultimate accolade in sport. In cycling, the Tour de France is by far the biggest event, and it’s biggest from a professional point of view – it means more, financially, than an Olympic Gold medal – but from sporting terms, you can go anywhere on the planet and say that you have an Olympic Gold Medal, and people know what that means; it’s a common currency that everybody understands how important it is. To join that club was phenomenal for somebody who wasn’t a high achiever, and it made me believe I could achieve what I set out to achieve.
How did your partnership with Lotus and the revolutionary new bike come about?
The Lotus experience was fundamental in many ways, probably more in-depth than people realise, because we had an inventor, Mike Burrows, who produced almost all of the Lotus bike. It was Burrows’ wind cheater machine, and he took it to a local friend who worked at Lotus and said, “we could get this into the Olympic Games; this would look fantastic with Lotus all over it”. Lotus got involved, they came to me, we went to a wind tunnel to prove a concept, and we measured the difference between a standard bike and the Lotus bike. The Lotus bike was clearly better!
More importantly than that, in the background, was an aerodynamicist who came along, by the name of Richard Hill. He knew nothing about cycling, which was a huge benefit, because he experimented with my riding position, and said, “move like this, move like that”. We watched and we measured the difference in drag, and how much faster I could go. With Richard was his friend, who was a cyclist from Lotus, who said, “you can’t ask him to do that!”, and Richard said, “well, why not?”, because he wasn’t constrained by the history of the sport, he was just looking the demands of the event. It was an early lesson that was so important to everything that came afterwards; the importance of bringing in and mixing expertise and ignorance to get the best results. Find some people who don’t know what you can’t do and invite them in to the room!
What advice can you give businesses looking to innovate?
You have got to be prepared to fail. I mean, people bandy around the word ‘innovate’, but what innovate actually means is quite big. What most people mean is that they want to develop. It’s an important distinction, because if you want to innovate – if you want to genuinely do things differently – you have to be prepared to take risks; and risk means you also have to be prepared to fail. So, you need to know how much you are prepared to fail, and how you are going to measure success, so you just have to get the set up right.
The mix of the team is essential if you genuinely want to innovate. You have to ask people who don’t know about your business, because those people bring something different. It was Einstein who said, “never ask an expert to innovate”; because they know what you can’t do; and that’s the same no matter what the topic is that you’re trying to address.
What was your experience leading the R&D team at the Beijing Olympics?
Leading the R&D team for the British team – the Secret Squirrel Club, as it came to be known – was the most fantastic and probably unique experience that a technically-minded individual can have. You are actually given a budget, and at the end of four years of experimentation, and hundreds of thousands of pounds, you have no responsibility to come up with a commercially-viable product – which is an incredible privilege. We just have to improve performance, and that was it. We were given free reign on how we did that. But by doing so, by having that freedom, we found things that would be commercially-viable. And there is a lesson in there for business; if you create a fund, and a department, and you’re not all over them for results in a few weeks, or months; if you let them go and explore, they’ll almost certainly spit out something that is new and innovative, and commercially-viable.
How did the Boardman bicycle company come about?
What I enjoy most is making things. So that could be an article, it could be something out of wood, it can be a bicycle, I just love making things. But it also extends to a coach-development program, whatever it might be, I love making things.
So, the bicycle company came along, and it was the right people – myself and Alan Ingarfield – the right time in cycling, and the right place; where Halfords needed some high-end bikes to help them move the store to a different place. So, all those three things came together beautifully and we sold our first bike in 2007. We had a great product at a fantastic price, and it was available at just the right time for when the Tour de France came to London. It was just one of those occasions really, and for me it wasn’t about a business. It was about making things; seeing what the competition was; understanding what winning means – be it margins or whatever it might be – and understanding the rules and going out there and making something that would beat the competition.
I don’t really think of things as business or sports; it’s just being the best at whatever it is that you happen to be doing.
What’s the most important take away message from your talks?
I think it is difficult to pinpoint a single thing to take out from a speech. I possibly go for two. I think, ultimately, it’s to realise that you can only do the best that you can do, and it doesn’t matter the scale of it; the decisions that you’re making – it could be millions of dollars or saving lives – you can only make the best decision that you can.
And the second, would be that attitude is a choice; it’s not pressed upon you. What you have to achieve may not necessarily be within your gift, or suited to the environment you are in, but the attitude with which you choose to deal with it is utterly down to you.
What can a client expect from one of your talks?
Well I take on a very limited number of talks, and I know what I can do well, and I don’t sell my product, for want of a better expression, to clients. I let clients know what I do and see if it is right for them. And that’s really important to me that we talk beforehand; that they understand that my talk is about innovation – creating an innovation culture, high-performance teams and ways to get personal excellence. And if after talking to me they understand that that’s the product, and I tell them how it will work, then we all go in to the room knowing what is going to happen, and they’re invariably happy.
I hope what they get from me is genuine and honest, and that they will know before they get in the room that it’s going to be the right product.
How do you like the audience to feel at the end of your speech?
When finished talking I hope people leave the room feeling like they’ve learned something new, that they’ve had some fun, and they’ve got something they can take away and implement in the rest of their life; and from that I think I’d be happy – I’d go home happy with that.
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