The reluctance of Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson or Australian cricket captain Steve Waugh to comment on individual performances does not make for interesting television viewing. It leaves you in no doubt, however, that even in teams stacked with world class players, teamwork is still seen as the overriding requirement of success.

Gary Wainwright, Midlands regional manager at Zurich – which won General Insurer of the Year at the Insurance Industry Awards 2000 and the British Insurance Awards 2001– says a successful team needs challenging, but realistic goals.

“At Zurich, most of our recent success has been due to the formation of trading teams. Each team is made up of individuals who complement each other to provide the necessary blend of sales, technical and process expertise.

“We have also been successful in encouraging teamwork and individual responsibility for performance by linking bonuses both to team targets and individual goals.”

John Sims, Chubb personal lines manager for UK & Ireland – Personal Lines Insurer of The Year at the Insurance Industry Awards 2000 – traces the success of Chubb's Masterpiece product since its launch in 1996 back to excellent teamwork.

Sims says Chubb's success has been built on its strengths. “One of the reasons I joined Chubb was because it did not dabble or try to do everything. It identified where it had a particular strength – for example, the high net worth personal lines market – and then rigorously pursued it.”

Play to your strengths
It is the same strategy as in sport – an outstanding feature of both Manchester United and Australia is that they play to their strengths. Both are full of attacking players so they play in that manner.

This is also evident on an individual level. David Beckham spends hours practising and honing his right foot in order to wreak havoc with crosses and free kicks. Shane Warne develops his ability to spin the ball by perfecting an array of deliveries to cause England to collapse again and again.

Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton have recently highlighted the need for businesses and individuals to develop and play to their strengths in their book “Now, discover your strengths”.

Their research demonstrates that companies actively seeking to encourage and develop the unique strengths of each employee are typically more productive and have a happier workforce than those whose strategy is based on eliminating weakness.

Wainwright says: “We picked the leaders of our trading teams carefully, choosing those who could instil vision and give direction and, most importantly, were good communicators. Other skills are equally valuable – such as technical knowledge – and again, we have sought to exploit their talents, but in different ways.”

Buckingham and Clifton do not argue that weaknesses should be forgotten, just that strengths should be maximised, naming Tiger Woods as the prime example.

In 1998, Tiger identified his bunker play as a weakness and spent considerable time with his coach Butch Harmon correcting it. Once he had improved his bunker play to an acceptable level, he returned to concentrate on his greatest strength, his swing.

Playing in the zone
As all golf watchers know, another of Tiger's weapons is his ability to concentrate and perform at his best under extreme pressure.

Most of us will never have to stand over a million-dollar putt or take a penalty in front of 40 million viewers, but we do have our own pressure moments, whether it is a pitch to an important client, a vital negotiation or a big meeting with the boss.

On some days, we feel self-confident and in “the zone”, seemingly able to cope with everything that is thrown at us.

The sporting champions have capitalised on that – by working on improving their mind sets to enhance their performance. Apparently, the best-read book in the Australian dressing room this summer has been Dr Spencer Johnson's parable about change, “Who moved my cheese?”.

In the Australians' case, the main message of this parable is probably that they should not rest on their laurels and build a self-confident, rather than arrogant, mind set.

Sims also warns of arrogance and points to the benefits of using feedback to build confidence. “The customer feedback on our claims performance is consistently excellent and this gives our brokers the confidence to sell our service to what are often highly demanding and important customers,” he says.

Visiting Fellow of Cranfield University at the Praxis Centre, Nicholas Janni, teaches business leaders some of the techniques used by great sportsmen and women to build self-confidence, get themselves into “the zone” and reach peak performance.

“The secret is to develop an inner awareness. Remember Linford Christie or watch Marion Jones and see how they hone their concentration for the vital ten seconds it takes to run 100 metres.”

The Praxis Centre teaches delegates a range of techniques, including meditation practice and the use of conscious breathing to help create a relaxed focus, although Janni stresses there is no quick fix.

“Building mental strength is no different from building physical strength or increasing skill levels. Learning the right technique is important, but to perfect it you must practice”.

Preparation, practice and perseverance
It is perhaps this last remark which is the most telling. Manchester United, Australia's cricket team and Tiger Woods do have great talent, mental and physical strengths and know the secret of teamwork, but this is underpinned by their determination to continually practice and prepare.

Success may have come quickly to Tiger Woods, but Sir Alex Ferguson had to persevere for six and a half years before he won is first league title with Manchester United.

As the American football coach Tom Landry said: “Winning is not a sometime thing, it's an all-time thing. You don't win once in a while, you don't do things right once in a while, you do them right all the time”.

  • Neil Park will be providing both soft skills and technical insurance training from October 2001. For more information, email: Npark49049@aol.com.