5 Business Lessons from Geraint Thomas

Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome

What can you say about the Tour de France that hasn’t already been said? Geraint Thomas’s victory this weekend has stirred the emotions of many at JP Reis where there is cycling in the blood. It is a triumph for talent, perseverance and brutal hard work. It also represents a victory for humility, decency and an integrative approach to negotiation.

“Kids. You will have ups and downs – but believe anything is possible. With hard work it can come off. Thank you very much, and Vive le Tour.”

Geraint Thomas

1. Find the Raw Material

Geraint Thomas is an all-round cyclist, he first came to the attention of the wider public in 2008 by winning gold in the team pursuit in the Beijing Olympic velodrome, a title he defended at London 2012. He rode his first Tour de France way back in 2007 when he was shocked by the speed on the flat, let alone in the mountains. Junior riders are sometimes sent from the back from the peloton to collect their fellow riders’ drink bottles from the team car. When attempting this task, Thomas found it so tough he could only catch up with the pack by throwing the bottles in the ditch.

Spotting talent is a key role for any business. How many cycling teams would look at Thomas, the guy who came 140th out of 141 finishers? Anybody who completes the Tour de France is an amazing athlete. The determination he had displayed to complete it before he was really ready was in Team Sky’s thoughts when they signed him to their first squad to race in 2010.

2. Be a Team Player

Sky’s instincts proved correct when, having broken his pelvis, Thomas rode 20 stages of the 2013 Tour de France in support of the victorious Chris Froome. He took nothing stronger than ibuprofen to manage the pain. Grand Tour winners usually have excellent support from within their team and in Team Sky there are always support riders talented enough to lead their own teams. Geraint Thomas has laid down massive efforts to help Froome to four titles in France and has also helped by being a genuine friend with a laid-back personality.

Team Sky has improved its team building approach since 2012 when the conflicting ambitions of team leader Bradley Wiggins, pretender to the throne Froome and sprinter Mark Cavendish caused drama and conflict despite all three enjoying some success. A Tour de France squad is like a project team. With an established target outcome, you need to recruit people for specific roles based on skill, experience, personality and the shared values that recruiters call “cultural fit”. Selfless all-rounders like Thomas who encourage team cohesion are valuable in any profession.

3. Focus: Lose What You Don’t Need

After 2012, Thomas’s will to focus on the big stage races saw him deliberately lose the muscle that was a key strength in his track cycling, giving him the reduced body weight that he would need to succeed in the high mountains. He also rode fewer of his specialty races, the one-day classics, using them as training for the Grand Tours rather than main targets (although he still won the E3 Harelbeke in 2015).

Sometimes it can be best to retrench to what you are best at but when you enter a new strategic environment, by choice or otherwise, you need to switch your focus to achieve the necessary transformation. Big companies that had done the prep still crashed by failing to make this switch, for example Eastman Kodak, the dominant camera and film company that also invented the digital camera, never committed to it as a core offering and went out of business.

4. Fix Your Weaknesses

Sir David Brailsford runs Team Sky with his famous “incremental gains” approach; a hyper-detailed style of management and talent development. Building on the work of fellow Knight of the Realm, former England Rugby coach, Sir Clive Woodward, the aim is to leave no stone unturned in terms of physical and psychological preparation, tactics, equipment and nutrition. The detail goes as fine as how to wash one’s hand to minimize the chances of falling ill. Sky have changed the way races are ridden and attacks are reeled in.

One of Thomas’s perennial problems was crashing, it has happened on the Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia and it saw him going out of the Rio Olympic Road Race when well-placed for a medal. Sometimes they are impossible to avoid but with critical thinking and race management, it is possible to reduce the risk. Good luck comes to those who work the hardest and in 2018 it was Thomas’s turn, no crashes, no punctures. Companies and individuals need to spend time addressing the things they do worst as the relative gains can outweigh those achieved by improving their core strengths.

5. Go for the Win-Win

We live in a time where win-lose “distributive” negotiation is attempted in the highest stakes diplomatic arenas. In cycling, the political wrangling between team bosses, lead riders and wannabe lead riders is notorious. The difference between politics and cycling is that riders can ignore the negotiations and take action on the road. A classic example came at the 1986 Tour. French legend Bernard Hinault had promised Greg Lemond he would help him win in ‘86 after the American had helped him top the podium in 1985. Instead, Hinault attacked at every opportunity while explaining that he was “softening up Lemond’s competitors for him,” before treacherously claiming “this race isn’t over” after Lemond had generously gifted him Stage 17. Lemond’s quality prevailed though and he went on to win the first of three Tour victories.

This year, Team Sky set off with leader Froome fully expected to win his 5th Tour title. He gained late entry having been cleared of a drug infringement, despite the aforementioned Hinault leading the (unfair) protests against him. Even when Thomas took yellow, it was expected that Froome would storm through to reclaim it on a mountain stage somewhere. As it turned out Thomas won on the iconic Alpe d’Huez and continued to stretch his lead over Froome and Tom Dumoulin, a grand tour winner in his own right. He may even have won the final time trial had it not been for an unnerving skid on a corner.

What is almost as impressive is that team leadership passed so smoothly from Froome to Thomas with Froome happily saying he would support his rival, and being good to his word in the final stages. This amicable coup d’état is an extraordinary achievement that served to raise the stock of both riders. Thomas took his seat at the top table of cycling while the infamously driven Froome, who has singularly failed to capture hearts and minds and entered the race under a dark PR cloud, emerged as the smiling right-hand man who “couldn’t be happier” for his friend. Thomas is held in such high regard that Dumoulin and most of the field seemed equally happy.

I take a win-win, integrative approach to negotiation with clients and collaborators alike. Sometimes I’m frustrated, but decreasingly surprised, when the Hinault’s of the business world break their promises, revert to a win-lose stance or become openly hostile. I’ve been staggered how disingenuously people are prepared to take intellectual property in plain sight and then act like nothing happened. Over all though, the integrative, collaborative, win-win approach works. Our client’s and long-term collaborators trust us and we all enjoy the benefits of the relationships. Good guys don’t always win, no matter how hard they work, but Geraint Thomas has shown us what it looks like when they do and that should stand as an example to us all.

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