Tom Richmond: Winning team’s lessons for a PM with a mountain to climb

Dave Brailsford
Dave Brailsford
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IF David Cameron is to win over sufficient sceptics ahead of next year’s election, he should draw some inspiration from Sir Dave Brailsford – the mastermind behind the British cycling revolution and back-to-back successes in the Tour de France.

The reason is this. Cameron’s challenge is comparable to the journey undertaken by Brailsford who not only helped cycling come to terms with 
past drugs scandals, but also turned Britain’s riders into a team of unstoppable world-beaters.

Cycling’s mastermind has transformed his sport’s reputation ahead of the Tour de France’s Grand Départ in Yorkshire in six months time because of his astute man-management and unshakeable faith in his convictions, two traits not readily associated with a PM who is struggling to make electoral progress in this area’s key seats – the M62 marginals – in spite of a resurgent economy.

However, given the public’s continuing misgivings about Ed Miliband, Cameron can still revive his fortunes if he concentrates on the delivery of effective policies rather than giving the impression of being a one-man government riding a bicycle with a punctured wheel. He needs to become a winner – like Brailsford.

Take cycling’s doping scandals and the poisonous legacy of Lance Armstrong and others. Rather than dodging questions, Team Sky encouraged the talismanic Sir Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome and others to welcome such scrutiny. Contrast this with Cameron who does himself no favours at Prime Minister’s Questions when he ducks and dives before reeling off some statistics and undiplomatic insults. Brailsford, who completed his MBA at the University of Sheffield, has adopted a zero tolerance approach to drugs. A courageous move, he has shown that cyclists can win without chemical assistance and was not afraid to say so.

Then there is the issue of respect. Like it or not, many contend that the Tory leader is arrogant and aloof. This is not so with Team Sky where the riders’ support staff are now known as “carers” rather than “soigneurs”. The reason? The latter were previously the suppliers and carriers of doping products and Brailsford wanted to get across this message: “We employ you to care for the riders. Nothing more.”

Reading the insightful book Inside Team Sky by David Walsh, the award-winning journalist who exposed Armstrong’s cheating and contempt for his sport, this mantra extended to the relationship of Brailsford and his senior colleagues. Under no circumstances, as Froome struggled to gain ascendancy in the 2013 Tour, were staff allowed to complain about others. And Brailsford’s faith in them was unflinching: “I am just the conductor of this orchestra, you are the guys who play the instruments and you were hand-picked for this job because you are the best at what you do.”

If only the same could be said about Cameron and his relationship with his Cabinet ministers – Tory and Lib Dem alike. Discipline would be such that Business Secretary Vince Cable would not be able to provide a running commentary on the coalition’s failings, or make unhelpful comparisons between Cameron and Enoch Powell on immigration policy.

And then the attention to detail – like steps to address the risk of infection speading through the team and drivers of support vehicles being told to fill up the fuel tanks at the end of each day so time is not wasted the following morning.

Yes, this is common sense, but a failure to do the “basics” is the reason why so many infrastructure or IT projects spiral out of control. Who are the “details people” in Downing Street?

Next the lack of histrionics when Brailsford admitted, privately, that he had come to the 2013 Tour de France “without a team” as Team Sky were hit by a series of setbacks on the road, including a serious pelvic injury to Geraint Thomas, a double Olympic champion on the track alongside Yorkshire’s Ed Clancy.

There was no panic as a subdued team worked out how to get Froome’s yellow jersey quest back on the road, another contrast with Downing Street’s ponderous response to the recent floods.

The bond within the team is such that Thomas is prepared to risk his career and complete an epic journey to Paris. Adversity brought out the best in him, a lesson to those politicians – and England cricketers and footballers for that matter – who have been guilty of shirking a challenge. His determination stemmed from his belief in Brailsford’s brilliance.

And then there is the “rest day” when Brailsford hits the road for two hours of gentle exercise with Froome and Team Sky’s other surviving riders. Worried his team is in disarray, the riders drop back to him and start talking frankly about their difficulties. He knows what he has to put right. As PM, Cameron cannot expect to solve his government’s difficulties unless he has a better understanding of its faults – whether that be under-performing Ministers or the inflexibile leadership of a Civil Service stuck in the past.

Yet perhaps the greatest lesson that Cameron and George Osborne, a regular presence at the velodrome during the London Olympics, can learn from cycling is this observation that was made by Brailsford’s performance manager Rod Ellingworth.

He noted how young cyclists could become guaranteed members of the Great Britain team if they hit certain performance targets. He was dismayed and changed the sport’s mentality so aspiring riders were judged on their future potential as Olympic and world champions. In short, they had the vision – and ambition – to turn Britain into an unstoppable cycling force.

The evidence is plain to see – Welcome to Yorkshire exploiting the sport’s success and popularity and persuading the Tour de France to 
bring this year’s Grand Départ to Yorkshire.

Compare and contrast with David Cameron. Even though he has won the economic argument over Labour and is delivering radical reform to the welfare state to make work pay, his image problem is still stopping the Tories from becoming a party of winners.

Unlike cycling, he has still to confront, once and for all, the party’s image problem in these parts – and the inconsistencies in the PM’s approach.

As the 2015 election draws nearer, perhaps he should take heed of this rallying cry by Sir Dave Brailsford to Team Sky during last year’s Tour: “It is not easy when other teams give us some s**t, as they have been doing. You can go one way or another; you can let it really bother you and crumble, or you can come out fighting. And you pull together and we stick together and look after each other... and show them what we’re made of.”

It worked. Chris Froome did win the Tour. Now just imagine if Cameron worked with his team and adopted this approach to EU membership, immigration, NHS funding, welfare reform and his neglected Big Society vision. At least Britain would know where it stood.

Manifesto for teamwork

TEAM Sky’s rulebook includes:

We will respect one another and watch each other’s backs.

We will be on time.

We will give 15 per cent of all race bonuses and prize money to staff.

We will speak English if we are in a group.

We will not use our phones at dinner.

We will follow the RULES.