Sunday, November 22, 2009

Careless Whisper

I was prowling about in a shop yesterday lunchtime – a rummage around that included hunting down as-kitsch-as possible Christmas presents for two of my grandchildren; it not only being the start of the customer-bump-and-grind season but with the added rationale that they’d already have every slab of Lego or cuddly toy they could ever wish for.

Items X and Y – registering high on the kitsch-thermometer – were finally selected and, with my customer-barging tolerance levels already stretched to breaking point, it became time to stand patiently and await one’s turn at the till.

The summons forward was ushered in with a cry of, ‘will the next guest step forward, please’.

Oh dear, the hapless being behind the counter has been indoctrinated into the criminal school of bollox-talk – doubtless his / her overlords have decided, by calling us customers ‘guests’, we’ll all feel that much better about the entire shopping experience.

Long, long ago a similar corporate indoctrination was taught (if memory is correct, it emanated from Japan) – primarily in building societies (nowadays banks) and a manner of employee-training-as-propaganda spread mercilessly whereby personnel started to address each other with team-analogies… for example, staff weren’t… errr… staff… nope, they were players. And they didn’t work within a branch office (for example) but… in a team. One didn’t have a boss or a supervisor or a manager…. but a team-leader.

Not only were hapless customers back then forced to come to grips with this new, entirely meaningless, terminology but that entire corporate, quasi-motivational, pop-psycho-babble has bolted like a recently gelded stallion through the open stable door to become prevalent in way too many lives.

Does this make me cross...? No, not particularly since, by and large I either ignore it totally or... find it’s inherent absurdity side-splittingly funny.

And so, besides this weekend’s shopping experience, it was difficult to avoid the recent verbiage uttered from the lips of a bloke who, quite frankly, should know a lot better – the Holy Grailsford.

Who he..? David John Brailsford CBE is – and, its only right and proper to address him by his correct title – British Cycling’s Performance Director and nowadays Team Principal of the fledgling Team Sky.

His (well-deserved) honour was upgraded from the MBE he was awarded after British Track Cycling’s Olympic success in Athens to a CBE in the 2009 New Year’s list following the same teams astounding haul of precious metal in China.

So far, so superb.

And, this weekend, his new Sky-baby is getting ready to divest itself of swaddling clothes at its Madchester home and preparing to fly (or, perhaps… roll… would be the better adjectival word).

And, given that this is a project which has caught the attention of not just British National media but similar around the world, the shaven-headed Companion Of The British Empire (next step arise Sir Dave..?) has been indulging in a few interviews… after all, he’s the team’s head-honcho and… well… who better to outline the inner workings, the team’s aims and aspirations and… all that sort of stuff?

The only problem is, DB (CBE)… has miscued disastrously.

Actually, as this Voltaire on its windswept grassy knoll sees it, he’s scuffed it toward the side-netting rather too many times over the past couple of months; in fact – ever since the much-heralded initial rider-announcement that was completely bodged by entirely school-boy PR in September.

Lets back-track a bit, shall we?

Because, the mis-fires have been occurring with alarming regularity since then – with, for instance, all of the news regarding rider / staff acquisitions emanating from 3rd party resources – as opposed to the mother-source. The most recent example being the disclosure of two (middle-ranking) Italians signing on the dotted being broken by the widely-read Italian sports daily, La Gazzetta Dello Sport and immediately fed out by (arguably the widest read cycling news portal globally) and all across the Twitter network.

Indeed - Sky's own announcement of Sean Yates' recent appointment as one of their Director Sportif's came hours after every other cycling site and news feed had published the information. No understanding of how the media works in the 21st Century - sadly so.

Even more recently has been the heavily rumoured transfer of rising British starlet Ben Swift from the ranks of Katusha to Team Sky… widespread published rumours that have reverberated across Europe fed by angry comments by Katusha’s own head-honcho, Andre Tchmil saying – ‘I think it is very bad that a new team like Sky goes around thinking they can buy up riders who are under contract. I’ll say once and for all, Swift will be part of Team Katusha in 2010. He’s not for sale. I don’t sell my riders’.

Be that as it ultimately may be, its also interesting to note that, with reference to the same story, stated – ‘as we go to press on this the Team Sky press office remains uncontactable… read in to that what you may’.

Then, factor in Wiggo-gate – the will he ride for Sky / won’t he remain with Garmin with regard to Bradley Wiggins – a (presumed contractual) stalemate that’s become as soap-opera a saga and about as annoyingly drawn out as one of East Enders’ ghastly plot-lines on TV.

Whether cycling’s own Weller-Rhys Ifans’ look-a-like does or doesn’t matters not – because, as a sheer PR exercise, Team Sky have played this about as poorly as it gets.

And, that’s simply been fuelled by the latest ‘revelations’ from the Holy Grailsford which have caused the vast majority of cycle-sport fans who really do care about Team Sky and the success thereof (and I’m holding my hand up here as one of the many) to absolutely shudder.

Which brings us neatly back to (one of) the latest interviews.

So… let’s consider a few choice quotes drawn from chief sports’ writer Owen Slot’s article in this Saturday’s Times – that’s the thunderer of London for the uninitiated – under the headline of: Team Sky’s secret weapons? Ants, chimps and crowns, but riding is not essential.

‘If individuals feel valued, they will be far more productive in their work’

– ummm… yes… gosh and golly… that’s truly ground-breaking thinking isn’t it…. Actually, this Voltaire tends to think that that sort of a man-management (whoops, person-management just in case my Voltaire gets disconnected for being politically incorrect) ethic has been in play for ohhhhhhhhh, lets see… absolutely aeons.

‘I’ve got two bus drivers from Formula One. I don’t want to see your driving. Think about it. We give the pre-race team-talk in the bus, that is our dressing room. The drivers take us to the start of the race in the morning and that’s where the nerves come on, where the riders get edgy. I said to the drivers, ‘What I do want to know is what you are like under pressure, when you are tired do you shout and scream?’

– Errrr… wow… that’s revelatory. Why, for example, would a bus-driver be tired in the morning, en route to a race? Shouldn’t they / wouldn’t they have had a good night’s sleep? Further to which, bus-drivers work to rigorous time-behind-the-wheel strictures.

The bus as the dressing room – sure, cycling is, after all, rock ‘n roll on wheels. Besides, a good bus driver is actually way more than someone who can get the assembled to place X at appointed time Y – in any event, going from A to B is guided by sat-nav nowadays (whoa, did anyone say the word Garmin?). The main attribute for a good bus-driver in this day and age is to combine invisibility and reliability with being the fount of all local knowledge.

What, however, is more concern-making is Grailsford’s use of I – the first person singular… perhaps this Voltaire is missing a fundamental point but… isn’t this about the team as a whole?

‘One of the first things we’ll do is ask riders to create their own rules. Shove them in a room: ‘Can you discuss how you want to be treated, can you discuss timings of the bus? If someone is late, what do you want us to do? I can promise you they will be more extreme than we would be. They’ll say, ‘If someone’s not there, we go.’ I guarantee.'

– Phew… that’s… ground-breaking thinking too. Actually – and here’s another rock ‘n roll metaphor, the real responsibility is down to Sky's tour manager equivalent to ensure that shaven-legged thoroughbred Z is on the bus and… on time. Does Grailsford really believe that Tour-contender H, being three minutes late for the scheduled departure of said-bus, would lead to a strict on-time roll-out with the end-result being Sky’s team-leader is left behind to make his own way to the start line? In a realistic world, that’s hardly going to happen… is it?

‘We are not malicious or vindictive, but if anyone’s behaviour is not allowing us to get where we want to be, we’ll give them a chance to modify it and, if they can’t, then they are out.’

– Right… so that’s a case of do it like we say and, if you don’t, then fuck-off… is it? That – to this Voltaire – smacks of despotism… and that equates to being dictatorial; hmmm – does the man behind all those glittering medals at recent Olympic Games wear Rasputin’s cloak? Is he, in reality, something of an autocrat?

‘Ants don’t worry, they operate like a fantastic team, they accept obstacles and deal with them in a positive manner, they don’t complain and remain positive. An ant doesn’t work on emotion, is proactive and always chooses the ant role.

– Ahhh… yes… now, that’s truly a magical quote; a prince among prose-thieves.

The team principal of – arguably – the most important and certainly the most interesting British sports’ formation this century… can not only talk to… but… is able to get inside the mind of… a metaphorical ant.

Y’know… this quack-religious, attention-seeking jargon simply doesn’t wash…

Can you imagine one of the director-sportif’s in the team car, waffling in like-manner and issuing instructions to his riders, as they’re approaching a major col in the Pyrenees… it’d probably go something like this: We need to seamlessly engage with our key-enabler and think out of the box proactively to leverage the initiative that RadioShack and SaxoBank are implementing.

Strong leadership – oh yes… Visionary – oh, absolutely… Single-minded – but, of course.

Nevertheless, it should never be forgotten that there is a fine line between megalomaniacal (corporate) vision – which can so easily lead to hallucination – and reality.


Fifi Dessein said...

Your comment about Brailsford having "megalomaniacal (corporate) vision" is surely fitting for working in Rupert Murdoch's corporation.

Anonymous said...

Brilliantly observed. Brailsford's achievements, so far, should not be underestimated and neither - from reading his latest mutterings - should his ego.

John Jones, Port Talbot.

Anonymous said...

Brailsford deserves all the praise he gets; the accolades and the rest for masterminding the medal haul from the Olympics. However, his recent comments in The Times and Sunday Times, would have been best kept behind closed doors. These observations are absolutely spot on and the penultimate paragraph brought much needed laughter into an otherwise grey working day.

Roger W. Chippenham.

Anonymous said...

My belief - which I'd imagine would be echoed throughout the British cycling fraternity - is that everyone bar none want Team Sky to succeed.

Nevertheless, you are absolutely correct - their PR has, so far, been lamentably poor.

I would imagine that they have not attended to the one thing they should have from the get-go which was to appoint a media-savvy dedicated PR manager.

By their overlooking of this vital cog in the Sky wheel, Dave Brailsford's ego is allowed free rein.

End result - team principals with standing and more experience across Europe will be choking with laughter over their croissants.

Simon Laws, Herts.

Anonymous said...

Ha! Ha! Ha!

I rather suspect DB has an Orangutan running his PR campaign for him.

Johnny B in Birmingham

Anonymous said...

Never liked Brailsford no matter what the rider's have achieved under his so called guidance. Nothing personal, don't know the man but he comes over far to bloody smug for my liking.

I'd say the key to this new team will be down to how their Director Sportifs work - and, for my money, they've got the best of the lot - Scotty Sunderland.

No one yet has picked up on how he pulled most of the Cervelo team together before moving on (look at their success in 2009!!!) and, since he's been involved since very early days with Team Sky, I'd argue that the vast majority of riders have signed because of him and not because of Brailsford's leanings toward ants and chimps.

Time alone will tell and, while Brailsford is obviouslly the frontman for this, I would suggest Sunderland is the real ace in the Sky pack.

Ian Crabshaw, Liverpool.

NO Endeavour said...

Whilst you've amply deployed your angst here, something the blogosphere allows us all to do, might we take a step back.

Brailsford has a difficult job. A balancing act. He must find a way to nurture a new, clean, road racing team through to an eventual Tour success, whilst satisying the Sky PR machine - and its obvious thirst for headlines.

The situation reminds me of one Clive Woodward, who came in for much negative press when he took the reigns of the England rugby squad, and very much stamped his 'ego' on the rotten system he inherited. A few years later Trafalgar Square was packed with thousands welcoming home the Webb Ellis Trophy.

So maybe, just maybe, us the armmchair experts should sit back and let this one role. Brailsford is no fool. He has the midas touch. And Sky will pay the bills. In such a media-saturated world, a few misplaced sound bites are nothing new. Indeed, we are the very audience who digest/demand this 24/7 news environment.

We so rarely achieve global sporting success in the UK, and often see ego as a negative. To beat the best, you must have an iron will. Let's get behind our man.

Anonymous said...

The comments make almost as interesting reading as the original post.

I agree wholeheartedly that we - the armchair fans - should all be behind Sky. Indeed, Neil Storey has, himself, stated that he's a 'fan'.

Yes, maybe his views are a little oblique / side-on to the norm but, I'd suggest reading a little more of what he writes about - across a wide number of subjects - from which you'll see a breath of fresh-air within the blogosphere.

Thus, with regard to what 'No Endeavour' has said in his / her own comment, I don't read any 'angst' within the original post at all - simply (exceedingly) cleverly worded ridicule at comments by one who - as has been stated before - should know a whole lot better.

Sky will only come good (or not as the case may be) when their collective wheels roll in competition.

And, besides, Brailsford is not alone within the world of team principals with a difficult job; the same is true for all of the top teams.

Finally, I agree absolutely with 'Ian from Liverpool' who mentioned Scott Sunderland's role within Sky - yes, he - along with the other Director Sportif's are Brailsford's aces; and Sunderland, especially, commands respect out on the road which, currently Brailsford only does with regard to the track.

Danny. Birmingham.