We highlight four factors that have seen Dunn continually develop as a leader during her nine years at the helm.
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By John Portch
The track & field athletes of ParalympicsGB excelled again at the Games in Tokyo.
Great Britain claimed 24 medals in athletics – nine gold, five silver and ten bronze – to contribute to the nation’s second-place in the overall medals table. Overall, the team reached the podium in more sports than any other nation at a single Paralympics.
The Games were just around the corner when the Leaders Performance Institute spoke to Paula Dunn, the Head Coach of the Paralympic Programme at British Athletics, who spoke with pride of her athletes’ abilities.
“I always say we are athletes with a disability,” she says over Zoom on the eve of the Games. “The ‘athlete’ is the key one. People need to understand that genetics will flow through a person whether they’ve got a disability or not. There are just going to be people who are more gifted, more talented.”
The talent was there, but these Games were postponed by a year due to the pandemic – and most para-athletes are in the demographic to whom Covid-19 poses the greatest risk. “At the start of the day, I’ll usually connect with Amanda Evans, my Programme Manager, and Katie Jones, my Podium Potential Manager,” Dunn continues. “Pre-competition and at the comps, we’ll do a daily meeting just to see if anything has happened overnight in terms of athlete health and wellbeing. Amanda will then give me any logistical updates.
“Currently, most of our updates are about Covid where we’ll ask ‘have any athletes been pinged? Does any athlete need an exemption letter?’ That’s generally what myself and the management discuss every day at the moment. Any changes with the athletes and any status change regarding Covid, travel and logistics.” Dunn explains that she would expect things to be “full on” approaching a Games but that Covid has “added an extra layer.”
All things considered, the sight of Hannah Cockcroft, Aled Davies and Jonnie Peacock further adding to their Paralympic medal hauls was one thing, but the success of the collective in delivering a team to the Games, keeping them safe and well, and enabling them to compete is perhaps a greater triumph.
Dunn, as the Head Coach of a team that has enjoyed another successful cycle, has grown into her role since taking the reins in 2012 and, here, the Leaders Performance Institute highlights four considerations that have assisted her development as a leader.
1. Create a fun but purposeful environment
For all the ways Dunn might have changed in her nine years at the helm, there has been one constant: an emphasis on creating an environment where staff members are having fun while simultaneously being challenged. “I want us to have a clear direction of where we’re going and how we want to work, but this is supposed to be fun,” she says. “It’s sport – we’ve got to enjoy it. Yes, it’s serious. Yes, it’s hard, but, ultimately, we came into this because of a love of the sport. It has to be purposeful hard work, focused on doing all the basics really well. We also need to make sure we create an environment that is both challenging and supportive and where we work as a team.” Her words strike a chord with Dave Slemen, Founding Partner at Elite Performance Partners [EPP], a performance consultancy and search firm working across elite sport. “I completely agree with Paula,” says Slemen, when asked to reflect on Dunn’s comments. “At times people mix up seriousness with professionalism. Everyone knows the pressure the athletes are under and how hard training and performing is. We see that ability to switch on and off as vital to competing at your best when it matters.”
2. There is nothing wrong with a leader displaying vulnerability
Dunn again emphasises the importance of teamwork. “I like working within a team, especially in a sport that’s still growing,” she says, adding, “There’s different ways of looking at information and different pockets of expertise. Sometimes you have to make a decision and so I like clarity of information.”
In reflection on her first Paralympic cycle as Head Coach, she admits she too often tried to be across every detail. “I’ll now tell my team ‘I need help’,” she says. “It’s about being humble and saying you don’t have all the answers, but you have to be really comfortable in your own skin to do that and you have to trust the people around you. In my first cycle, I did not do any of that.
“I thought I had to be in charge, I had to be tough, I had to work the longest hours, I had to have all the answers. It’s never good to have a decision made by one person, so I’ve tried to work with my team, understanding what their motivations are, and just being honest when I just don’t know something or if I’ve had issues.
“Showing vulnerability, people see it as a weakness – it’s not a weakness. People just need to know that you don’t have all the answers and I think a bit of vulnerability just makes people aware that you’re a human being. You can have good days and bad days and sometimes you just need to go out and ask for help.
“My team know I don’t have all the answers, especially when it comes to budgets, so I don’t even try anymore; or Excel spreadsheets. I know what I’m good at, but then I know what other people are good at and I feel comfortable saying: ‘this is your area of expertise, you lead on that.’ And just doing that with the team has made them feel valued; they feel they’ve played a major part and also they know they’ve got a super strength that I haven’t got, which is important to everybody’s motivations to come to work and to keep working hard.”
Slemen agrees. “Vulnerability and authenticity are now being recognised as key attributes in successful leaders,” he says. “No one gets there on their own, and showing you don’t have all the answers allows others to step up and know where they stand – it also gives them permission to speak up too. Psychologically safe environments have been shown to be the key ingredients for successful teams and this is what Paula has created.”
Dunn is certainly proud of the multidisciplinary team that supported her athletes in Tokyo. “I’ve worked really hard to create a really good team of people where we all have the same voice, we all have a voice, we all use that voice appropriately and we all sit around that table as equals, but that takes time to create an environment where everyone feels that they have a voice and can input and feel that they’re going to be listened to.”
As Slemen observes, this is the type of collaboration and open communication that leads to trust, which was a particular focus during Dunn’s second cycle. “I’ve worked with this team and been the Head Coach for about nine years and, in my first cycle, it wasn’t like that,”she says. “They gave me information and I decided what was relevant and made a decision. This Tokyo cycle, I’m now more comfortable in this role, it’s definitely more now of a team working and people throw in information and we decide together. Some of my information might be no good; ‘let’s get rid of that idea, Paula, but this one’s really good that so-and-so made’. It definitely takes time for everyone to find their feet, but underlying everything is that we trust each other, and because we trust each other, we know that nobody is going to be dismissed.”
3. Listening is a skill that can be practised
Making people feel comfortable enough to contribute means being ready to listen as a head coach. It is a skill that Dunn has had to work on. “Everybody says that listening is probably the hardest skill,” she says. “Everyone goes with a pre-conceived idea or they want to be the one to talk. It’s a skill I really practise.”
She walks the Leaders Performance Institute through a typical meeting. “When I’m in a room with that person I’m actually in the room and not thinking about the next meeting or the next person, I’m actually really investing quality time in what that person is saying. I’m looking at their body language and I’m listening to what they’re saying and listening to what they’re not saying as well because that’s sometimes a clue to what’s going on. I have to really focus on what they’re saying and what they’re not saying to try and get out the real information that’s important to that person.”
Anna Edwards, EPP’s Managing Partner, explains that listening and being present is a real skill and, as such, EPP hosts workshops focused on the different levels of listening and the difference in depths of rapport they build. “I think the key here is that most leadership skills like this can actually be learnt,” she says. “Once learnt they have to be practised, ideally under pressure or coached with feedback – just like the sports their athletes compete in.”
Dunn adds that she tends to repeat an individual’s words back to them to indicate her understanding. “If someone says ‘I think we should do this at the start’ I’ll say ‘so you think we should do this at the start?’ So they know that I’m taking onboard what they’re saying. I also try to not come to a conclusion before they finish their sentence, which can be difficult and I know I used to do it, but I’ve stopped myself now. I repeat ‘this is what you want from this’ so that they understand that I’m actually invested in this conversation and I’m not being dismissive and that I value the person in front of me. Listening is key. Talking is easy. Somebody said you’ve two ears and one mouth for a reason and you should listen twice as much as you talk. That’s really true.”
For all Dunn’s talk of ‘fun’, tensions can and do emerge, but that is not necessarily a bad thing, particularly when there is trust, an open forum to discuss performance questions, and a leader able to act upon quality information. “That’s why it’s important to remember that everybody is in the room for the right reasons,” she says. “If we all understand what the reason is then we should not be too far away from the same conclusions. When we’re all in that room, we’re all doing it to make sure that that athlete feels a sense of what we’re working with and reaches their full potential.
“We’ll have discussions but we’ll know that we have to resolve it because, if we don’t, it will impact on the athlete’s performance. It always goes back to why we’re in the room. It’s not about my ego or someone else’s ego, it’s actually about how do we support the athlete to reach their full potential; and if we’re arguing or decide that one point of view is more important than another then it will impact on performance; and if you bring it back to that, people think, ‘yeah, it is about them, so what do I need to do to make sure that athlete reaches their full potential?’ You always bring it back to the common denominator. Everybody is there for the athlete. If you bring it back to that, then it steadies the ship.
“I believe that everybody, even if it doesn’t look that obvious, comes in to create upset. It may come across like that, but everything they do is coming from the right place. It’s what the athlete needs to progress and it may be the way that something’s been said or the way it’s been received, but people have good intentions.”