Former Olympic rower and leadership coach Sarah Winckless on how to lead in turbulent times
Sarah Winckless is no stranger to slings and arrows. As an elite rower, she won medals galore, and was cheated out of others, while also coping with a life-threatening disease. Ryan Herman hears how her experiences now make her the perfect leadership coach for our turbulent times
Until recently, leaders, coaches and academics would talk about having to negotiate an environment known as Vuca – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. In 2022, though, Vuca is no longer seen as the best way to summarise the unpredictable world in which we live. Instead, Bani has become the business acronym du jour.
“The place that CEOs are operating from is brittle, there’s anxiety, it’s non-linear and can feel incomprehensible,” says leadership coach Sarah Winckless, explaining the sea change that has hit the business world in recent years. “As a good leader, you will have hired a great team, you listen to them and you enable them to perform at their best. But then we had Covid-19 and all the associated challenges that came with it. That has been hugely challenging for the people I’ve been working with.
“They’ve had to pivot on all sorts of areas, not only to manage the situation and their team, but also to maintain their own performance. Right now there are multiple moving pieces. Although leaders have a wealth of experience, that won’t necessarily mean they have the answers because the system at the moment is non-linear. What’s happened in the past isn’t helping to predict what will happen in the future. So, what they need to do is take time to think, watch and strategise so they can respond effectively.”
Winckless speaks from experience. Throughout her twenties she was an elite rower, winning two World Championship golds in women’s quad and a bronze in the double sculls at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. She went on to become Chef de Mission for Team England in the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia.
She has also had to learn how to cope with personal setbacks and tragedies. Her mother was diagnosed with Huntington’s disease – a hereditary degenerative condition that prevents the brain from functioning properly – when Winckless was in her first year at university. Sarah was the only one of four siblings to test positive for the condition. She is currently asymptomatic but knows that at some point in her life that will change. She is patron of the Scottish Huntington’s Association, which she described to the Front Line Genomics website as “a family of people who have got the same disease, and we are able to work together through some of the emotions”.
All these experiences, good and bad, she brings to her role as a leadership coach, in which she has spent more than a decade working with corporate clients such as Lendlease, Santander, Ricoh, Warner and the London Stock Exchange.
Winckless also knows what it’s like to have a moment when, having transitioned from one career role to another, you become racked with self-doubt. It could be a student starting their first day as a CA trainee or a CFO about to make the step-up to CEO. In Winckless’s case, she was a 36-year-old retired rower about to take a lift up to the sixth floor of Santander’s London HQ to meet Simon Lloyd, the company’s HR Director.
She had gone from a world where everything was structured, where she could tell the day of the week simply by her training regime. She had world-class performance coaches and team psychologists to help her make those incremental gains that can often separate the winners from the silver medallists. But Lloyd was about to become her mentor and play a pivotal role in steering her on a path towards leadership coaching.
“As a rower, I became really curious about the teams I’d worked with, and thought about how perhaps I could help other people operate better and perform to a higher level,” Winckless recalls. “That led me to become a leadership coach and facilitator. The most satisfying part of that comes from seeing somebody successfully step up or step out of their comfort zone.
“But at the point where I was about to see Simon, I was getting into this lift thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, what am I going to say to this man?’ My imposter syndrome was doing star jumps in that lift. It was one of those moments where I thought I’m so much more comfortable in a tracksuit than a suit.”
What that meeting taught her was the value of a mentor, to have somebody who can challenge you as an individual but also help unlock your full potential, identify qualities and abilities that you may not recognise in yourself, and also to understand your weaknesses.
“I can’t stress enough how much it meant to have somebody willing to listen and wanting to know more about me,” she says. “I didn’t know where I wanted to fit in after sport. For 10 years, I had completely committed to one thing, but I have two major values, which are ‘challenge’ and ‘freedom’. In rowing, I was challenged every day of my life, but I had no freedom because of the structure and the system in which I was operating. Suddenly that freedom was totally dialled up.
“Of course, back then I had a different perception of what a coach is. But I went to this two-and-a-half-day course on the fundamentals of coaching and by the time it had finished I was thinking, ‘My God, this stuff is so powerful.’
“I come from a family where we love to tell stories, but we’re not necessarily great listeners. Listening was something I had never experienced either in sports or in school. The skills that they were teaching us, even on that very first day, just allowing people to open up, share ideas, challenge ways of thinking, listen… I didn’t go into the course knowing that I was going to become a coach, but I knew that those skills were going to influence whatever it was I did next.”
In 2013, Winckless joined executive coaching firm Will It Make The Boat Go Faster?, where she is Head of Coaching Services. But she never walked away from competition and has taken on a number of senior leadership roles in sports. As Chef de Mission for Team England in 2018, she ran a team of 390 athletes on Australia’s Gold Coast. England finished second, behind the hosts, winning 45 golds. But Winckless had to face the music when an administrative error meant that cyclist (and likely medal winner) Melissa Lowther travelled to Australia only to discover she wasn’t registered to compete.
Taking the hot seat
“My best and worst days of leadership came in Australia,” says Winckless. “You want the stories in the press to be focused on the athletes and what they do on the field of play. So if I’m in the papers, then it’s probably because something’s gone wrong. As a leader, you want to set the conditions for your team, and for your people to do their best work. And in an ideal world, you’re accountable for what they do. But it shouldn’t be about you. So when I go into an organisation, I bring the scars on my back, alongside the skills to support others to think around it.”
Much like a good CA, Winckless’s work is underpinned by ethics. She was the first female chair of the UK Anti-Doping Athlete Commission, having known what it was like to lose to a team that was using performance-enhancing drugs. In 2006, she finished second in the quadruple sculls at the World Championship, only later to discover that the gold-winning Russian crew were part of the country’s state-sponsored doping programme.
With the benefit of all that experience, what advice does she have for CFOs who may be presented with the opportunity of stepping up to CEO, but could be doing so through a period in which “exceptional circumstances” are fast becoming business as usual?
“The important thing – and this applies to both CFOs and COOs who are making that step up – is not to try and be somebody you’re not,” she concludes. “Understand and analyse what your strengths and weaknesses are – then build a team around you that will fill the gaps.”
Visit the Finance + Leadership hub for more