Episode 239 – The Long Win with Cath Bishop

Cath BishopCath Bishop has performed at the highest standard in three very different fields: sport, international negotiation, and business coaching. An Olympic medallist and world champion herself, she has seen first hand the intense highs and lows of competition – how it serves us as humans, and how it doesn’t.

We are as a culture obsessed with winning. The word has seeped through our language across sport, politics, business, education… we accept without question that to come first, to beat the competition, is the outcome we celebrate. It’s not working out too well for us, even for the winners themselves. In The Long Win, Cath explores a different way of looking  at success: how could we reimagine ‘winning’ to work better for us as people, as a society, and as inhabitants of the planet?

Fascinating insights too into the hard work of shaping such a complex, wide-ranging argument, and tips on keeping your focus as you write.


Cath’s site: https://cathbishop.com/

Cath on Twitter: https://twitter.com/thecathbishop

Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/

10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge January 2021: https://pi-q.learnworlds.com/course?courseid=proposal-challenge-jan-21

Virtual Writing Retreat November 2020: https://alisonjones.lpages.co/virtual-writing-retreat/

My K-day countdown for the National Literacy Trust: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/alison-jones1000

Alison Jones: I’m here today with Cath Bishop, who is a leadership expert and writer bringing her unique experience in both top level sport and international diplomacy to the most pressing issues facing businesses in the 21st century. She competed as a rower at three Olympic games becoming part of the first British women’s crew to win the world championships and winning a silver Olympic medal in the coxless pairs event.

As a senior diplomat, she worked on policy and negotiations, specializing in stabilization policy for conflict affected parts of the world. And she now works as a coach facilitator and consultant, advising global businesses on team and leadership development and cultural change and teaches on the executive education faculty at the Judge Business School, Cambridge University and other leading schools.

Welcome to the show Cath.

Cath Bishop: Brilliant to be here. Thanks very much.

Alison Jones: And you’re here, of course, as the author of The Long Win, which is coming out very soon, well in fact the week this goes out, which is really, really exciting. So, you know, I’m reading your biography and I’m thinking, what have I done with my life, obviously. I mean, being the best in all these different fields,s,

 tell us about that journey and what it was like to work in all those different areas.

Cath Bishop: So I think I’ve always been a curious person and I’m always wanting to learn, always wanted to try different things and I’ve had some fantastic opportunities to do that. I then always liked to kind of immerse myself in whatever I’m doing and do it to probably quite an obsessional level which I’ve also had the opportunity to do, particularly going into something like in an Olympic environment, which is all about obsession with detail and total dedication.

So I’ve thrown myself into some different worlds that I’ve had just incredible experiences. But I’ve also had experiences that were not what I thought I was going to have. So I set out with a really clear sense of, okay, sport is about winning medals or you know, that very obvious stuff and then found myself having a really different journey and encountering some really different questions about what is this all about and the similar world really opened up in diplomacy.

So diplomacy related to my studies, I was always fascinated by it. I studied languages and did a Master’s in International Politics. And so that was a sort of a natural area to end up in. And for me, there is nothing more fascinating than foreign policy, it is complex, but at a basic level, it’s all about human nature.

And we have all these intractable disputes that are just fascinating. You want to find a way through them. You want to realize that there must be a way to make this a better world. So I’ve just got immersed in all of these pursuits. And now my work in business really draws on what were two very human experiences.

So being part of a rowing crew and actually negotiating with others in diplomacy, it’s all about teams. It’s all about people. It’s all about mindsets, behaviors, and relationships.

Alison Jones:  Yes, and performance, of course.

Cath Bishop: Absolutely, bottom line performance and leadership. So all of these were at the heart of what I was exploring when I realized it wasn’t about just being a really smart diplomat that knew history and culture and language, and it wasn’t just being a really fit, strong rower. It was about performance, human performance and the real essence of how we tap into that.

Alison Jones: So that leads us beautifully, doesn’t it, into The Long Win concept. So The Long Win: The search for a better way to succeed is based on what you know about performance and about winning, its positive side, but also its dark side. So just tell me what you mean by the long win.

Cath Bishop: Yes. So in a way there were two subtitles we played with, one was finding a better way to succeed. And the other one was why our obsession with winning holds us back. And it is that fascination that I had with the fact that I kept encountering winning and seeing it actually being very counterproductive.

So within sport the obsession with medals meant that decisions were taken that weren’t always in the best interests of an athlete’s wellbeing, which over time starts to affect performance as well. You know, it started to affect the experience of whether you’re enjoying being an Olympic athlete or really finding that you’re very much oppressed and being forced to be a machine that wins medals rather than a fantastic human athlete, pushing the boundaries of mentally and physically what’s possible.

And so it was, you know, at first I thought it was really just the sporting world, that’s how it works. And I was trying to make sense of that when I left that world, you know, it was a decade of my life, real intense, environment of only winning counts.

But actually as I was starting to reckon that my personal experiences I found that I kept encountering it.

So within diplomacy, we’re always talking about how we could shift negotiations into much more of a win-win place, where people are willing to compromise and achieve something bigger and better for everyone, rather than defining my success on one side as being totally dependent on the other side, losing something.

So again, I was encountering this winning mentality all the time in the heart of our negotiating work. And now when I’ve moved into the business and organizational world, I see that narrative all the time again, with a sense of, we’ve got to be winners, we’ve got to be number one. That’s the aim, that’s the goal.

And yet people aren’t that engaged.  Staff survey scores are showing that, you know, performance isn’t where it should be and people aren’t that motivated. So what is happening in that gap? And it is this sense of actually just wanting to be number one or hitting a target or hitting your annual sales figures,  it doesn’t really have meaning for people.

So then they’re not able to really bring the best of who they are to what they do.

Alison Jones: And you talk really eloquently in the book about actually that whole concept of winning, how the word itself has become so pervasive and almost meaningless. Almost  taken for granted as well. You know, clearly we all want to win, you know, but actually the etymology of it, you know, that the roots of the meaning of the word was a lot broader than that, wasn’t it?

Cath Bishop: Absolutely and the whole premise of The Long Win is to reframe, to redefine, to go back to thinking, what is it that’s really important to us? What really matters. And the etymology of winning comes from the medieval term and middle ages. When gewinnan as the word that was used for the word effort, for toil, for labor, and an associated word, wunnju, was about pleasure and comfort.

And yet winning has often become quite a long way away from those concepts of hard work and pleasure. And so, you know, we have that historic perspective of centuries of battles and history being written by the victors. You know, literally it is ‘his story’, we have this narrow sense of winning now associated with power, with wealth, with status in a very material sense, in a real dominating sense.

 And that’s just not appropriate to the 21st century where we don’t fight battles like that anymore. War looks different, politics looks different, you know, we have environmental issues, we have inequality issues, we have big social challenges. We have global health challenges, like never before. They’re not about win, lose situations.

Alison Jones: So what is the alternative? Tell us more about what you mean by long-win thinking.

Cath Bishop: So The Long Win is based around three themes of clarity, constant learning and connection. Which are for me, the success criteria that we should be applying, not in a simple tick box way, but actually developing a kind of meaningful sense of how we measure success. So it’s based on our clarity of purpose, our clarity of what matters over a longer term and involving the impact we have on those around us.

A constant learning mindset enables us to focus on personal growth, on development, on learning rather than purely outcomes. Outcomes are always dependent on a range of external factors, whether it’s an Olympic metal that depends on your competitors, the weather, the environment, whether you’re injury free, what the umpire or the referee says.

Or in business where your external results depend on all sorts of things. And we’ve seen this year how everybody’s external results, apart from Jeff Bezos, are wiped away in one fell swoop. So if that’s what we’re basing success on, then we’re really vulnerable to going on a roller coaster of success and failure that’s determined by other factors we can’t influence. That doesn’t feel good and it doesn’t maximize our contribution to reaching our potential. So we focus on that learning process, the improvisation, the innovating, all the time improving, even when results may not sometimes be where we want them to be. That enables us to optimize over the long term the results  we get and have a better experience along the way. And the connection piece then ties that together.

If we prioritize the human connections in everything we do, then that enables us to have a better experience, to be part of community. You know, all of those things that are important to us as social animals to thrive.  Connection is a term that I see increasingly cropping up, whether it’s in mental health, whether it’s in economics, whether it’s in social, connection and cohesion, and really making sure that we are prioritizing the people side and moving away from some of the dehumanized business environments that have been created over the last few decades, in this drive for efficiency, to be more machine like, to measure output and targets.

It just hasn’t worked.

Alison Jones: Yes. And you make that point very beautifully in the book, that winning isn’t working, even for the winners. It’s not actually giving them the lasting satisfaction. It is very short-lived joy, isn’t it, winning?

Cath Bishop: It is, and I think that was the biggest moment of realization for me when I was thinking well, for while I’m dealing with, you know, maybe my own not having won all the races I did, not having won at the Olympics and trying to make sense of that. And then I started seeing all these stories of Olympic champions who crossed the line and feel empty or unfulfilled or say they feel depressed because they’re on their own. They’ve got no one to share it with. And it has no meaning beyond that moment they crossed the line.  And I thought, Oh my God, it’s not even working for them. And the rest of us, discarded along the way and all those who don’t make it to the podium. You know, you walk away and this sort of ridiculous shame or feeling of embarrassment about not having succeeded, when those Olympic races depend on every single person in that race to make it brilliant to watch.

We need to make sure that we’re inviting all sorts of people to talk to school children of the future. Not just the ones that win because they have a very, it’s a very narrow perspective on the world. And actually we need to win in a different way.

Alison Jones: And actually often the winners are the ones that started off with all the advantages aren’t they? So you learn less from their progress, from their story, from what they’ve overcome.

Cath Bishop: Absolutely,  there will be a lot of natural advantages and good fortune that plays a role. I certainly have sort of huge respect for many people that I trained with in the rowing team, who were a huge part of enabling me to become the best I could be. And they didn’t win medals because they had an injury at a difficult time or they weren’t in the crew that was the one that was flying  at the peak time. And there were all sorts of reasons why, for them, they didn’t walk away with the medal, but they were brilliant athletes. And they were part of creating an environment within which all of us were able to improve and learn about ourselves and connect in a different way and push ourselves.

So why wouldn’t people want to hear from them? But they’re not invited to events, to schools, to things.

Alison Jones: Yes, because they haven’t got the gold medal. And it’s so fascinating listening to this because it all resonates. It actually makes me feel quite hopeful as well that there is a kind of different way of framing this and a different way of looking at it. But you and I both know, because we’ve talked about this for a long time, that you didn’t come with this idea fully formed and ready to put into a beautifully structured book as it is now.

So just share with us a little bit of the story of how you took that sense, that niggle, of something’s wrong here and turned it into this really clearly articulated theory, well we  say theory, it’s a whole kind of approach to life, isn’t it? What was that journey like?

Cath Bishop: So, it was a little bit torturous for sure. I think, you know, for me, it was important to separate out the personal experience and then the professional experience. And then the sort of wider, social experience, if you like, and the history. It was such a dense topic that I needed to unravel those layers.

Now, the beauty of it, the strength of it is that you can look at it from all these different angles, which makes you perhaps more likely to question it and start to think, Hmm, we should do this a different way.

It’s so dominant this narrative of we’ve got to win. You know, it’s an easy narrative, it’s used in marketing. It’s used in every advertisement you can see, it’s used on book covers. It’s used everywhere. So, you know, the argument needs to be strong to get us to challenge it and to think differently. But for me, it was about unraveling all those different layers and separating out my story from the bigger picture.

And then being able to link them in, there is a thread across them all, but I needed to sort of unravel them if you like. And also tell a bit of my own story and get that out, I think that I needed to tell. And not all of that has gone in the book and not all that needed to go to the book. So it was a process of unraveling, which you were an enormously helpful part of.

And then the structure that came through the business book challenge, I’m going to say it wrong. The proposal challenge

Alison Jones: The 10 day business book proposal challenge.

Cath Bishop: Yes. How can I get that wrong? It’s so snappy.

You know, that was the first time. I had had this for years in my head, that was the first time I started to get things on paper.

And from that point, then I had something to work with and it took a lot of editing and reframing, you know, but really then working on the table of contents and thinking, you know, how do we split this across sport, business, politics, education?

Do we do it thematically,  do we do it structurally through those sectors of society, and how do I bring my story into that? So, you know, I was within a structure trying out the different ways of slicing this topic, if you like. So, you know, that was the thing that once they started getting stuff on paper and then continued to work with you through the Bootcamp, through the Mentorship Program, you know, it was then all the time, each time I’ve thought about it, I got it to a better stage, a better structure.

Alison Jones: Yours is particularly interesting as well because of the scope. There is… literally, you could go on forever with this. It is so pervasive and it’s so interesting and as you say, there’s so many different levels with it. So one of the biggest challenges I know you faced was where do you stop? Because you have to make this into a book that people can actually read.

So any top tips on how to draw the boundaries?

Cath Bishop: I mean, I think it’s been particularly hard because of the breadth and depth of the topic. We definitely, you know, I’ve pushed you as a publisher to kind of keep me within bandwidth and keep me on track, whilst also testing what’s possible to make the richness of this topic really, fully explored in the book.

So I think, for myself, I’m somebody also who likes getting immersed in things, who loves these sort of never ending challenges to reach almost perfection, if you like. Then, you know, that was a challenge to my mindset. And I think what was helpful to me was the discussion I had with a friend who I talked about the ideas with,  who works in this field and he said, you know, this is just the start of a debate. You don’t have to complete it. And that to me now, is still something I say a lot to myself and I think, Oh gosh, I didn’t get this in and, or I could have brought that out more, you know, actually this is just the start of the day.

It’s already provoking debate out there, which I’m delighted about because it is a very relevant topic. And this year has actually made that more so. Which of course, you know, I didn’t know the Olympics was going to be cancelled. I didn’t know we’d be in the middle of this pandemic, when our traditional measures of success were going to be thrown out the window in such a dramatic way.

So, you know, for me, focusing on the book has really been an enriching part of a wider conversation has been so helpful to that.

Alison Jones: Let’s talk about the impact on business, particularly. What do you think has changed? Given the last few months, the complete upheaval of business, as you say? I mean, in a sense, there is a real potential isn’t there, there’s been a break pause and a real potential to reconstruct things differently.

Do you see that happening?

Cath Bishop: So there are two sides to this aren’t there? There were those who grabbed that opportunity. And then there were those who were sort of afraid of that opportunity and desperate to almost reinforce what we had before, more than ever. So I see very much that there are two routes after this. But I think the sustainable route is the one that’s much more open to change.

And seeing this as catalyzing change, you know, various leaders I’ve spoken to who were already embarking on cultural transformation or planning it, have actually seen this as a massive help because it’s accelerated the process. It’s created space for this to happen. And so, you know, there is the opportunity there, but of course not everyone has the mindset to grab it, but I think, we’ve had this opportunity to think about the way we interact with others differently, to put people first, the topic of wellbeing is now first, rather than last in many organizations. It’s enabled conversations that felt a bit awkward to be allowed, to have permission to ask about people’s wellbeing as a really positive and performance related topic, business related topic.

So I think some of the conversations within organizations have changed and that is how change happens.

Alison Jones: Yes and there’s a sense, I think, of broadening our understanding of inter-relatedness as well. So the pandemic that was, you know, you look back at the environmental causes of that, suddenly the sense of interconnection between how we treat the world and then what happens and how it impacts us, suddenly seems to be on the agenda in a way that it hasn’t been.

And I think that fits very well with your sense of coming out from that very narrow focus on short term goals and, and siloed activity to look at a much bigger picture.

Cath Bishop: Exactly, I mean this pandemic isn’t going away within the next quarter, is it? It’s not something we can fix and move on. So that whole mentality of sort of fixing things and moving on, it just doesn’t work. We have to be constantly inventing. We can’t plan, so we have to embrace uncertainty as part of how we think. That puts us into a different timeframe and a different way of thinking.

And you know, all of these conversations about how do we go back to the office? How do we create connection for people who are new coming into organizations, a big challange, but that’s a great question to ask because I don’t think we asked it before. And I think a lot of new people came into organizations and had a fairly mundane induction process if they were lucky and didn’t feel that connected either.

So sometimes it’s helpful to think actually, what is it we’re trying to achieve when a new person comes into the organization and how do we achieve that. We’re actually far more likely to be successful if we’re driven by that deeper why, if you like, rather than, Oh yes, we’ve got that, this is the induction process, off you go. And in two days, that’s it. You’re in and then we carry on.

Alison Jones: Yes. And, you know, I just  want to carry on talking to you about this topic because it is so vast and it’s so timely and it’s so great and interesting, but I will be doing people a disservice if I didn’t ask you a bit more of a tactical question, which is what’s your best tip for a first time author? Because you have really been through the mill with this, you know, you’ve grappled with one of the biggest topics I think we’ve talked about on the show for a very long time. And you’ve come through it and you’ve got a fantastic book at the end of it, which is getting rave reviews. What’s your tip for people who are still grappling?

Cath Bishop: So find that community, I think when you first start off as a first time author, you don’t feel like a real author. I remember this from the sort of athletics world where you start off and you look at all those Olympic champions and think, you know, that’s not me, gosh, how do I become that?

It’s the same thing with writing, you know, gosh, I don’t have a book. How do I become that person? But actually through your support, through the mentorship group, finding other people in the process of writing, connecting was massively helpful. I have a really good friend who’s writing a fictional novel, a first-time author as well. And we would have afternoons were we went and wrote together and I loved those.

I absolutely loved those and just sharing our thoughts and doubts and questions. So become part of a community of writers, link in with people, there are all sorts of people around who are writing and will help you to think aloud through the challenges.

Alison Jones: That’s such a great tip because it can feel such a solo sport can’t it.

Yes. Great tip. Thank you. And I know also that you are a great business book reader, and you’ve read a huge amount, you know, for the research for this book as well. Any particular highlights from your reading that you think people should read, obviously, apart from The Long Win?

Cath Bishop: Yes. I mean, this is a really hard question. If you saw my study now, I’ve literally got piles and piles of books. I obsessively buy them and read them. And I just love reading books. I mean I’m a huge fan of Matthew Syed and Margaret Heffernan who very generously also supported and wrote testimonials for the book, but have been really generous in sort of urging me on with the idea and thinking it through.

And so I think, Margaret Heffernan was probably the first author who really got me inspired in leadership, going back years. Most people know her book Wilful Blindness and her recent book Uncharted, but for me, the one I’m going to recommend is her second book, A Bigger Prize: Why no one wins unless everyone wins, which is the only other book that I think has really tackled the area in depth that I’m tackling and was a huge inspiration to my thinking and seeing somebody really out there starting to question some of these assumptions that we take for granted about competition, about winning and about what really helps us to be our best.

Alison Jones: That’s a brilliant recommendation. Thank you. And would you mind sharing with us actually… because Margaret Heffernan’s writing is brilliant. It’s muscular and pointy and all the things I absolutely love about business writing. And she gave you some awesome advice, which you shared with me as well. So I think, can we tell the world this because it’s so great.

Cath Bishop: You’re right, well, she’s always sort of very strong in her views and supporting women leaders and she does a lot of work mentoring leaders in business. And she’s always sort of saying be really clear about what you think, don’t hold back, don’t apologize, don’t be defensive, don’t try and excuse things, you know, be proud of your opinion and put it out there, you want to provoke debate. You’ve got good evidence and experience behind it. So, you know, don’t be limp, to use one of her phrases, you know, get out there and put your views out there and stand behind them.

Alison Jones: Absolutely. And it’s so good to hear. I think it particularly applies to women who tend to hedge their writing around with conditionals, you know, ‘in my opinion’, and ‘I think’, and she was just like get rid of all of that, cause it just doesn’t help, it’s flabby and it weakens your argument and if you want to write crisply, just that’s what you do, you hone it down and own it, don’t you?

Cath Bishop: Exactly. I mean it was such a thrill to be able to co author a piece with her in the Financial Times a couple of weeks ago, and to have a real insight again, into her thinking and writing style, that was just such an amazing treat. I loved every second of it and it will really help my writing in the future too.

So yes. Look up her TED talks and her writing and, yes, it’s really powerful.

Alison Jones: Yes. If you’re writing a business book, it’s always really helpful to get the good stuff going in because you can’t help but draw from it and be influenced by it. So reading, I have complete, you know, heroes of business book writing and Margaret Heffernan is definitely one of them. Brilliant recommendation, thank you. And Cath, if people want to find out more about you, more about The Long Win, where should they go?

Cath Bishop: So my website www.cathbishop.com has lots of information about it. Or you can follow me on Twitter @thecathbishop or connect on LinkedIn.

Alison Jones: Fantastic. And I will put all those links, obviously up on the show notes at www.extraordinarybusinessbooks.com, along with the full transcript of today’s conversation, which would bear rereading I think.

And thank you, Cath. It’s amazing to talk to you today. And I do genuinely feel really excited that you have got to the point where you’re able to articulate something so important for our time in such a clear way. And I hope and believe it will be the start of  a really transformative conversation for our society and our businesses. I really hope so.

Cath Bishop: Thank you very much. I’m looking forward to that debate as it opens up all the time at the moment, it’s really exciting to be part of it.

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