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Purpose, Flow and Letting Go

At our recent Connect event, former Director of Performance at UK Sport, Peter Keen CBE, ran an in-depth workshop with a small number of members exploring Putting Purpose to Work, Creating Leadership Excellence.The session received outstanding feedback from the lucky few who got to be part of it and we asked Graham Hodgkin, CEO, London’s Air Ambulance for his reflections on this session for those of us who missed out.

Wavelength: Why did you choose this session? Graham Hodgkin: A number of things. I’ve done some work with elite athletes and am personally fascinated by how you get to that world-class level.

Having gone through a fundamental shift in my career – from banking into the social sector, I’m strong on personal purpose and want to understand more how it influences my decision-making. Having had a change of direction, I’m also in that reflective phase about my career and tuned into purpose, personal vision and how you distill those to decide next steps.

Also I was curious as my organisation is going to collaborate with UK Sport on themes such as high performance under pressure – which has very different connotations for our pilots and for doctors.

WL: The session was over-subscribed, any thoughts on why? GH: It was a small select group: on the Connect journey there’s a desire to go deeper all the time, to think more profoundly and interrogate a subject, sit with it, rather than just touch the tip and move on.

WL: What in particular does Peter bring? GH: Peter is understated but credible. He explained that he didn’t quite make it as a cyclist on the world stage and I’d love to know more about that. What was the reason? Was he not hungry enough? Not good enough? It gives him more gravitas than those that succeed at every level – how he used it, reflects upon it and how it’s informed what he’s done since.

I spoke to others over dinner after [the session], we felt privileged to be there.

On the way home I was listening to Radio 5 Live and it was announced Peter’s just become new head [interim Performance Director] of the Lawn Tennis Association. It will be interesting how he’ll apply his thinking to a very different discipline. I’m now fascinated about the journey LTA will take.

WL: What happened during the session – can you outline the process? GH: Peter started with a detailed introduction. His cycling career and where he got to, his Olympic journey and how he’d transitioned from athlete to coach, from team leader to the top of an organisation looking at its structure from grass roots up across multiple disciplines.

Then we got into more depth about high performance – what’s genetic, what’s taught, the difference between coaching and training, insight into the models Peter works with.

The five questions [in the session members ranked themselves against these anonymously] covered different scenarios – vision, success in life, leaps of faith, things we worry about, skills we don’t have. They allowed us to think about his models for us as individuals and I found them fascinating. I came to the conclusion they were brilliantly composed: challenging, with different ways to answer them, insightful, deep.

The walk [mid session] was like a mobile coaching session. Through the answers to the five questions the intention was to be partnered with people with concerns and strengths at different ends of the spectrum but we had a lot of like-minded people in session! Opposing views would have been fascinating. Peter was clear it was an experiment but I would rather have spent longer with him, including debriefing with the group, instead.

WL: What did you learn during the session? GH: He talked about a model he uses: Talent + Deliberate Practice + Support = Exceptional Performance. We need to challenge ourselves to achieve our best ability but if it’s done without the right support and culture and training, it leads to burn-out and stress. It was reaffirmation of a model I use but he also added something, the importance of raw talent.

He also talked a lot about the Flow model [Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi]. It’s about finding that which we find highly challenging yet we’re highly skilled at. Flow makes us feel stretched and stimulated but not stressed, the more we can be in our flow the better our health, wellbeing and mental capacity. It doesn’t have to be in our professional lives only, it’s why I love getting out on a bike – it’s my flow moment, even if I’m not highly skilled at it yet! People need to find and protect time for their flow activity. For some it might be writing a proposal or a business plan, for others walking the dog or time with their kids. We’re all different but if there’s not that space it can become stressful: some of my team are at that tipping point now; there is so much opportunity but it’s relentless.

WL: Other concepts that were relevant? GH: Stopping stuff – letting go of what doesn’t work any more and more efficient resource allocation. My team can get tired and fatigued. We are small and we should be able to pick the right things. I need to allow them time to think and reflect, to select the right opportunities and priorities.

WL: Can that mean letting go also of things that you’re good at? GH: Yes! The dichotomy might be that there are things that sit in our flow category we need to stop doing. I asked that of Peter, if we focus only from a flow point of view might we limit ourselves? He admitted his presentation is full of paradoxes.

WL: What else interested you and how might you take it back to your team? GH: Leaps of faith and knowing the steps to take to turn daydream into vision, and to create process and training to achieve it – this marks out an elite performer.

I will bring some of these concepts into conversations and planning and how we communicate, and through my coaching style. There is more I can do as a CEO but not necessarily through talking about these concepts directly – that’s one of the dangers of being part of an experience others aren’t part of it.

WL: Who is this session useful for? GH: Who should go is really interesting – everybody! Peter is a diamond and has a wealth of knowledge and experience people will find fascinating and useful.

People who are interested in elite performance and the insights that can transfer to their personal and organisational lives. Leaders struggling with what success looks like and their personal vision. People who are very steeped in their organisational environment and workload and need to listen to him about Flow and how to find time to “think more slowly” – finding that time and protecting it.

He talked about how much time athletes spend recovering – as corporate leaders how much time do we spend recovering? Zero. There is a real lesson to be learned.

WL: Any final reflections? GH: It was frustrating coming out not having more time with Peter, to debrief and to engage, he has such a huge reservoir of relevance and wealth. But then again high performers always leave you wanting more!


About Peter Keen CBE: Peter is a visionary coach and leader in international high performance sport with a proven track record in strategic planning, team management, coaching, sport science and education. Peter designed and implemented the performance management system and strategic funding that resulted in the triumphant achievements of Team GB at London 2012.

Peter is widely credited as the architect of the dramatic rise in the profile and success of British Cycling as a result of his pioneering work between 1997 and 2003. He has coached cyclists – including Chris Boardman – to nine world records and gold medals at Olympic, World, Commonwealth and European Championships and over 50 national titles.

After London 2012 he moved to Loughborough University to help ensure future generations benefit from his hard-won insights on the organisational and psychological resilience necessary for achieving and sustaining world-class performance.

Peter is part of the Wavelength Speakers Bureau. To view his full biography and to book him to speak at your own event go to Wavelength Speakers Bureau Peter Keen.


Graham Hodgkin was interviewed by Helen Trevaskis. Alongside helping Wavelength design Connect, Helen is Co-Founder of 3C Collective, a social enterprise which designs and commercialises innovative hygiene solutions for those living in slums.


Connect is our leadership programme that inspires, develops and connects leaders whose professional paths would not normally cross. With clients from large corporates, social enterprises, charities and the public sector, we bring together a diverse community of 100 top leaders to learn alongside and from each other.

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