From the top · 4 August 2016

Olympian Sally Gunnell provides some exclusive tips for small business owners

Sally Gunnell and Xero_3
Sally Gunnell achieved unprecedented success on the athletics track, and is now making waves in the business world

From being a gold medal winner at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, to running her own enterprise today, Sally Gunnell has acquired a wealth of knowledge when it comes to setting targets, building the right team and embracing failure.

With the start of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro only a day away now, Business Advice has turned to one of Great Britain’s most celebrated athletes for some expert advice on making it as a small business owner.

Most know her from that balmy evening in Spain when, going up against fearsome competitor Sandra Farmer-Patrick, she triumphed on the world’s biggest stage – but Sally Gunnell has actually now turned her hand to entrepreneurship. Her business, Sally Gunnell’s Corporate Wellbeing, provides companies with direction when it comes to health.

Knowing that there is a great deal of crossover between sport and business success, Gunnell has partnered with small business accountancy platform Xero to pass on what she’s learnt over the duration of an amazing career that saw her become the first woman to hold Olympic, World, European and Commonwealth track titles at the same time.

Relive Sally Gunnell’s impressive performances

She’s particularly passionate about the value of mentors, people business owners can turn to in times of need for guidance and support. “It’s about realising how important it is to ask for help, getting information from people,” she explained. “New research has shown that a third of all entrepreneurs have had some guidance or a mentor in their life. But lots get scared when setting up a business and think they are supposed to know it all. For me, it wasn’t until starting a small business that I realised there were lessons I’d learnt from running and athletics in terms of targets, goals and teams that really helped me.”

When Gunnell was a world record-breaking athlete in the 1980s and 1990s, she described her whole team as mentors. From coaches to psychologists, success really came when she acknowledged the importance of these kinds of people in the sporting journey.

“It’s been the same with my business, getting people in those specialist areas such as accounting and marketing,” she added. “You need to have a bit of a plan, and I personally have five areas I believe are most important.”

She advocates working out what you want to achieve, what this looks like and setting goals accordingly. Then it comes down to building a strong team around you, after which it’s key to challenge yourself and get out of the comfort zone. Finally, she urges small business owners to accept failures and mistakes – using them as a way of becoming better and achieving her fifth element, self-belief.

Failure, she told Business Advice, is good as it drives you on. The problem, she feels with the British, is that quite often we give up too easily – especially in business. “If you don’t go through failure you won’t achieve what you want to at the end of the day. I wouldn’t have been stood on that starting line in Barcelona if I hadn’t had injuries and lost races I should have run. In business, the deals you don’t get are those that help you move forward and understand how to improve.”

When it comes to building the right team, like we recently discovered from Tiger’s UK MD Philip Bier, trust is a big component. In the early days, Gunnell believes it is key to bring in people you trust, but also give them time to slot in and get comfortable with roles. Like is often demonstrated by the ruthless nature in which sports coaches and managers are jettisoned after a few months or years when things aren’t going well, Gunnell is more of an advocate of patience if you are sure you trust someone.

“In the early days of my business I was trying to do everything myself. But its about allowing people time to settle in and understand each other, and I’ve seen that through the coaching relationships I’ve had,” she went on to say.

Now she’s been at the helm of a small business for a few years, Gunnell has learnt all about the importance of looking after staff in an effort to retain talent and support the growth of her own enterprise.

Inspiration in the sport and business crossover comes from the likes of Steve Smith, 1996 Olympic high jump bronze medallist, and 1988 Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer Adrian Moorhouse. She’s a particular fan of the training businesses that each have set up.

On the eve of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, Gunnell is most looking forward to them simply getting under way – when everyone can put behind them the drama of the Russian doping scandal, Zika virus and whether the Brazilian city was going to be ready in time. Sports men and women from all over the world have an opportunity to write themselves into Olympic history, marking themselves out as inspirational figures for generations to come. And who knows, amongst the hundreds of medal winners this summer maybe a few will end up trying their hand at business – and discovering much of what was learnt in rising to the top of the sporting pile is relevant for entrepreneurial success. Just like Great Britain’s own Essex champion.

If you enjoyed hearing what Sally Gunnell had to say about the crossover between sport and business, then you might be interested in discovering what Rugby World Cup-winning coach Clive Woodward thinks about leveraging team success to do even better in the future.

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ABOUT THE EXPERT

Hunter Ruthven was previously editor of Business Advice. He was also the editor of Real Business, the UK's most-read website for entrepreneurs and business leaders at the helm of growing SMEs.

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