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Box clever like Muhammad Ali

As artistic director at Trevor Sorbie, Tom Connell is tasked with ensuring the continually improving performance of his cohorts. How does he do it? By learning a lesson from Muhammad Ali…

What is the difference between the number one and the number 20 tennis players in the world? Where does the 0.10 of a second it takes Usain Bolt to cross the line first come from? In my role at Trevor Sorbie Salons, I try to look outside our industry at other disciplines for methods that can help myself and our team improve – not just our work, but our approach too. What I’ve found is, when we focus on the details, the small things that all add up, the level of work improves.

A method that our Artistic Team has taken from outside the industry is having more accountability. What I mean by this is, in order to improve and in order to iron out the mistakes we have made in photoshoots, shows, or seminars, we have discovered that having a debrief where everyone is accountable for what we could have done better has an impact on our future performance. It makes the next event improve by 1% and that gradually goes up until three or four events down the line our whole approach has altered. We’re tighter and slicker in the areas we may have been lacking before and, as a natural consequence, the level of work has improved.

This may seem like a simple thing to do. But try sitting around a table of your peers and talking frankly about the things you DIDN’T do correctly – for example, the more preparation you could have put into the clothes styling, or the extra time you could have spent looking for a better model – it isn’t easy. It’s important to remember in these debriefings there is no blame or and it’s not about exposing your flaws; it’s simply a way of having an honest discussion about areas that could be improved.

As humans, we tend to shy away from the things we don’t do well in and focus on our victories. While it’s important to acknowledge achievements, spending too long focusing on the things we are good at is the best way to stay exactly where you are.

The story that first made me consider this technique took place on 30 October 1974 in Kinshasa, Zaire. Muhammad Ali regained the heavyweight championship of the world by knocking out George Foreman in the eighth round of one of the greatest sporting events of the last century – the Rumble in the Jungle. Ali had been stripped of his title after refusing to fight in the Vietnam war on account of his religious beliefs, and against the bigger, younger, more powerful George Foreman he wasn’t just expected to lose, he was expected to be badly hurt. So much so, his family tried in vain to talk him out of the fight. But everyone was wrong, the older man put on a masterclass and won back both his title and his dignity.

In the greatest moment of his career, after his most spectacular victory, before going to a press conference and before celebrating with his family and friends, Ali made his way back to his dressing room with his trainer Angelo Dundee. While it was fresh in his mind they went through what he did wrong and what improvements could be made for next time. The attention to detail and commitment to his craft this must have taken is astounding. At the highest high, he still had that thirst for improvement; he was more concerned by what he’d done wrong than done right.

It may seem strange for a hairdresser to have a sportsman influence their work, but I believe the best way to break new ground in any craft is to look outside it. After first hearing this, I knew that it was something I could adapt and use as a method to keep me and my work improving. Of course, it’s great to be inspired by other hairdressers, but I’ve found looking at the people I admire in other industries and studying the detail in their preparation has had a far greater influence on me. It’s the small details that people do that make the difference. The number one tennis player may have a dietitian weighing their food intake each day; Usain Bolt doesn’t focus on the result, just on having fun and executing his technique to the highest standard. Each approach is different but whomever it is, if someone has mastered their craft, the chances are they pay attention to their mistakes.

To embrace and learn from mistakes isn’t for everyone, but for those who want to keep improving I’d say: focus on the mistakes and leave celebrating achievements to your mum!