Since the time of Team Sky and Dave Brailsford’s doctrine of marginal gains, I’ve loved the Tour de France. As with so many sports, the more you recognise and appreciate the nuance the more the sacrifices, the stories, and the sport itself become meaningful.
One thing completely unique in the Tour de France and professional cycling, in general, is the role of the domestique. A domestique’s primary role is to assist and aid their team leader (protected rider) in achieving the best possible results. Domestiques perform tasks such as setting the pace, protecting the leader from wind, fetching supplies, chasing breakaways, and assisting with mechanical issues. Each domestique is an elite cyclist in their own right, and they sacrifice themselves completely for the great good for one goal, a grand tour victory. This sacrifice is very real physically, mentally, and emotionally – literally fetching, carrying, feeding, and sheltering the team leader to bring them within touching distance of the finish line when they strike.
Whilst almost completely unique in sport, I can’t help but see a number of similarities in so many of the incredible people we work with everyday in high-performing teams in business. Yet, these team members so rarely get the praise and thanks they deserve.
In the Tour de France, an incredible athlete called Wout van Aert is changing this dynamic by becoming a global superstar and an iconic domestique. By producing incredible hero-like performances propelling his team and his time leader Jonas Vingegaard to back-to-back Tour wins, Wout has transformed the role of the domestique.
I think it’s time we made the domestique (team members) of the business world the superstars they deserve to be!
Sacrificing for the Team: Domestiques sacrifice their personal ambitions and success in races to ensure that their team leader has the best chance of winning. Similarly, key team members may need to sacrifice personal time and preferences to meet company goals and deadlines – this needs to be recognised, appreciated, and better rewarded.
Supporting the Greater Goal: Domestiques in cycling work incredible hard for the benefit of their team leaders, recognising that their success comes from his. Similarly, team members in business support executives and senior managers by handling more routine tasks and assisting in various aspects of the company’s operations.
Ensuring Delivery: In cycling, domestiques form the backbone of a team, providing the necessary support, protection, and strategic assistance during races – they literally carry food and drink for the team leader and make his ride easier by shielding him from the oncoming wind. In business, key team members form the backbone of an organisation, as they perform essential day-to-day functions that keep the company running smoothly and so often protect the senior leaders in so many ways.
Team Culture: Both roles require strong team culture and communication skills. Domestiques must work together seamlessly, communicating effectively to optimise their team’s performance in races. Similarly, team members need to collaborate with their colleagues and senior leaders to ensure the efficient functioning of the company, controlling the pace and the direction of the team leader / senior executive.
Adaptability & Flexibility: Domestiques in cycling must be adaptable and ready to respond to changing race conditions, unexpected events, and occasionally, diva superstar team leaders! Key team members in business also need to be flexible, as they will often be required to change priorities, shift direction, and in a scaling start-up, deal with endless chaos.
Team Morale: Domestiques play a crucial role in maintaining team morale and motivation during races, offering encouragement and support to their fellow riders. Key team members in business are the architects of a team culture and can impact team morale by fostering a positive work environment and supporting their colleagues even when they’re making personal sacrifices for others for the bigger goal.
But it can be Opportunity: Domestiques often learn from experienced team leaders and improve their skills over time, with the potential to become superstar team leaders themselves in the future. Similarly, key team members in business can use their experiences to grow and advance within the company, potentially moving into higher-level positions or starting their own businesses. The price is a high one to pay in terms of time, energy, and effort but the rewards, whatever that means to a specific person, can be great.
Recognition and Appreciation: While the achievements of team leaders in cycling and high-level executives in business may receive more attention, both need to remember that the victories are not theirs alone, they belong to the team. It is therefore time to make sure we thank the hard-working individuals who do a fantastic job, often quietly and without the same overt recognition that those traditionally considered superstars enjoy.
The world of elite sport and business are of course different and this in part explains the reasons why increasingly the domestique, certainly the very best domestiques are recognised and richly rewarded. The impact of domestiques is recognised by more people as a result of the global coverage that the Tour de France receives, and the hero narratives that can be found in such obvious and often painful sacrifice. Sport also attracts a glamor that is rarely afforded to most businesses, albeit we’re trying hard to make the environment sector a more aspirational place to work.
Both domestiques in professional cycling teams and key team members in business are essential components of their respective teams, and their dedication, hard work, and sacrifices contribute significantly to the overall success of their respective teams!
This is a call to everyone out there, reach out to the domestique in your business that has made it possible for you to succeed, to develop, or to just do your job and say thank you! Share with them how much you appreciate what they do and make them feel like the superstar they are – make them Wout van Aert!
PS… My ambition is that by 2030 Oxygen Conservation is the first environmental-focused business to sponsor a Tour de France Team challenging the dominance of fossil fuel companies using this iconic bike race as part of their greenwashing efforts.