What can business learn from the Olympics? Q&A
Q: Everyone is talking about the legacy of the Olympics. So, in practice, how can I as COO take on board their remarkable success and apply it to my business?
A: The motto of the Olympic movement is Citius, Altius, Fortius – Faster, Higher, Stronger and, alone, that could be a motto for every UK business! However, there are so many important individual lessons that business can learn from this year’s Olympics. Here are my top Olympic legacy out-takes to help you win business gold. Like the Olympic rings, I have identified five inter-connecting themes:
- Total teamwork. No gold medal winner got to the podium alone. Teams of people who brought together their individual skills, passions and experience and collaborated generously equally share in that moment of triumph. In your business, as COO, you are an important person, but lasting business performance comes from management that encourages leadership and teamwork at every level. Sir Chris Hoy’s success did not simply emerge. The conditions had to be created through teamwork to allow his natural talent to develop – with everyone playing their part. In the same way, the pursuit of excellence in business is not all about the star players at the top of an organisation. It is just as much about the teams whose support and talents help keep them there. Athletes and their support teams don’t feel threatened by shared leadership, instead determining pragmatically who should lead through analysis of the goal required, the most appropriate skills required to achieve that and the time available. Within your organisation, it is just as important to acknowledge individual strengths and contributions, and to share the glory.
- Engagement, engagement, engagement. The Harvard Business Review proclaimed the creation of an unpaid, highly engaged workforce as the 2012 London Olympics’ greatest feat. Their enthusiasm was legendary, and we caught a glimpse of how business could operate if employees cared as passionately about what they were doing. The leaders didn’t get to choose their teams in the same way that a business carefully selects and hires nor – obviously – were they paid. So, how were the volunteers motivated to perform to such high standards for zero financial rewards? Well, obviously, they were motivated to be part of this great event in the first place but how was their motivation harnessed and nurtured? It seems they were inspired by being – and crucially, feeling – part of something very special and important through the granting of unique access and privileges such as invitations to the dress rehearsal of the opening ceremony, treasure hunts and after-ceremony parties. Everyone volunteering was called a Games Maker and was encouraged to feel the vital importance of their individual role. In the same way, business leaders must to able to initiate and encourage the collaboration of their teams. Workers must be helped to see- and feel – their individual importance and how their role is a vital part of the wider whole. Their contribution must also be acknowledged.
- Clear communication. With a workforce of about 210,000 as well as athletes and audiences from around the world, there was plenty of room for misunderstanding at the Olympics. Yet this potential problem was averted through clarity and consistency of communication. At the heart of every successful business, too, are leaders who hold dear the value of effective communication; not only with their workforce, but also with their clients, prospective clients, service providers, even their competitors. And it is always worth remembering that communication is both verbal and non-verbal. As a leader, it is important that you and your managers can read and interpret both. It is equally important that your body language matches your words – all of which should be concise, clear and unmistakeable. Learn from 2012 – banish confusion from your organisation. Embrace clarity.
- Aiming for goal. Each athlete at the 2012 Olympics had an unambiguous goal: to win gold. But this was simply the last of innumerable other goals achieved along the way, from achieving sponsorship, to achieving a perfect weight, to breaking a previous personal best. In sport, goals can be easily counted and used to form a road map of the most positive way forward. They are clear as they are focused on reaching peak performance by a set date. It’s trickier to achieve this clarity in business, but not impossible. Applying a certain rigour in using the SMART – Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely – technique for setting Key Performance Indicators is useful. Everything, from proportionate success in bringing in new clients to measuring employee engagement can be measured (and probably should be). After all, if you can devise a way to count it, you can then measure and evaluate performance. All of which will give you plain markers to improve and plot your most positive way forward.
- Dare to be different. Danny Boyle was asked to direct the London opening ceremony after Beijing’s spectacle. Instead of seeing it as a poisoned chalice, Boyle acknowledged that Beijing was an impossible act to follow and used this to create a clean sheet, freeing his team to think in completely different ways, focusing on conceptual ideas, creativity and innovation. Thus was born the spectacular "Isles of Wonder" concept. Another major innovation was the decision to have seven up-and-coming athletes to light the Cauldron as opposed to one iconic Olympian. The sculptural cauldron itself was a breath-taking departure from its predecessors. And who will forget the queen parachuting into the stadium accompanied by 007? These innovations were a result of the organisers striving to meet their vision of legacy creation. They are widely acknowledged as a triumph. Now, be honest. How many ideas that unexpected could be suggested or taken seriously in your business? The sad fact is that most British employees would be fearful to demonstrate they are this creative. Yet such seemingly outrageous ideas can give birth to important change and new ways of looking at and doing things. How often have you asked for or sought better ways of doing things and encouraged your staff to truly reach for blue skies? And how often should you? I leave the final words to Penny Egan, Executive Director of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce: “Innovate or fail. Markets are being transformed, brands are being built, products and services are being re-designed, replaced or developed through innovation. Research shows that businesses which harness creativity and design put themselves at the leading edge. More need to be convinced.”
Teamwork, engagement, communication, goal orientation and innovation. Applied to how we go about our daily business, the London2012 Olympics’ legacy could help build world-beating British performance.