The Olympics is about to start! It’s hard to believe that four years has passed since Michael Phelps won a record eight gold medals. A lot of water has splashed out of the pool since that historic performance. But more outstanding athletic performances for the history books are in the offing, including Michael’s quest to win three more medals at the upcoming games. That achievement would make him the most-decorated athlete in Olympic history. Heady stuff!
I recently read an article analyzing the various national teams and predicting the “medal count” for each country participating. There’s even a verb for it: “to medal.” I knew about “to meddle,” but “to medal”? That calls to mind some of great King Midas’s fears about hugging his children! But you’ll be hearing the term “medal count” a lot over the coming weeks as we follow which country accumulates the most medals. Considering how many contests are decided by a fingernail’s length or height, that’s a questionable assignment. But some aspects of the games that I read about in the article are entirely applicable to our business and personal lives. Tell me if you agree.
The Olympics creates a fascinating dichotomy in team concepts. In a way, the various national teams have both the characteristics of a golf team and a basketball team. In collegiate golf competitions, the players have individual opponents whom they try to best. But there is also a golf team competition. The team with the most individual wins- or sometimes the lowest number of total strokes is the overall winner. In a basketball game—well, you know how that works–only one score matters and that is the work product of a blended team effort. In the upcoming games, the Olympic basketball championship also counts towards the overall medal count. You get the idea.
The reason this is of interest is that companies prosper in the same way. As you watch the Olympics, it might be fun–and instructive–to think of each nation’s team as a corporation and the medal count as its income statement. Similarly, the ultimate performance of a company is the sum total of the efforts of a number of individual competitors. Truly successful companies foster a belief that each member of the team comprehends and honors the ultimate goal but is also given the tools and freedom to decide how to compete best at his or her level. How to win a gold medal that adds to the total medal count!
But what these perceptive companies are really good at is fostering a culture where it is clear that the only competition that counts is the one leveled against the competitors outside the corporate walls. That’s the keyword: outside. Really great organizations make it clear that no medals are won and no climbing the corporate ladder is rewarded if it includes stepping on a teammate to get there. If combat among opponents within the company is taking place, the employees are quickly informed that they may need to find another place to work because wise leaders know this game tactic hurts, not helps overall success. Companies never succeed when they subtly and/or openly hone skills for internal brinkmanship and then reward the players with “metal.”
The article I read also compared how various countries go about training and selecting their representative competitors. As you may know, some countries, China, for example, have a centralized approach. A central authority selects athletes at a young age and then oversees their training, pretty much for as long as they compete. Other countries, such as the United States, have a decentralized approach to training. Athletes select their coaches, often at the schools they attend or in independent clubs, and also choose where and when to compete in building themselves up to competing at the Olympic trials.
Basically, how athletes train and how the selection process runs boil down to differing management philosophies. The centralized approach is what management types call “command and control.” The decentralized approach means that those overseeing the organization have the wisdom and experience to set goals and provide the resources necessary to succeed, but then “the management” steps back and gets out of the way. Leaders focus on setting in motion everything that is needed for success, then let individual genius and motivation run its course.
Most of us have been exposed to these differing styles. Frankly, I have yet to meet anyone who felt fulfilled and satisfied in an environment where workers are told exactly how to reach the goal. Why not? It’s not much fun when your intelligence and creativity is completely discounted and when management shows it believes your gifts are of no consequence. Is it any surprise that such companies have trouble keeping the really special individuals they have hired?
People thrive when being held responsible for obtaining an agreed-upon goal, and rewarded for a job well done. I know there are some among my readers who may be thinking that all I say is fine and good but didn’t China collect the greatest number of medals at the 2008 games? Yep, they did. But the viability of any approach to attaining success must stand the test of time. If I am wrong, time will tell.
For me and, I am sure, for many others the very best part of the Olympic Games is the medal ceremonies. Even the most competitively hardened athlete has trouble holding back tears at the playing of his or her national anthem. Why is that so? Lots of reasons, but primarily this: more than simply prevailing in their selected event, they are now emotionally touched at having added to their nation’s “income statement,” their beloved nation’s honor among its fellows.
At the hearing of their national anthem played to reward their effort, the athlete has a physical reminder, the familiar, soaring music, that he or she has accomplished something that adds to the greater good. So they may cry—and for good reason. Adding to the greater good–now there’s something that really ignites our emotions and sense of self-and-team fulfillment! Whether the venue of reward is the playing field and the arena—or whether it is the office and the boardroom. Good wins count universally in the final total.