What We Can Learn from Olympic Teams: Focus – Intensity – Growth

The Olympics never fail to inspire my soul at what a human being can accomplish through focus, intensity, and continual learning. For instance, the performance of the U.S Women’s Gymnastics team this year was nothing short of remarkable. The team’s 8.209 point victory by the United States over Russia is the largest margin of victory at a major gymnastics meet on record. In the four previous Olympics this century, the margin of victory has not exceeded 1.5 points. They also became the first American women's team to win back-to-back gold medals at the Olympics. 

Overall, the U.S. won a record breaking 121 medals in Rio - surpassing the last record of 110 in Beijing. What is clear is that the U.S. not only has good athletes, but a support system in place that nurtures, trains, and builds medal winners.  

I’m currently working with several companies and their senior teams who are also remarkable. As with the U.S. Olympic organization, they know how to produce great performers and sustain high performance over time. In the case of each company, the competitive ground is shifting around them with disruptive strategies and new market entrants. But I see that these teams possess three clear competencies that will set them apart and make them winners.    

First is focus. The team wakes up every day and asks, “How do we compete and win?” 

They will not settle for just playing the game. They possess a passion to win the game. A spirit of winning and competing is built into the culture and into the soul of each and every executive. Is it a crazy out of balance drive? Not with these people. It’s a clear, focused desire that if they are going to play in their marketplace, they want to give their very best, day in and day out, without slack, without excuses, without complaints. The team sees themselves collectively as capable of winning, and if they don’t, they will be disappointed in themselves.  

One CEO had to transform an “a country club culture” into a high-performance team with broad diversity in capabilities and gender.  Members of the old culture were respectively retired and space was made for top executives with a deep hunger to compete and win.    

The second competency is intensity - not just individually, but collectively. 

It’s impossible to work with high levels of intensity without some disagreement or friction. So, when these teams meet, they have worked out rules of engagement that foster trust in each other, support for each other, and permission to ask hard questions. It’s ok to call out a mistake, but it’s not ok to dump on the person and make them feel incompetent and stupid. It’s ok to communicate a problem in how an issue is being analyzed or how a project is being executed, but it’s not ok to shut down the conversation until a problem has been driven down to the root cause. 

These teams love to argue with each other and debate, but it’s done in a spirit of directness and at the same time trust and support. Each person knows they and the team members surrounding them are in it to be the very best possible and are committed to supporting each other’s success.  

The third competency is continuous growth.  

As in the Olympics, a team is continually enhancing their strength and skills day in and day out. I worked for a while with the U.S. Olympic organization and was in awe at the system they had built to foster continuous growth in athletes and teams.  Athletes were doing two workouts per day, seven days per week. They would use pressure bags on sore muscles to increase blood flow so they could recover quickly and build those capabilities required to win. The routines never stopped and the athletes were never satisfied unless they produced peak performance.  

The high performing teams I currently work with continually take individual and collective responsibility to grow and learn. They are never too smart to stop learning, too wise to stop asking hard questions, too proud to stop seeking exposure to new industries, too “know it all” to stop analyzing better ways to do things. The team will take time to learn and stretch themselves.  Ironically, in poorer functioning teams I have worked with, they often complain about not having the time for continuous growth. Instead, they stay stuck in old routines that do not produce new results.  

Currently one of the high performing teams is studying two books, Mindset, by Carol Dweck, and Grit, by Angela Duckworth. The leaders are not only measuring themselves individually against the ideas in these two books, but measuring their corporate culture as well. This is leading to robust and demanding discussions across the senior team. They are pushing themselves and their company to never stop growing.    

Focus - Intensity - Growth.  The optimal training program for senior team success.  How do you rank your own team in each area on a scale of one to ten?  An Olympic spirit is not easy to achieve and even more difficult to sustain on a daily, monthly, and annual basis. Without continually challenging yourself and your team, it’s easy to lose the focus on winning, lose the intensity to compete, and lose the drive to continually grow. These disciplines require exceptional leadership on a daily basis.   

*If you would like a tool to measure your team effectiveness at a senior level, please contact Next Solutions, Inc here