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Five Takeaways From the London Olympics

The world's biggest sports stage can teach talent managers how to manage long-term goals, motivate a diverse workforce and more.

July 27, 2012
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Tonight’s opening ceremony, “The Isles of Wonder,” marks the beginning of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. The quadrennial sporting event captivates the world’s attention for its display of athletic prowess. But in between watching synchronized diving and pole vaulting, HR leaders can glean important management lessons from the London Games.

Sharon Daniels, CEO at AchieveGlobal, a performance improvement company, and Rick Lash, a director in leadership and talent at the Hay Group, a global management consulting firm, identified takeaways from the decade-long production process before the start of the Olympics as well as motivational and coaching strategies that directly apply to workplace scenarios.

Manage long-term planning. From the initial bid to the actual games, organization of the Olympics is a 10-year-long process. Successful leaders of such long-term projects are able to see the forest through the trees. While these types of projects can be plagued by minor hiccups, HR professionals should focus on the big picture and meeting clearly defined deadlines.

“The Olympics are a great example of success through long-term planning and the importance of thinking not in the next-quarter terms or answering your next BlackBerry message,” Lash said. “When we look ahead at what leadership is going to look like in the next 20 years as the world becomes more global and complex, leaders have to have the capacity to think strategically long term, while at the same time knowing how to manage tactical day-to-day activities.”

Help employees understand the roles they play. Thousands of hands are involved in the production process of any Olympic Games, from planning staff to construction workers and even volunteers. This year’s London Games will include 70,000 volunteers who will work 8 million hours over the 17-day event.

“People are required to meet all of those deadlines, so helping them understand the role that they play, how important it is and how it rolls up into the bigger picture is something a leader gets recognized for in organizations,” Daniels said.

Promote motivation through competence, relatedness and autonomy. In terms of the Olympics, competence means refining technique and improving performance, according to Daniels. In the business world, managers try to do the same thing: Make sure people have the right skills to complete the job.

Relatedness manifests itself at the Olympics with the realization that athletes are part of a bigger team, a contingent from a singular country. Parallels can be made in the workplace. Managers can promote collaboration and camaraderie in the workplace to make workers feel like they’re part of something bigger.

Lastly, Olympic athletes are able to enjoy some type of autonomy, whether it is determining an individualized training schedule or when they get up in the morning. Similarly, workplaces benefit from flexibility when it comes to things like start times and dress codes.

Target motivation techniques to the individual. Of the 529 athletes representing the United States at the London Olympics, 43 percent are returning Olympians. Improvements in sports medicine and training methodologies have allowed athletes to maintain Olympic levels of competitiveness at ages once destined to be a retirement from sports.

“By the time they’ve competed in several different Olympics, they’re very clear on what their strengths and gaps are,” Lash said. “They don’t try to fix everything. They try to focus on those specific, unique capabilities that they have and that they can use competitively.”

Delayed or forgone retirements means the workplace also includes an ever-increasing diverse set of ages.

“You have people who are in the early part of their careers, the millennials or Generation Y who are primarily 30 and below,” Lash said. “They are motivated by a different set of desires and needs than people who are older in the workplace.”

Encourage healthy competition. The Olympics, at its most basic level, is composed of a series of competitions.

“You’ve watched some of the people, how gracious they are in losing at the Olympics,” Daniels said. “On occasion, you’ll see someone who’s quite mean spirited about the whole thing. I think that’s often a reflection of how they’ve used competitions to fuel them.”

Lash said the Olympics often defines competition too narrowly: someone wins and someone loses. He suggests talent managers foster a healthy sense of competition that breeds camaraderie, not hostility, among colleagues.

“People have to figure out how they’re going to work collectively, not only within their teams, but across organizational divides, in order to sometimes beat the broader competition or to try and make a difference in the world,” Lash said.

Jeffrey Cattel is an editorial intern at Talent Management magazine. He can be reached at editor@talentmgt.com.

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