Olympic Lessons for Corporate Managers

Olympic Lessons for Corporate Managers
The London games, best-selling author and management guru Marcus Buckingham writes, can show businesses how to build better teams (Photograph by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Photograph by Al Bello/Getty Images

As I watch the London Olympics from the grandstands, I can’t help but consider the lessons corporate managers can learn from the world’s great athletes. As Bob Bowman said: “One of the interesting things about swimming is people don’t swim the same way. They have to swim the way their body is made.”

Watch the pool during the Olympics. Even the non-swimmer will see that Bowman, coach of the most decorated Olympian in history, Michael Phelps, is correct. Bowman didn’t coach Phelps to do it his way—instead, he recognized what unique strengths made Michael great. And then he made them better.

This is arguably what makes Bowman a great coach: He recognizes and enhances individual strengths. Understanding the need to take advantage of an athlete’s—or employee’s—greatest abilities is what allows leaders to build a top-performing team. Only the best coaches—or managers—are able to identify that unique talent and use it to their advantage. Here are three key strategies any organization can follow to craft a winning team.

Choose your top performers. Alex Morgan headed in the game-winning goal over Canada in the final minute of extra time to put Team USA in the women’s soccer finals. Hope Solo is known as the best goalkeeper in the world. Abby Wambach is one of the few elite professional female soccer players who have scored 100 goals. And the other 15 women on Team USA’s Olympic soccer team are equally impressive. They are the best of the best—and coach Pia Sundhage chose her team knowing that all of these top performers would be pushed by the excellence of their peers to make the most of their unique abilities.

Play to each team member’s strengths. While watching event after event, I’m constantly reminded that all of these athletes are in the arena because their coaches recognized and enhanced their greatest strengths. In selecting the swimming medley relay team, each country picks its top performers in each stroke—backstroke, breaststroke, freestyle, and fly—and places them as a team of four. By surrounding the best with the best, coaches enable each swimmer to concentrate on his or her strongest stroke. Each teammate is allowed to excel in the area of his or her expertise—in the case of Michael Phelps’s 20th medal, playing to these strengths made the difference between gold and silver.

Best practices aren’t always best. There is no magic formula to putting together a gold medal team. Team USA’s women’s gymnastics team is hand-selected, some would say subjectively. Many argue that the best overall gymnasts should make the team, but ultimately the decision is left to the coach to decide whose strengths will benefit the team most. When McKayla Maroney vaulted her way to a coveted spot on the team, it was clear she would compete in only a single event. After her team’s performance, John Geddert, one of the U.S. coaches, couldn’t be happier with the decision to include her: “McKayla Maroney’s [vault] was an absolute moonshot,” she said. “They should rename the vault. They should call it the ‘Maroney,’ because it’s a different league. She does it so much higher and faster and cleaner and more dynamic than the normal human.”

Putting together an Olympic-caliber team doesn’t happen overnight or without any challenges, but by working together, supervisors and employees can enhance individual strengths and produce greater results. As supervisors understand their team members’ strengths, not only will they run their organizations more effectively and efficiently—they will also capitalize on a strategy that wins gold.

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