Going for Gold – five business lessons from Rio

have to admit I’m a little surprised.

I grew up in the “thrill of victory, agony of defeat” era of broadcast sports and staying up late or getting up early to watch live Olympic events was the norm. For many reasons, I noticed a few weeks ago that I didn’t even know when the games began and it didn’t have its natural pull as it had in the past. I assumed I wouldn’t be making much time to watch any of the events. With a little over week complete for the 2016 Olympics, I have to admit that Olympic viewing has been a mainstay of our evenings, holding my attention well past my normal bedtime even when I’ve known the outcomes!

This year I have been looking at the Games and the athletes through a slightly different lens. I’ve spent some time over the past few years working with companies and their leaders to be laser focused on achieving results and studying what makes them a success. Interestingly, I found myself comparing the journey of the Olympic athlete to the path of some of my entrepreneurial clients and their businesses.

While the lessons are many, like the Olympic rings – here are my top five:

  1. Being “Ready” Is a State of Mind – For years we had heard how the Rio Games would be a disaster due to incomplete venues, ill-planned logistics, uncontrolled crime as well as safety and environmental hazards. While many of the problems did indeed occur, it is fascinating how little we focused on it once the games actually started. Yes, there were muggings (including the head of Security) and bus mix-ups and green diving pools and overall questionable water quality. But interestingly, the events continued, athletes competed and medals were awarded.  Focusing on the most necessary items for any product launch (the least amount of investment for what the customer wants and will pay for) – not the most perfect product – will often get you further. In The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Improvement to Create Radically Successful Businesses, Eric Ries tells us the longer you delay giving the customer something they can truly use, the less in service you are to your customers and the higher the odds are of true failure.
  2. Vision – Did you see this one about swimmer Ryan Murphy and the book he made for his parents at age 8 declaring his destiny as a future Olympian? Not only did he predict his Gold Medal but his world record as well. Not every eight year old’s dream will come true in such a grand fashion but it’s nearly impossible to have that kind of success without a vision like this in place to guide you. Companies with a clear vision (even if it means the strategy to achieve that vision is a little fuzzy) will almost always be more successful than those without one – which is why every strategic planning process utilizes a vision. You may not know how you are going to get to the moon but knowing the moon is your destination will make your remaining decisions more focused.
  3. Hard Work Isn’t Optional – Vision isn’t much without the effort that it takes to make the dream come true. Starting tumbling at age three, training eight hours a day seven days a week, delaying marriage/children/education, moving to another state (or even country) to train and be coached by and with the best, or having your loved ones give up their own dreams so you can achieve yours are all the hallmarks of world class or elite athletes. We see snippets of the dedication through human interest stories that, in most cases, took years of unglamorous and unnoticed effort for fleeting moments of glory. The same lessons and perseverance apply to most endeavors worth pursuing. So often we hear of the “overnight” success seemingly out of nowhere. But peel back the layers and you’ll often find that “overnight” really is years of showing up. Each day. Every day. Until your mission is complete.
  4. It’s Hard to Win Without Fun – A difficult to measure concept but it seemed to me, this year more than any other, the message I have heard and seen so far this Olympics is work HARD and have FUN. I’m not so naïve to know that it may just be what the broadcast network is showing us. The theme has played out so often and again through multiple venues, athletes, events and reporting avenues that I do not think it is a fluke. For me, it has been one of the redeeming features of these games as it has seemed to transcend individuals, teams and countries. Perhaps it is the globalization of sport in a time when travel and communication is easier and athletes from multiple countries train together and compete against each other. But the teasing and laughing between many competitors outside of their competitions has been, well, dare I say it – fun to watch as a spectator. The definition of fun is probably different for these elite athletes than the average person. But some element of fun has to include the achievement of an objective, the mastery of a subject and the pinnacle of success. It is not a surprise to me that companies that embrace high levels of achievement and a more humanistic approach tend to be more successful i.e. they win more often. Michael Phelps has been quoted often on how much fun he is having during these games. Combined with his vision and work ethic, having a little more fun this time around has made Phelps, at age 31, the most decorated Olympian in 2000 years. Maybe we all should have a little more fun.
  5. Coaches Make a Difference. To achieve great success, I believe it requires a special alchemy of talent or skill, passion, perseverance, effort and perhaps a bit of luck. But, we often can only see ourselves with a limited perspective which is where coaching can make a difference. Providing a mirror coaches challenge us, provide feedback, and advice on how to improve. Coaches can be great strategists or experts and most often provide an accountability framework that will support our own or supplant it when we struggle. The best coaches help us discover the buried treasure within us that we cannot easily see in ourselves. It has accelerated my business and improved my life. For my business clients, it is the reflective mirror and accountability they appreciate the most from our relationship because as for most business leaders, it is one of the most difficult elements to find within your own company.

It is difficult to know what highlights and surprises await us during this remaining Olympic week. But in life as in sport, a willingness to get in the ring, work hard, have some fun and take some advice greatly increases your odds to bring some Olympic Gold into your life.