How A Gold Medalist Uses His Olympic Experience To Run A Business

Rowing Olympian Rowley Douglas shares the parallels he has found between winning gold and leading his employees to success.

Training for the Olympics—and eventually winning gold—is an event that will remain a defining moment in my life.

Since returning to the regular hustle and bustle of everyday life, I have, now more than ever, come to see the many parallels between business and elite sport.

The lessons I learned in training and competing have become essential to fostering a collaborative, focused, and winning work environment.

I believe teamwork, communication, and transparency must be constant investments continually worked on. Like a team with a common goal, you don’t simply stop functioning cohesively once one your target is met. You continually strive to set new goals and exceed them—these really are the building blocks of any industry or a winning sports team.

With that in mind, here are seven proven tips to make any workplace gold-medal-worthy.

1. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts

Everyone has individual strengths and weaknesses—that’s the great thing about teamwork. Where one member might be less comfortable or experienced, there’s another teammate willing to step in and help out.

It’s okay to single out folks for praise, but too much, too often can be counterproductive and makes everyone feel inadequate and uncomfortable. The key is to all be pulling in the same direction and have a solid understanding of what each person contributes with a roadmap for getting to the end game.

2. Win or lose, find a ray of sunshine

It’s about winning; nobody sets out to lose. Things however do not always go the way you planned and people do make mistakes.

If you are working at the edge of operational capability and you want a culture that promotes pushing harder to find out what is possible, you have to accept accidents will happen and goals will sometimes fall short. When mistakes happen, rather than play the blame game, simply retrace the team’s steps, identify positive markers, and offer constructive feedback to improve processes moving forward. Every situation has a ray of sunshine; you only need to find one to improve the next engagement.

3. Managers are coaches and should be viewed as such

Whether you have one boss or 12, it’s important to think of them as advisors and counselors who only want to see you succeed. Just as you’d follow the guidance of a coach, managers are no different. After all, your manager’s position denotes they have more experience. Also keep in mind, like coaches, they sign your paycheck and likely have a say in your future at the company.

This doesn’t mean you agree with everything but it does mean you should show you are taking feedback and trying to make changes. If you still disagree, come back with a constructive way to move forward having tried what your manager has suggested.

4. Use gentle humor if possible

If you can deliver criticism in a lighthearted manner, it will be received in a much more positive way. Humor doesn’t diminish the seriousness of the feedback you are giving, it actually helps the person receiving the direction to open up and take it in. Some of the most stressful moments at the Olympics ended or were delivered with a dose of humor. Pick your moments, however.

5. Don’t take credit for what’s not yours

Collaborative environments do have a dark side. That is, sometimes they foster a natural competitiveness—in itself not a bad thing—which can be exploited negatively.

If you’re a manager, it might be easier to take credit for a project a subordinate did as they oftentimes don’t see how things are communicated or presented above them. If you’re a team member and present a project slanted favorably toward yourself, you’re only hurting your credibility moving forward.

Ways to sidestep this issue are to promote a transparent hierarchy, where everyone is looped in to projects and to simply give credit where it’s due. Presenting a collective voice demonstrates you want to win as a team and are going to encourage those with great ideas to speak up and help everyone get to the prize together.

6. Take ownership rather than offer excuses

Regardless of your level within a company, if you need more time or have an issue completing work, be honest about it. Coming clean is always better than saying "my dog ate my homework." We’re all adults and should possess mature accountability.

This isn’t to say it’s easy to ask for extensions or justify why something fell short. However, by being upfront and honest, you actually further your credibility; just don’t make it a defining habit.

7. Be polite

It sounds simple and easy, but in today’s increasingly fast-paced society of digital communication, manners seem to be less of a focus, and they cost nothing. Not that every situation demands "royal protocol" but simple graces such as "please" and "thank you" can go a long way—even when dealing with those you’re less fond of.

Just as in sports, it’s not expected you’ll like everyone—we are human after all—but it’s important to still treat that person with respect. Fostering a gracious environment cuts down on negativity; this, in turn, increases productivity and positivity among your team.

Rowley Douglas is executive vice president of CloudSense, leading all activity for North America driving business growth and customer engagement. He won a gold medal as a member of the British rowing team in the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

[Image: Flickr user Jimmy Harris]

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