The Big Idea - Top Ten Business Lessons from the Olympics

Peninsula Team

August 20 2012

I’ve written before about some of the lessons we can learn from the techniques sports psychologists use to improve performance and how they can be applied to the business environment. So after the great successes of the 2012 London Olympic Games and Team GB, I’ve put some thought to the key lessons we can take from the inspirational sportsmen and women who have graced our screens over the past few weeks. 1.      Have a vision and clear objectives. All the athletes who made it to the 2012 Olympics would have had a definite target in mind; whether to beat a PB, make it through the heats or win a medal. Similarly, it’s important when running a business to have a “grand vision” of what you want to aim for. Then break this grand vision down into the smaller steps you need to attain to see you on your way. These more attainable targets, set on a monthly or six monthly basis, can then become your game plan. 2.      Small, incremental steps make a big difference over time. Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor did Michael Phelps become one of the greatest Olympians overnight. Athletes improve by making small changes and setting small challenges daily and building up over time – similar to the Japanese approach known as kaizen. The same applies to business – why not think of three small changes that will improve the way you operate and aim to implement them by the end of the month? 3.      Make it measurable. Every athlete in the games was driven by measurable targets to within milliseconds or millimetres. Do the same for your business. Establish targets for yourself and your staff that will stretch you and hold yourselves to account against those metrics. 4.      You don’t get anywhere without heart. Energy, passion, conviction, enthusiasm. Whatever you choose to call it, the athletes who’ve made it to Olympic level are passionate about what they do. There’s no point running a business unless you are prepared to throw your energies into it. Enthusiasm infects and fires up employees and customers alike, whilst a lack of conviction can have the converse effect. 5.              Don’t give up when the going gets tough. Some of our Team GB medal winning athletes didn’t receive any funding from the Lottery. Some have been through terrible family tragedy or horrific injuries. But they kept at it. Tenacity, dedication and resilience are as vital in business as they are in sport. There will be knockbacks (they’re part of the package) but don’t let them destroy you. Learn from them if you can, recover as quickly as you can and then move on. It’ll make your victory all the sweeter when you attain your business goals. 6.      Dare to be unorthodox. The Olympic Games are full of stories of people who’ve challenged convention, from Jesse Owens to Dick Fosbury to Oscar Pistorius, the “Blade Runner” who took on the Olympic authorities to participate in the 2012 games. Sometimes the way things have always been done needs to be shaken up to achieve competitive advantage. Some of the best business ideas have been formed by challenging received wisdoms and changing the rules of the game. As Henry Ford said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they’d have said faster horses.” 7.      Keep your eyes on the prize. Focus is absolutely essential to becoming an elite athlete. These people know what they want and go after it single-mindedly. Having clarity of vision allows you to know what you’re supposed to be doing and enables you to become consumed by it. Focus also means learning how to say no, as Steve Jobs pointed out, and on concentrating on what actually matters to the game plan. It means exercising a huge amount of discipline and making sacrifices to achieve what you really want. An important and a tough lesson, whether you’re building a great business or winning Olympic medals. 8.      Train your brain.  Training consistently over many years is what propelled the athletes we saw in the games from gifted individuals to Olympians at the pinnacles of their sports. Continuous, regular effort is the only way to achieve results. In the same way, keep pushing yourself in business. Keep edging forward towards your goals, keep challenging yourself and your staff and most importantly, keep learning. “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other,” said JFK. 9.      If you build it, they will come. Top athletes believe in themselves and their abilities unequivocally and set a high bar to achieve their dreams. They use techniques such as visualisation to work through fears, get themselves in the right mindset and overcome limiting beliefs. In the same way, in business it can help to “act as if”. Believe you’re already the best in your business, act as though you are and offer the service to match. It costs nothing to have self-belief, so what do you have to lose? As William James said: “Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.” 10.  Performance is all that matters. Here’s a good quote to finish on. “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.” So said Vince Lombardi, a famous coach in American football. Ultimately as a business all your customers really care about is your performance – and so should you. Whether you’re a world class athlete or a great business person, you need to deliver consistently excellent performance, time after time after time. That’s how you’ll be judged. But perhaps by taking a few lessons from the excellence demonstrated by our Olympians and by putting a few of their disciplines into practice, you’ll be giving yourself and your business a good chance of delivering a top class, gold medal winning performance. By Deborah Done, managing director of Nab Communications.

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