How to deliver an Olympic-worthy performance in the workplace

As I sit glued to my TV screen each night watching the highlights from the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, I can’t help but draw some parallels between the performances on the ice and snow by the world’s top athletes - to those by everyday working folk in businesses large and small. Granted, the working professionals of the world aren’t competing for Olympic gold, but the challenges they face each day – and the tools they need to keep their head in the game – share some interesting similarities.

=> Let’s start with the obvious: training. Every Olympic athlete logs countless hours in local practice rinks, tracks and gyms honing their skills before they ever set foot on the world stage. Without this discipline and dedication, we’d never know the likes of Lindsey Vonn, Apolo Ohno, Shani Davis, Evan Lysacek and Shaun White.

And without regular, focused training to keep their individual technical skills sharp, and their contributions in line with the company's goals, most employees will remain merely average. Employee training and development is the biggest opportunity you have for increasing productivity, improving morale and boosting employee commitment. Neglect this and some of your best employees (or, potentially, your best employees) may forever remain in the shadows and on the sidelines.

=> Right on the heels of training comes tools. What are the resources you’re providing employees to get the job done? An Olympic figure skater wouldn’t arrive at the rink with broken skates, or an alpine skier to the slopes with a cracked ski. Neither should your employees expect to do their best with outdated equipment and tired processes. You know the saying, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”? Athletes are constantly tweaking their training routines and trying out the latest sporting equipment in the hopes of performing faster, stronger, higher, longer. Perhaps it’s time to explore some new, affordable HR resources to give your employees a competitive edge and keep your business running more smoothly.

=> With nearly every sport, the coach plays a huge part in an athlete’s development and ultimate victory. In the interviews following a winning performance, an Olympic athlete almost always gives credit (often with a lot of tears and fist-pumping) to the coach. Are your managers acting like coaches – supporting and inspiring their direct reports on a daily basis, but also playing tough, when necessary, and pushing them to perform better? It’s a delicate balance that sets the great managers apart from the good managers. Again, with the right tools and training, your finest managers can achieve that balance and become something even more valuable to your organization – leaders.

=> Feedback is another important part of the athlete-coach relationship. In fact, it’s the essence of effective coaching. Athletes don’t practice in a vacuum, expecting their coaches to remain silent as they struggle with a certain move – or on the flip side, failing to cheer them on when they nail a difficult maneuver. Your employees need constant dialogue from their managers and supervisors, too. They should have the advantage of working side by side with someone that understands their challenges, praising them when they do well and providing thoughtful intervention and support when they fail. Performance management isn’t a once-a-year occurrence at review time but rather, a day-to-day dynamic that keeps the lines of communication open between an employee and a manager.

=> Finally, there’s the main event. After years of training and selfless dedication, the Olympic athlete gives the performance of a lifetime, beating all odds and leaving the rest of us speechless. Later, we swell with pride as these awe-inspiring athletes step up to the podium and graciously receive their gold, silver or bronze medals. And while the achievements in the workplace may never compare to the latest, gravity-defying trick on the half pipe or the fastest time on the Super G, they’re just as crucial to the advancement and success of your business. Don’t assume your best-performing employees know their worth and that’s enough. Reward them with the thanks and recognition they deserve – either through inexpensive perks now (such as a desktop award, title change or nicer office) or monetary benefits later (such as a raise or extra paid days off) when the economy picks up again.

So what about you? When the 2010 games officially close on February 28, and the Olympic torch is extinguished, will you remember the many lessons our top athletes have taught us? Let’s honor their accomplishments and keep a little of that Olympic spirit alive right here in our workplaces!

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