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Remembering Who Makes the Olympics: The Athletes

February 21st, 2010 by Tom Steitz

Shaun WhiteTeam USA has the momentum going here in Vancouver, and a lot of the talk amongst other nations is, “What is the USA having for breakfast?”

My experience tells me that once this tide starts to rise, it is only going to continue to improve.  Nothing breeds success like success.

I am a “ski” guy, but this Olympics has converted me to become the newest fan of snowboarder Shaun White.  Back-to-back gold medals, what an achievement!  Even more inspiring is what he’s been doing with his tremendous earning power and celebrity – promoting good causes and charities for kids.  Shaun tells his own story of being about 9 or 10 years old and standing in line for an autograph from one of his boyhood heroes, only to be turned away after standing in lines for what seemed like forever because the autograph party was closing.  Shaun said, “That will never be me.  I will never be that person to a little kid.  I will do anything for kids.  That incident scared me and made me aware of the power of fame and I will not abuse it.”

Another great Team USA athlete is Bode Miller.  Two events and two medals – such an achievement, and yet Bode is reserved, mild-mannered, humble and appreciative.  Seems like becoming a father and the maturity of added years are agreeing with the superstar.

I had breakfast Friday morning with an old friend, Picabo Street.  You’ll recall Picabo captured the gold at the 1998 Olympics, but shortly after suffered devastating injuries that put her in rehabilitation for two years.  We discussed the ups and downs of the Olympics over the years.  No one could possibly be more amped about Team USA’s performance this year than her.

Picabo shared the perspective with me that it seems the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) and US Ski Team have finally placed the focus and attention on the athletes, which is were it belongs.  This triggered a bit of a corporate parallel – Olympic athletes are like the “customers” of the USOC.  In the business world, large companies will sometimes make the mistake of getting caught up in their own greatness, forgetting that success cannot come without their customers – or their employees.  What Picabo and I are noticing is that the USOC seems to be recovering from this mistake, and has returned attention to their number one customer – the athletes.  And guess what the result is?  Team USA is having a great year.

For some athletes the best is yet to come.  We are about halfway through these Olympic games, and there is a lot of action ahead. Most people I talk to seem to believe we are going to see the most successful Olympics in U.S. history.

One thing is for sure – the city of Vancouver is alive!  The streets here are absolutely jammed, there is zero room on the sidewalks, and the crowds and partying goes on until the sun comes up every day.  In fact, the noise is quite a factor for those of us living in downtown Vancouver and trying to sleep.

It truly is a world party being held in Vancouver and tens of thousands of fans are taking it in.  The experience is unforgettable.

A Leader Among Us Can Make All the Difference

February 17th, 2010 by Tom Steitz

Some of you may have seen yesterday’s Wall Street Journal that looked at Olympic athletes of years past and highlighted what they have done and are doing today.  I was please to see former Nordic Combined Skier Ryan Heckman among them.

While Ryan never took home an Olympic medal, he took away – and gave – much more to the Nordic Combined team. He emerged as a leader when we needed it most; in fact, if there’s one athlete I credit with the turnaround that started more than two decades ago, it’s Ryan.

Ryan joined the U.S. team within the first few years that I took over and he was a game changer.  Many executives hear me talk about the importance of cultural fit and finding the right talent to embody the organization and culture.  Ryan did that for us.  While many athletes before him were satisfied with just making the national team, Ryan pushed himself and others for peak performance to be the best possible.  It wasn’t just about being on the team…or even being a national champion (Ryan was multiple national champion in two different disciplines).  Nor was it enough to just make the Olympic team. (Ryan was the youngest Olympian at the 1992 Olympics.)  He wanted the U.S. team to be the best in the world. He lived it.  And, he led it.

Ryan was never the biggest or strongest athlete; in fact, he was the exact opposite, but his beliefs and commitment made him a giant and a true visionary.  He was not afraid to call out unproductive behaviors of either myself and/or his teammates even when it was not the popular thing to do.  He was often ostracized or given the “freeze out” by those athletes who held to the culture of old.

He never expected any more from anyone than he expected from himself.  He gave it all physically and emotionally and was welcomed being judged and evaluated on results and performance based metrics. I learned a lot from his spirit.

When a leader is going to attempt to change an overall culture in an organization, you need an athlete or employee in the corporate setting to model and showcase the desired behaviors.  The leader then needs to hope and pray the executive and/or athlete gets the results to demonstrate how the new culture can drive and produce.  I was lucky enough to have that in Ryan.

It is tough emotionally on these types of employees/athletes who forge ahead into unknown and often unaccepted waters.  Yet, without this kind of franchise player or exemplary executive, real sustained culture change is very difficult to attain.

A leader cannot change the culture until you have a believer to follow. The current Nordic Combined team has three guys in the top six (Todd, Bill and Johnny), who are reaping the benefits of the door that Ryan opened.

Thanks Ryan for all your contributions over the years.

Before I sign off, I’ll let you all in on a little secret: if the Nordic Combined team does great things in the team event next week, it will have very little do with the physical training or technical competence; it will be because of the culture created in this team years ago.