Oswald Letter

Recognizing the Olympians in your workplace

Medalby Dan Oswald

While watching the opening ceremonies of the 2014 Winter Olympics, I was struck by the many similarities between a country’s Olympic team and a company’s employees. It might seem odd to draw that particular comparison, but let me explain and see if you also notice the correlation between the two.

At the Olympics, there are the individual competitors—highly skilled athletes who are striving to be the best in their chosen field. These people are dedicated to excelling at their specialty and work long hours to hone their skills. They dream of being recognized with a gold medal for their hard work, extraordinary skills, and achievements. Tell me that doesn’t describe many of the people in your company. You have skilled people working hard at their craft to receive the recognition that their hard work, skills, and achievements deserve. That might be a pat on the back, a company award, or a well-deserved raise or bonus, but these people are clearly driven to excel.

The Olympics also provides opportunities for team success. This winter, there are team competitions in hockey, curling, bobsledding, and more. In team sports, a group of individuals is brought together to achieve something that none of them could do alone. In many cases, those individuals have very specialized skill sets that allow them to contribute to the team’s success. Consider for a moment a hockey goalie, who in all likelihood won’t score a single goal during Olympic competition, but his team can’t win without a strong performance from him. He has a specific job to do, and doing it well is how he contributes to the team’s success.

A great example of team success at the Olympics is the 1980 USA men’s hockey team. The team, featured in the 2004 movie Miracle, beat the heavily favored Soviet Union team to win the gold medal. In the movie, Herb Brooks, the team’s coach (played by Kurt Russell), says, “All-star teams fail because they rely solely on the individual’s talent. The Soviets win because they take that talent and use it inside a system that’s designed for the betterment of the team.”

There are specific teams within a company, each made up of individuals who have been brought together for a specific purpose. You have sales, production, HR—teams that are highly coordinated and might even have some real specialists on them. Like the Olympic teams, they’re brought together to achieve certain goals that would be unobtainable if each member was acting alone. And they’re all working within a system that is led by a manager who is assigned the task of helping the team reach its maximum potential.

Finally, each Olympian is competing for herself and, in some cases, her team. But every Olympian is also competing for her country. You can see the pride and emotion this elicits in many of the Olympians when they climb the podium to receive their gold medal, often draped in their country’s flag, and hear their national anthem played. There’s a certain amount of pride that comes from representing something larger than yourself and even your team.

The country, in this analogy, is the company. You want to create a company people are proud to work for. Every individual contributor might be working for himself, and he might also be working for the success of the team. But in the end, you really want him working for the company. If you can bring together a collection of individuals who are dedicated to their craft, are willing to play their designated role on the team, and are proud of the company they work for, then you’ve created something very special. That’s when your opportunities and achievements feel limitless! And that’s when you hear Al Michaels in the background screaming, “Do you believe in miracles?!”