It’s the Little Things: What Olympians Can Teach Executives

With the Olympics in full swing, the Valen Analytics team enjoyed a real treat a couple weeks ago with a private tour at the USOC Training Facility in Colorado Springs from VP of U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Foundation, Charlie Huebner.  Here’s a few nuggets from Olympians for #WednesdayWisdom.

Charlie is the epitome of leadership – his passion is infectious. He clearly articulates the focused vision, strategy and execution of the USOC. I was particularly struck by how data-driven the decisions are at USOC in terms of deciding which sports to invest in, how to evaluate the potential for individual performers to win on the world stage, and where to allocate limited resources. As Charlie explained, the USOC’s budget is substantially less than that of other countries. The USOC has a $250M operating budget, compared to the billions spent by the governments of China and Russia.

While they leverage analytics to drive strategic investment decisions, they don’t lack heart. Charlie remarked, “We’re not managing widgets here. We’re managing the hopes and dreams of the best athletes in the world. What we decide has an enormous impact on individuals.” The average income of a U.S. Olympic athlete is just $20,000, and only a small handful develop lucrative sponsorships. These athletes are definitely not in it for the money. They dedicate years of their lives to pursue their passion and achieve incredible heights.

Our whole team was inspired by the visit and moved by the energy Charlie shared during our few hours with him. Reflecting on the experience, I thought about how well Charlie laid out what we all read in business books on effective leadership and high performing teams. I won’t do his storytelling justice in this post, but wanted to share what I took away.

The Why: The USOC helps athletes prepare over 4 years for seconds of competition.

The Goal: Invest in athletes and sports where we have the best chance to medal.

The How: Let data and information inform your successes and failures, and guide where to steer the ship. The most critical decisions are determining what to keep doing, what to scrap, and what will work if you try to execute another way.

The Tough Reality: Sometimes U.S. athletes at the top of their game are unlikely to achieve the set goal of winning a medal, and will not get the resources that others will. It could be the result of the competitive landscape and assessing that our best isn’t enough to win against athletes from other countries. It could be the unfortunate reality that other countries allow their athletes to cheat by doping in a particular sport and we can’t overcome that obstacle.

Taking Risks: There are several cases where the USOC decides conditions have changed and it’s the right time to take a chance and invest in a sport where we’ve struggled. In those situations, most recently with boxing and cycling, the USOC is incredibly thoughtful about the dedication and investment in tools, coaches, and other resources that will set up our athletes for success. The new boxing facility and coaching staff, led by Billy Walsh is case in point. As is an enclosed training room to help cyclists and triathletes, equipped with cycles and treadmills that can change 25k feet in altitude, and mimic extreme weather and humidity conditions.

 

 

The Culture: Building a team of A players requires that you compete with passion and heart. Once you seed the team with top performers, you begin the journey of bringing more people of that same caliber. Charlie shared the challenge in getting professional basketball players interested in the Olympics, until the 1992 Dream Team. Professional players began flocking to join the team.

 

The Execution: At the end of the day, it all comes down to execution. If Charlie said it once, he said it a dozen times: “We can’t outspend so we out execute.” He showed us so many examples of the little things that add up to a world-class Olympic team that shines in every Olympic Games. They ‘out execute’ on the smallest details of designing the training facility and teaching athletes how to shop for and cook food in remote destinations around the world, to chartering a plane in Sochi to avoid antics with Russian customs, and sending in construction crews to Rio to improve the living conditions for athletes. Details as small and important as shipping in better mattresses are meticulously planned and executed.

 

It’s valuable perspective to see what goes into supporting athletes, living on such a humble income, to give them the best chance at stretching themselves to be the best in the world. Those medal winners get to enjoy a moment of glory after years of unbelievable hard work and dedication. Taking that same focused vision, passion for the work, attention to detail, and commitment to flawless execution is what defines the winners and losers in business too.

Kirstin Marr is CMO of Valen Analytics, and has a passion for building great tech companies and promoting the impact of the brightest marketing professionals.