2012 and the Olympics are on us once again. Some athletes have spent a lifetime preparing for a few minutes – sometimes seconds – of ultimate high performance; for that single moment of being seen as the best and taking ‘gold’. But, are there any lessons we can learn and transfer from the athletic track, field and pool to achieve superior performance in our organisations?

Yes; there are some subtle differences in that the Olympics are just every four years and we are concerned about day to day performance, but the Olympics are the culmination of years of refinement; the ultimate successful performance management.

For most athletes it starts with a combination of a basic capability and a strong desire but first that basic capability has to be recognised (spotted by a friend, parent, teacher or coach) and then the desire has to be nurtured, supported and enhanced to cope with the setbacks (injury and disappointment) that will ultimately follow. When it comes to the world of work, there is a real opportunity to ensure that talent at every stage and in every discipline is spotted.

This requires a clear understanding of what talent looks like. It sounds quite straight forward and you would expect to look for just those who are already excelling. But, consider what it would be like to spot a gold medal swimmer from watching them in a basketball match. An organisation obviously needs to recognise those who are excelling at what they do already and who could go further. However, the real challenge is to spot untapped potential so that those who may just be in the wrong job or are under poor management or are in the wrong environment are still identified and given opportunity to do their best.

Having spotted the talent it may be necessary to trigger the desire and it is certainly necessary to nurture that desire. Yet, in business, every survey undertaken that I am aware of identifies that managers don’t spend as much time as they should in managing and supporting their teams. In a recent CIPD survey, 73% of managers acknowledged they fall short. While 60% of managers are not sure what the motivators are for the individuals who work for them. ‘Engagement’ is the buzz word that has circulated the HR forums for the last five years and high engagement has been proven to lead to high discretionary performance. As every athletic is different, so is each employee and what motivates them. It has to be each manager’s responsibility to identify the motivators for each individual; those things that trigger and drive that desire to perform.

There will be some common denominators that engage people (75% of high performing individuals identified ‘knowing what it takes to be successful’ as critical to engaging them), but it is meeting and managing each person’s individual profile of needs that leads to engagement and nurturing desire that will cope with setbacks and deliver performance.

A good athlete knows their discipline inside out; they study the different techniques, they read, they watch and they adapt and develop their own physic to maximise performance. ‘Discipline’ in the workplace has unfortunate connotations, especially when used in the context of performance management. Yet, in areas of faith, it means the giving of instruction to a follower and, in its wider context, it means the training of one’s craft or skills. HR has a key role to play in establishing the facilities that enable individuals to grow; from ensuring clarity of role and purpose, through availability to learning materials, time to learn (frequently this can be missing or assumed that a person should use their own personal time to learn) and to correcting inappropriate or unhelpful techniques. This is what the Olympians’ personal coaches do – those unsung heroes of the Olympics. If you are in HR, don’t you want to be behind Olympian performance in your organisation?

In recent years, there has been much debate over performance enhancing swimwear in competitive sport. The fact that swimwear can make a 100th of a second difference can mean the difference between Gold and Silver. In all sports disciplines, the athlete’s equipment can enhance or inhibit his or her performance. Technology has played an increasing role as athletes’ heart rates, pace, distances and so on are all monitored and motions and techniques are observed and refined in slow motion. Increasingly, forward thinking organisations are employing integrated technology solutions that support enhancing on-job performance. From target setting and planning to continuous monitoring, real time ratter feedback, development solution recommendations, goal modification and social support networks, technology now supports the workplace athlete every bit as well as those on the track or in the field.

Equally, while there is an increasing use of coaches for development in business (usually for management and or high potential individuals), most organisations have not yet truly established a performance coaching culture – where it is a key part of the managers’ role to coach and enable their staff to both optimise performance and maximise development. Many managers identify with training or instructing and many may also undertake such instruction, but few would comprehend continuous performance coaching as part of their role; if they did, they would prioritise time to do it. This is something that will have to change.

I can remember having a desire, as a fairly competent swimmer, to be a proficient diver as well. Studying the books, magazines and even videos for ‘high diving’ and even having lots of courage and encouragement to give it a go, means little when you stand with your toes over the edge of the diving platform and look into the chasm below. Standing there did not make me a high diver. You have to give it a go and be prepared to accept you might not get it right. In fact, you may not get it right most of the time. But listening to guidance, practicing, monitoring and refining what you do, eventually leads to that moment when everything comes together and you know you have got it right. There is much we can learn and apply in every part of our working lives from athletics.

Creating an environment where it is safe to learn and, dare I say it, even to fail and learn is a concept many organisations aspire to but fail to achieve. From providing genuine encouragement, appreciative inquiry, to accepting mistakes and providing on-going support and coaching are all part of the process of establishing a climate where it is safe to learn and grow.

It is not rocket science but there are clear scientific lessons that we can take from high performing athletes and translate into the working environment to accelerate performance and create a culture in which success is achieved and can be celebrated. In conclusion, I have just identified a few key similarities that make a difference:

1. Spotting the talent
2. Triggering and nurturing the desire
3. Training – providing the knowledge, tools and techniques
4. Equipping – providing the technology that plans, targets and provides feedback, improvement options and support as well as provides monitoring of the overall process
5. Coaching – the manager as the personal performance and development coach
6. Creating an environment where it is safe to grow through practice, failure, refinement and success

The Author

Roger Edwards, Pilat HR Solutions