Lessons From the Olympics

By Dr. Sullivan

Jul. 21, 2008

The Summer Olympics start August 8, and you just might be surprised to know that there are several lessons that HR professionals can garner from the event. Before you dismiss the connection outright, think about the Olympic model as one of the most effective motivation processes in the world. What better example is there than a system that motivates tens of thousands of individuals to make extraordinary sacrifices and to develop themselves beyond the capabilities of athletes who preceded them? The Olympic model routinely brings out record-breaking human performances. Unlike the corporate model, where professionals are paid thousands in salary and benefits just for showing up, the Olympics motivate without money and only reward performance. As with most sports, competing in the Olympics offers little statistical chance of even winning a medal, so it only makes sense to study the Olympics to see if there are any motivational principles we can use to set records with employee performance.

    The Olympics and HR share the same ultimate goal, which is getting the most out of human talent. Other things that HR has in common with the Olympics include the use of metrics, a continuous improvement process, teamwork and the use of technology to enable greater human performance. Both the Olympics and business are competitions (although it is often forgotten that business is so). By studying this model, which has operated successfully for decades around the globe, HR can capture some operational principles that can be modified and then applied to the way that HR manages employees. Here are four of those key principles:

    Competition is a powerful tool. Thousands participate in the Olympics, and millions watch them. That demonstrates that the competitive model excites people. Just to get a berth on your country’s team, you must successfully compete against your own teammates. In direct contrast, HR tends to discourage both internal and external competition, because it prefers harmony and it doesn’t like the discord associated with the heat of competition.

    Unfortunately, avoiding competition means lower levels of excitement and productivity. Some firms have embraced the competitive model. While firms like Google and Microsoft use contests to identify potential hires, MGM Grand has really mastered the science, employing “black box” competitions to seek out and identify talent anywhere within a function regardless of tenure and experience.

    In the food and beverage department, for example, any employee can sign up to compete in tournament-style culinary challenges in which winning contestants move on to the next round. Contestants are provided black boxes that contain ingredients they must use to prepare an original dish (anyone who has watched Iron Chef knows how this works). The challenges allow employees new and old, with and without experience, and from anywhere within the function, to showcase their skills and abilities to complete truly job-relevant challenges.

    In the recent past, black-box challenges have enabled a 23-year-old sous chef in a nonrated venue to be promoted to executive chef in a four-star venue, and a wait-staff member to be promoted to general manager, both having proved their ability to manage all aspects of the job through various challenges. Not only do the challenges enable superstars to shine, but they also remove all doubt among other employees why someone got promoted.

    Performance-based hiring is best. In the Olympics, you don’t make the team based on seniority, education or experience. Selection is based solely on the person’s performance in real-life trials. Corporations could benefit by shifting some of their emphasis away from interviewing and instead give candidates real problems or simulations to solve, as Microsoft, Google and GE have done.

    Reward superior results, not effort. In the Olympics, medals go exclusively to those who produce the top numbers. There is no “show-up pay” or guarantees. Although dozens might compete in a grueling event, only three will be recognized and rewarded with medals. HR, by contrast, tries to utilize the “soccer mom” model, where everyone gets equal praise and some reward and the differential between the top and the average performers may be marginal. HR also can over-praise intangible factors like effort, heart, loyalty, commitment, perseverance and values. The lesson is that dramatic differentiation in rewards sends a clear message that exceptional performance is the goal. Average results have little value because only exceptional results can teach us how to change the process so that all can improve.

    Compare yourself with the best in the world. In the Olympics, the standard is an external “best in the world” standard. You compare everything you do with the holder of the continually improving world record. HR metrics, rather than being internally focused, also need to be compared directly with the best HR results in the world. Winning requires comparing yourself with the results produced by the world’s best firm—and then beating them.

    The overall lesson to be learned from the Olympics is that it’s not the shoes that create champions, despite what the advertising slogan says. Obviously it takes talent, but it’s equally important to have great managers and superior processes to select, develop, motivate and get the talent to work together as a team. Sounds a lot like HR.

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