by Maria Nieves, President & CEO, Hudson County Chamber of Commerce
For two weeks every four years we are treated to some of the greatest reality television on the planet (and I’m not talking about the presidential campaign). The Olympic Games provide high drama, and a few interesting side bar stories, like few other shows can. It’s among my favorite sporting events to watch. And the Rio Games have lived up to my expectations. The cast this year comprises more than 11,000 athletes hailing from 208 countries.
While the athletes can perform super human feats and display the most amazingly fit physiques, their personal stories are always relatable. Whether they are stars like gymnast Simon Biles, swimmer Michael Phelps and sprinter Usain Bolt, or an athlete who competes in a lesser known sporting event, their victories and defeats are all equally mesmerizing.
The lessons we learn from these athletes are part of what make the Olympics such must-watch-TV for me. As the Games come to a close this weekend, and we bid adieu to Rio’s beautiful vistas and diverse set of characters, I began to ponder on the lessons that business owners can take away from the latest edition of this sports tradition.
#1 – Pace Yourself – It’s Going to be a Long Haul
Being a business owner, like being an Olympian, is a long-haul proposition. Athletes prepare many years for what is often a once-in-a-lifetime chance. To get to the world’s biggest sporting stage, they test their chops in world competitions, and typically must achieve top three in the trials of their respective countries in order to punch their ticket to the Games. Once at the Olympics, there are rounds of games, matches, and qualifying races. Even the top gymnasts in the world, such as the USA’s Final Five, need to “audition” at the Games by competing first in a qualifying round. Athletes learn to pace themselves accordingly. They can’t leave it all in the pool or on the track in the first round. They need to take just enough risk and expend just enough energy to qualify and then let loose in the finals.
Like runners and swimmers, business owners also need to pace themselves so they’ll have the focus and energy needed when it really counts. Entrepreneurs who have both passion and enthusiasm for their vision, often work long days, wear many hats, and sweat numerous details to bring their dream to fruition. And they often have to take care of many un-glamorous tasks before they reach their goal of building a sustainable business. It can be challenging to keep your eyes on the prize when going through all the hurdles (all these sports pun are fully intended!) of drafting a plan, registering a business, finding suppliers, identifying distribution channels, engaging investors and securing the capital to launch and grow, etc., etc., etc. So pace yourself. You’re in it for the long-haul.
#2 – Raw Talent is not Enough – You’ve Got to Hone Your Skills
World class athletes are certainly born with many unique physical assets. They may have the height needed to excel at a sport like volleyball or, on the opposite end, be shorter in stature, which would make them more suited for gymnastics. Perhaps they’ll have the long arm span needed by boxers and swimmers or an aptitude for great hand and eye coordination. Think of Usain Bolt, the world’s fastest man and winner of back-to-back Olympic 100 meter races. He’s tall with long legs that help him to have a higher leg turnover rate than many of his competitors. Regardless of these natural gifts, however, world class athletes are not born. They are made over many years of workouts, training and competitions, which hone their technical skills, and build muscle and muscle memory. Experience also enables them to develop mental toughness. An ability to learn from failure is probably one of the most important skills any athlete can develop.
Like an athlete competing at the highest levels, you may have natural abilities that give you an edge as an entrepreneur and business owner, but you too will need to hone your skills as a leader and manager. You have to learn to manage the day-to-day while planning strategically, become a great communicator and develop your EQ to complement your IQ, as well as the mental toughness to persevere when things get tough. You need to make a commitment to continuously improve. This is also known as, practice, practice, practice.
#3 – Find the Right Coach
More than likely you had never heard of South Africa’s Wayde Van Niekerk before these Games. He won the men’s 400 meter race in world record time. What makes his story particularly striking is his coach, 74 year-old Anna Botha, a great-grandmother of four with a head full of wavy white hair. She doesn’t look like your typical track and field coach. Quite the opposite. But Botha’s philosophy is that you’re never too old to learn something new. And she’s been the head track and field coach at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein since 1990! When Van Niekerk enrolled there, he sought out Botha. She helped him switch his focus from the 200 meter race to the 400 meter race after the Games in London in 2012 in order to help him protect against injuries. The rest is now history. Clearly she was the right coach at the right time for Van Niekerk. A partnership made in sports heaven.
That’s what you want when you’re running your own business, especially if you’re running a small business: the right coaches and mentors at the right time. Be discerning but be open to coaching. Is this coach going to have your best interests in mind? Have they a unique perspective that can help you to make key transitions? Perhaps they’re not even in your industry or someone you might consider a likely coach. Remember that mentors come in all shapes and sizes. Ultimately you want a coach who can push you to be your best self in business but also provide moral support.
#4 – Practice Sportsman- and Sportswomanship
It was a heartwarming scene when New Zealand’s Nikki Hamblin and the USA’s Abbey D’Agostino helped each other after falling to the track during their qualifying race in the women’s 5000 meter. The real-life drama unfolded when Hamblin tripped and tumbled to the ground, accidentally bringing D’Agostino down behind her. When D’Agostino got back to her feet, she didn’t just run off and leave Hamblin in her dust. She helped Hamblin up, despite the fact that D’Agostino had injured her ankle. They rallied each other to complete the race.
Many sports are generally speaking, a zero-sum proposition. Lose a match and your team is bounced. There can only be one all-around gymnastics champion or decathlon winner. For me to win, you must lose and vice versa. It’s the rare, rare race that produces a tie for the top spot. That said, world class athletes know that their competitors are critical to helping them push further. You can compete against yourself, but that will only get you so far. There’s benefit to fostering respectful competition on and off the track. In the end, sportsmanship helps to elevate the sport along with the athlete. And in the case of Hamblin and D’Agostino, they were unexpectedly rewarded for their sportswomanship by being granted two spots in the 5000 meter final.
Business may at times seem like a zero-sum game. But I don’t believe it is or has to be. I encourage you to practice some business sportsmanship. You want to be known as a connector and a giver, not a taker. No one company can capture the entire market, nor does it need to. The pie is big enough for all. And you may find at times that there are prospective customers or projects that don’t make sense for you or your business. In those cases, help them and others in your industry by making a referral. It’ll go a long way and will earn unexpected rewards that rebound to you.
#5 – Go for the World Record, Not the Medal
Katie Ledecky, the American swimmer who blew away the field in the women’s 800 meter freestyle, doesn’t swim for the gold medal. She swims for the world record. She’s got her eyes on the bigger prize. And when she set the world record in Rio, she won that race by more than 11 seconds over her nearest competitor.
This piece of advice comes from one of our Chamber Members Juliet Foster who volunteers to run the Chamber’s monthly Breakfast Club meetings. I think it’s great advice. Go for the world record. Ask yourself who now holds the world record in your industry and what can you learn from them. What are they doing that you’re not? How can you become the world record holder in your field.
#6 – Have Fun
Ask Usain Bolt what has propelled him through all his wins and I would venture to guess that he’d tell you he relishes his time on the big stage. He’s enjoying the moment. Just think about it. Does he ever look nervous to you? I’ve never seen a more relaxed sprinter. Before his race, cameras often catch him dancing and being playful. And it’s this energy that helps him relax into his races. So grab a Bolt and remember life is short. As a business owner you are fortunate to be doing what you love. Have some fun!