· 3 min read · Features

What can business learn from the Olympics?


Anybody visiting the Olympic sites could not help but be impressed with the positivity and friendliness of some 70,000 unpaid volunteers.

They said two things inspired them: being part of something very special and experiencing a real sense of camaraderie. The spirit of teamwork was created at least in part by the volunteers taking part in a number of volunteer-only events. This included an invitation to the dress rehearsal of the opening ceremony, participation in treasure hunts and various after parties once the games were over. These events formed strong bonds amongst the volunteers, forging many friendships. We all strive for both meaning and connection in our work and London 2012 provided both.

Being authentic

The athletes (especially the GB ones) gave their heartfelt reactions after each event. Their honesty and their tears was endearing and we marvelled when they entered the stadium at the closing ceremony through walking amongst the crowd. They were real, they were human, they said others could achieve the same results with hard work and we loved them for it.

People who had worked on constructing the various Olympic sites were invited to the opening ceremony; heroes of the local community were selected to carry the Olympic flame and the volunteers asked to just be their usual cheery selves.

One of the great misconceptions leaders often have is their need to have all the answers and appear to be perfect all of the time. The answer lies in leading in an authentic manner, recruiting a set of employees who are diverse in their interests and viewpoints and who are encouraged to develop their own unique skills and perspectives.


The opening ceremony was packed full of innovative changes from those conducted previously. The decision for example, to have seven largely unknown but promising athletes lighting the Cauldron was a complete breakaway from the time-honoured tradition of having one iconic figure. This was not change for change's sake but rather, the organisers asking themselves what approach would best meet their vision of creating a legacy.

None of the innovative steps represented anything overly complex or relied upon a huge technological breakthrough. Rather, they just resulted in a brave decision to do things differently to excite, entertain and be relevant.

A great question to ask in your businesses is: "What could potentially be a better way of doing this [performance management process, recruitment process, etc] given our new [market-place, changing employee aspirations, etc]?

Uphold Your Values

The three core values of the Olympic movement (excellence, friendship and respect) were ruthlessly upheld.

Among the four eliminated teams from the Badminton event (due to them deliberately seeking to lose) were China's Wang Xiaoli and Yu Yang - the sport's reigning world champions. Eliminating one of the strong favorites for the gold medal was a very brave call. As Jack Welsh has often pointed out, the managers who don't share the organisation's values yet deliver the numbers [or the potential results in this case] are the people who need to leave since their continued participation can destroy the desired organisational culture.

Impact of Bonus Payments

Team GB won their largest ever medal haul with none of their medallists being paid any money for the achievement. Dai Green, Team GB Athletics Captain said "as athletes growing up we never took part in our sports for financial gain. I don't think any of us think for one second that we deserve the right to be paid to be here. The gold medal is our payment really".

Many of the other competing nations by contrast decided to offer bonuses to their athletes. Australia imposed a new "high-performance" funding model on its swimmers, reportedly to "see medalists rewarded". The model failed and the Australian swimmers performed well below expectations.

Organisations need to think carefully about the wisdom of making bonus payments especially to those people who are much more "intrinsically motivated" and for whom being dangled the carrot of a big bonus may even become a disincentive to excel.

Diversity & Talent

One step-change I noticed with the BBC'c excellent coverage was the use of disabled presenters covering able-bodied sports. Ade Adepitan, a paralympian basketball player interviewed members of the GB cycling team. Similarly Tanni Grey-Thompson (a multi-decorated wheelchair racer turned presenter) was out on the course interviewing pundits and commentating at the road racing, time trials and the marathons. We "bought into" both Ade and Tanni because of their charisma, their ability to create rapport with their subjects and their own track record of sporting success. Clearly their disabilities were irrelevant to getting this job done well.

In Conclusion…

The Olympics reminds us of some of the timeless ways in which we as business influencers can get the very best out of our people. Namely, to engage people by allowing them to be themselves and be part of a community, to be bold and to innovate, to use our best people and to protect our values at all costs.

Mark Edwards is a senior learning and development professional and executive coach.