Members of the U.S. Nordic Combined Ski Team won gold and silver yesterday in the sport’s final Olympic event. It was the culmination of an amazing winter games for the team, which won medals in all three of the sports’ competitions. It was also one of the more amazing turnaround stories of the Olympics.
How Nordic Combined went from dead last in the world in 1988 to regular trips to the podium is a lesson in slow, deliberate growth managers at struggling US companies like General Motors, Delta, or even the New York Times Co., might take a page from.
Tom Steitz, who we first wrote up on the blog last week, took over as Head Coach for the team in those dark days of 1988, inheriting little money or athletic talent to work with. But he set a methodical approach to turning the team around, and set ambitious goals that put it on the path that would lead to Vancouver.
On February 14, one of the skiers he recruited and helped develop, Johnny Spillane won the silver in the first of three events, the first American ever to win a medal in the event. On February 25, Spillane repeated his silver finish in the large hill Nordic Combined, crossing the finish lines seconds behind teammate Bill Demong, who’s gold medal makes him the nation’s first ever champion in the sport. In between four of the American team, including Spillane and Demong, won the silver in the Nordic Combined team competition.
How do you get from dead last to dominating at the most important contest in the world? Steitz seems some lessons in the team’s transformation that can be applied to business. No longer the team coach, Steiz is now a leadership consultant who works for big companies like Johnson & Johnson and Hewlett-Packard. Be he’s still a welcome adviser to the athletes, and spent February at the Games.
Here are some of the lessons he learned from Nordic Combined that he thinks apply to businesses looking to win.
* Move the unproductive out quickly – Right away Steitz overhauled the coaching staff and started to hunt for promising athletes who had good team spirit, who wanted their teammates to do well.
* Set big goals, and plan to build to them – Just attending an Olympics couldn’t be anyone’s goal, Steitz says. They had to want a medal, and every athlete had to be improving whether they were already easily going to make the team or not. Steitz tied those goals to fund raising. He asked sponsors for modest contributions up front, but a promise that they’d give more if the team rose in the world cup rankings. That strategy took them from the worst funded team to the best competing in the 2002 Games.
* Spend time together — Steitz relocated the whole team and all their coaches, nutritionists and medical staff from all over the country to Steamboat Springs, Colorado. He lost a third of his athletes and staff, but he knew those who stayed were committed.
Not everything from sports transfers to business, of course. A coach will invest 10 to 15 years into training an athlete, Steitz notes, only to find that competitor’s age start to slow them down. Corporate managers face a different problem: the chance their great talent will jump ship for another company.
How likely someone is to pick up a headhunter’s call is one of the metric’s Steitz recommends managers track. And it’s one he uses to measure his own performance. Of course there’s no goal medal for coaching.