HR and London Olympics

Tuesday, 14 August 2012 00:27 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

If any of you are sports enthusiasts, I am sure the most difficult working week would have been the last one. Watching the Olympics past midnight as, most of the blue ribbon events are in the evening UK time and then being at the office by 8:30 makes life tough.

To me, the Olympics was not about the medals and the camera flashes but the story behind the people who won the medals, the amazing human resource development that has happened over time.

In my view the London Olympics was not as extravagant as the Greek Games or the Beijing games that cost the country 40 billion dollars but the athletes sure made the event memorable. Incidentally the London Games will run a bill for Great Britain in the range of 19 billion dollars, which is sure to make a dent on a economy that is in a double dip recession.

A point to note is that the Greek Olympics cost the country around 12.5 billion dollars and shaved two percentage points from the Greek GDP growth. Be that as it may, let me capture the lessons for career development and HR from the London Games.

Olympic lesson 1: Brand Bolt

The games sure had winners but a brand that stood out of the crowd was Usain Bolt. Not because of his talent to run fast but the personality that he projected to the world. He was loads of fun with his iconic hand gestures and strong engagement with the crowd.

HR pick up 1

We may not be able to run as fast at Usain Bolt or swim like Michael Phelps but the fact of the matter is for some area of work, we are one of the best in Sri Lanka. Whilst we focus on our work, let’s also spend some time to build a personal brand in the market place.

The key thing to remember is that first you must agree on the brand position that you want to carve out, so that all the communication falls into a given entity. If not, you are doing more harm to the brand than building it.

The brand Donald Trump did not happen by accident but through a carefully orchestrated game plan. The next job you get or the invitations you get from the business community are based on the brand image you have built today.

Olympic lesson 2: Sanchez outcry

There were many emotional moments at the Olympic Games but the one that really captured my attention was when the 35-year-old Dominican Republic athlete Felix Sanchez broke through from the crowd in the last 20 metres with absolute passion and then he broke into emotion when he removed his number from his vest and underneath it was a picture of his grandmother. He had carried it right across the race. By the way he came one before the last in the Beijing Games in 2008.

HR pick up 2

I guess everyone has a story for their outstanding performance. The challenge is for us to find the hidden buttons in our team members so that we know insights to people’s performance and especially when the killer instinct fades away.

Let’s accept it, Sri Lankans get motivated due to emotional reasons rather than rational reasons like extra pay or promotions as per the Hoftedes model of motivation.

Olympic lesson 3: Gatlin issue

When US sprint star Justin Gatlin was banned for four years for taking drugs for enhancing performance, he returned and made a statement that he would prove to the world that he was not a cheat. In Athens he won the Gold in the 100m blue ribbon event and at the London Games he won a Bronze, cementing that he could win with his own will.

HR pick up 3

This holds ground when it comes to work life too. Today’s poor performance can be motivated to drive for outstanding business achievement provided there is a leader who believes in team members’ skill and talent. All that is required is that thread of trust and belief.

The question is, are we as leaders having a business ethos to go that extra mile to harness that hidden talent? In my experience of people management, I have seen how a youngster from Matara moved up from being a medical representative to be a general manager of an organisation.

Olympic lesson 4: Federer fall

When a reporter asked the legendary tennis ace Roger Federer whether it was the Olympics or the seventh Wimbledon title that was important, the answer was very clear – Wimbledon. Obviously Federer had a career plan and he was focused on it, even though the world was waiting for the London Olympics.

Federer’s overall performance at the Olympics was not all that hot and he went on to get thrashed by Andy Murray to win 6/1, 6/2 and 6/4.

HR pick up 4

Corporate life is the same. Each of us needs to have a career plan and this plan must be based on our personal objectives rather than on what the world wants us to be.

The latest ethos coming out is a concept called corporate athletism, which is giving a new definition to a business executive. It hinges on four pillars of work, sports, relationships and God. It’s worth Googling this idea themed corporate athletism.

Olympic lesson 5: Gail Devers

Olympic hurdler Gail Devers was battling a bigger challenge than the Olympics. She was suffering from Graves disease, a thyroid disorder that causes one’s weight to drop. At one time Gail Devers was just 89 pounds and lost her hair during that time. But she fought back and to date she has won three Gold medals in two Olympics.

HR pick up 5

It’s all about the courage to pursue one’s career. There can be many challenges that one faces in life, but the will to win is what sets the men apart from the boys.

I still remember, after having won the ‘Best Marketer’ performance in a multinational organisation, I was asked to do a stint on the field. Within six months I got a call from my Managing Director to come back to office and take up the challenge of leading the strongest brand in the company, Dettol. I later on moved on to head a global multinational and today work for the United Nations. I guess life is all about not giving up.

Olympic lesson 6: Coe factor

The biggest peace event of the world is the staging of the Olympics. When Sebastian Coe was given this challenge, the EU was heading towards a recession and the British economy was in a catch 22 situation. But together with the support of each and every citizen, Sebastian Coe has pulled off one of the best the Olympics in modern history, so much so that some call it the first Social Media Olympics.

His reputation was put to test when at the pre-Games opening trials, he wanted the secret of the make-believe Queen Mother coming down on a parachute to be off the media. The country believed in him and stood up to this promise.

HR pick up 6

Corporate life is also similar. It all depends on the trust that one has built within the organisation that drives outstanding team performance.

I still remember a 20 million dollar project that we had to deliver but it involved working across a tough terrain and community support. As a team we delivered the project without any collateral damage, which I guess is all about the trust that one can garner in an institution.

Olympic lesson 7: Sanya dilemma

Olympics is not only about dreams, but also business. Sanya Richards-Ross is sponsored by Nike and she knows that the brand carried her through the last four years financially. But as per the Olympic rules, she cannot mention the brand name in any context.

There was a photo posted on Twitter with the brand which led to a huge protest but the IOC upheld the decision and commented that we must have the maturity that in today’s day and age everybody is a journalist and we must learn to live with the athletes, public opinion and sponsors.

HR pick up 7

I guess the pick up is similar in today’s strategic Human Resource management. Given the viral media, the intimate details of possible new recruits are in the public domain vie Facebook and Twitter.

So when it comes to recruitment, the maturity of understanding that today’s employees live in a world that has public opinion online and networks that are complicated is a must. It must be seen positively and objectively rather than just blocking all viral media in an office.

Concluding thoughts

Whilst the world is awaiting the next Games in the South American iconic capital Rio and what impact the London Games had on Great Britain, I guess the picks up to the world from an Olympic Games can sustain another four years of motivation. The question is, are we engaged with the world or just living in our own cocoon of the world?


(The author is the Head of National Portfolio Development – Sri Lanka and Maldives at the United Nations – UNOPS – and is an alumnus of Harvard University, Boston. The thoughts expressed are his own and not the views of any organisation he serves in Sri Lanka or internationally.)

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