The seventeen days of the 2016 Rio Olympics are just finishing up. We’ve thrilled to the hard won victories and ached with empathy as some athletes have seen their Olympic dreams go up in smoke. Over three billion people across the world have tuned in to watch these dramas unfold because each of us can see bits of our own lives and hard work in what the world’s greatest athletes have displayed for us. As consultants, we’ve identified significant lessons about leadership, individual strengths, the importance of team, effective strategy and awesome execution.
The First Ring: The Ability to Set a Winning Strategy.
As consultants, we play a dual role in our clients’ organizations. We are both team members and team coaches. As coaches, we work with organization leaders to set strategy. Setting strategy requires knowing exactly where to compete, developing plans to win and then coaching leadership on implementing the strategy(ies). Great strategies are built on repeatable, adaptable models. For instance, a powerful brand-house like Proctor & Gamble owns a wide collection of brands. Each is in its own stage of the product life cycle. Different brands will be in one of four stages of the PLC (introduction through decline) and it is management’s job to identify which stage the brand is in and then plan and execute the strategies that lead to optimal corporate performance. The overall effort requires adaptability as each brand transitions between the four stages, and repeatability is essential because, although the individual tactics may change from brand to brand, the same overall disciplines are required at each stage. Companies must make tough choices about which markets they can compete in most effectively and then revisit those choices as new information becomes available. They must make hard decisions about where they will develop world-class capabilities and assets and where they will be satisfied with "good enough" for now. Adapt. Repeat.
The Second Ring: Are You Doing What You’re Good At?
Corollary: Can You Identify Winning Team (Workplace) Skills?
Great consultants have the talent to bring out the best in the teams they work with. They can do it, because they, themselves, have these same skills.
Every team player has their own set of skills and talents. Getting the best out of the team requires an ability to identify talent and then put the right players in the positions each player is best equipped to excel in.
There are four workplace strengths; Envisioner strength, Designer strength, Build strength and Operator strength. Team members with great envision strength are visionaries who are energized by answering the right questions and solving the right problems. For example, ‘Where do we intend to go and why?’ It is common to find these strengths with strategists, marketers, and CEOs. They think strategically, setting visionary destinations, thinking inventively and brainstorming and pioneering new ideas.
Designers ask ‘What do we need to do when?’. These people are MBA’s, analysts, planners, and CFOs.
Builders are more focused on facts and figures, and are process-oriented. They implement step-by-step procedures, projects, programs, methods and solutions.
The fourth type of workplace strength is the Operate strength. With knowledge work, Operators make things happen by building effective teams. They get a lot of energy from human interaction. They focus on the ‘who’. Sales people and good mentors are often very strong in the ‘operate’ area.
Great Olympians Demonstrate Workplace Strengths
We’ve all been stupefied by Michael Phelps, who has individually won more medals than most participating countries over his four Olympics career. Thought to be the world’s greatest swimmer – EVER – he’s embodied many of the qualities of a great team. Chief among these is his talent for goal-setting. He writes down his goals and checks on them daily. He has been quoted as saying “I have my goals somewhere I can see them, so when I get out of bed I know I’m waking up to work on what I’m going to achieve”. His childhood coach started him on a habit he has adhered to throughout his career. He envisions the ‘perfect race’ every time he competes. Phelps will visualize himself in a race both from the perspective of someone in the stands and from his viewpoint in the water. He imagines himself swimming flawlessly from start to finish, assessing his competition and going over even the smallest of details, like the water dripping from his lips. Phelps flexes his ‘design’ strength in the way he plans for every possibility. During the 2008 games in Beijing, Phelps’s goggles broke at the start of the 200-meter butterfly final. Although most would think that losing your sight in the middle of an Olympic race may be a cause for panic, Phelps continued on. Because he had mentally prepared for such a situation, it did not hold him back. Finishing the race with a new world record showed the power of Phelps’s use of visualization and mental preparation.
The Third Ring: Focus on the Team and It’s Results.
Successful leaders emphasize collective results over the individual. Awesome teams will ensure that all members, regardless of their individual responsibilities or areas of expertise, are doing whatever they can to help the team accomplish its goals.
Great leaders will establish objectives that the team believes are achievable. If team members do not believe in the team’s ability to achieve an overarching goal, they will go rogue to save their individual careers. Great teams are characterized as ones which are achievement-oriented, minimize individualistic behavior (the old saying “there is no ‘I’ in ‘team’), thrive on success and hate failure. Achieving a team like this means that individuals put their personal goals and interests beneath what’s best for the team.
The Fourth Ring: Having ‘The Right Stuff’. Proven Track Record.
Winning teams and athletes are led to greatness by remarkable coaches. In the business world, consultants are often brought in to help bring out the best an organization can aspire to. See how great coaches and consultants are alike and the areas where they’re different.
Great Olympic Coaches: Bela Karolyi.
By now, the entire world knows who Simone Biles of the US women’s gymnastics team is, the winner of four gold medals and a bronze medal in the 2016 Summer Olympics. Behind her stands another even more famous name, Bela Karolyi, her coach. Karolyi is the embodiment of a great coach and great consultant. He envisioned a new approach to US gymnastics when he created the semicentralized training camp that now produces our best gymnasts. He ‘looks for two broad sets of abilities, physical and mental. “The intelligence. The toughness. The acceptance of a disciplined life. And also competitiveness, which you can see in the heart of even the little guys.”
He is flexible and adapts a different approach to working with his gymnasts depending on the skills, strengths and personal temperament of each girl. He knows how to motivate each of them and adapts his communication to bring out the best in his athletes. Of this, recently he stated, ‘Criticism and encouragement have to be alternated and used at the right time and in the right situation.
He is focused on results as he is also focused on team. Karolyi recalled his past in a recent interview and said ‘From the very beginning, I wanted to have a team. Even if I had only one competitive athlete, I always gathered a team around her. The team helps with the positive attitude, the social life, the pride. And the everyday competitiveness is unbelievably productive. There are big-time inside rivalries.
Karolyi also exemplifies incredible personal discipline. After coaching the Romanian gymnast Nadia Comeneci to her Olympics win, he defected to the US with a dream of creating a truly great US women’s gymnastics team. It was a long, hard road which required significant personal sacrifice and discipline. Initially unable to land a coaching job, he started his new life cleaning restaurants. Of this time he has said, ‘[That time was] very difficult. I had to work so hard to get out of it. And I did. I managed to move out from the ghetto to a community with more gymnastic places and to get a casual job as a coach. Eventually, I got in a position to have a little gymnasium, a couple of beams, and a few mats. And I worked so well with those kids, the parents fell in love and they did the advertising for me. And more and more people came. And then I managed to have enough money to rent another little adjacent facility. In less than a year and a half I had about 60 kids. We made a team. Soon we had a national champion, then an international champion, and three and a half years later we had an Olympic champion. The most important thing was the drive to get back to my professional life, to doing what I love. I wanted so desperately to show that what had happened was nothing the Romanian government created. It was my dedication and work. The business side has never been my strength. But we managed to build a bigger empire in the sport of gymnastics than anybody ever had.
The Fifth Ring: A Strong Work Ethic.
Consulting, like international athletic competition, has its rewards. Many of us are deeply satisfied knowing that our ideas and hard work have had a positive impact on the client’s organization. Many consultants enjoy flexible schedules that permit maximum work-life balance. The compensation can be rewarding, depending on the industry and the variety of assignments and problems consultants solve offers yet another reward. For those that enjoy adventure, the changing business environments, frequent flyer miles, and opportunity to work with new project teams is very appealing.
However, management consulting is also a difficult career. Many consultants work independently, without the safety-net of a corporate resources to offer support during peak periods. Travel schedules can be extremely demanding and living out of a suitcase is not everyone’s cup of tea.. Moving into consulting from more traditional employment means you’ve got as many ‘bosses’ as you have clients.
Succeeding in consulting, then, is similar to being a successful athlete in an endurance sport, marathon running, triathlons, long distance cycling for example. Much like successful athletes in these sports, successful consultants will have a pedigree of disciplined training, self-motivation, a passion for ‘the game’ and a fiercely competitive nature that spurs them along during all the hard working, quiet, behind the scenes days and months leading to a major presentation or Olympic competition. It’s about having integrity, and in the end it’s about delivering results.