Watching the summer Olympics and speaking with friends about this year’s events has me thinking about this idea of being a winner. What does a winner look like? How does one kid out of hundreds who start sports as toddlers end up on the medals stand at the Olympics? What are some of the “ingredients” that, when added together, make a person a winner? I came up with a list of some common characteristics that I see in people who win, not only in the Olympics, but in life.
There is no doubt that the first thing that gets you in the door is ability. This can be natural athletic ability or other abilities or gifts. For example, I’ve always been good at planning and organizing things. When my friends wanted to go anywhere, especially out of town, they knew they should call me first. I gathered all the information, asked all the questions, and made the plans (and they were happy to let me do it). I made binders and spreadsheets for my wedding, my finances, my kids’ school work, everything. Those things just come naturally to me. That’s what makes the planning part of project management easy for me as well. I believe that every person is gifted with abilities that are uniquely theirs – their own way to win.
Ability may get you in the door, but habits get you to the stage. If you listen to how the Olympic athletes prepare for competition, you will hear of a strict regimen that includes a significant amount of practice and a specialized diet that they have had to maintain over a period of time. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell asserts that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice to achieve a level of mastery in a given field of study. In the same way that athletes have to practice their skills, we also have to practice and maintain healthy habits in whatever areas in which we want to win. Business development managers know that in order to sustain revenue, there has to be a significant number of attempted sales. Similarly, despite my natural ability to plan, I still have to maintain my studies in project management and continue to take on new and different projects from which to learn.
Coachability is the willingness to seek and accept feedback. No matter what you naturally excel in, there is always room for improvement. It is important to strive for continuous improvement and seek input from coaches, mentors, colleagues, and friends. I don’t advocate taking advice from just anyone. I have seen well-meaning people give advice that wasn’t applicable to the person or situation to which they are speaking. Athletes who compete in the Olympics have a carefully selected set of coaches that they trust. Everyone that I have seen winning has a trusted circle of people who care about their best interest and are willing to tell them the truth, even when it hurts, for their betterment.
Although some would argue that the younger generation is more detached with the prevalence of social media and the interference caused by readily available technology, I believe that the way in which bad behavior is quickly displayed and criticized further emphasizes the value of interpersonal skills. We have seen public disapproval of current and previous athletes when their behavior doesn’t match the public perception of how Olympians should carry themselves. The ability to communicate, to lead by example, and to show empathy are critical skills not only for athletes and public figures but for everyone. Having worked in the corporate setting for many years, I have seen quite a few people who were placed in management roles because of their technical skills and were unsuccessful because of their interpersonal skills.
The ability to keep going is what drives an athlete who doesn’t medal at the Olympics to work harder for four more years and try again. I always wonder what happens to the guy who comes in last place. Even those guys are stellar athletes. What is it that makes them keep trying? Resilience is what keeps you going when you’ve failed. In today’s market, many of us can relate to the feeling of rejection that comes with losing a job. The ability to land the next great opportunity comes through successfully overcoming the setback of unemployment and allowing those lessons to strengthen you as you move forward. Ironically, the only way you can develop resilience is through failure. Those bumps and bruises help you develop the thick skin you need for success.
I’ve enjoyed watching the Olympics this year, and I am so proud of all of our athletes. These are my thoughts on what makes a winner. What do you think winners are made of?