Our ‘Olympic Moment’

Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison says we all can learn from the athletes who, having seen their 2020 Olympic dreams undone, are still pushing hard.

Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and the author of Leadership U: Accelerating Through the Crisis Curve.

Disappointment and negativity? Or hope and positivity? It’s a choice—our choice!

What we had thought would be a 100-meter sprint has turned out to be a decathlon.

To get some perspective, we looked no further than those who know all about waking up without the alarm clock, one day at a time, to achieve one goal—usually for years, sometimes decades. Our Global Sports practice reached out to a few Olympians who were supposed to be in Tokyo right now. Like other Olympic athletes around the world, they have trained for years for a chance to spend a few precious minutes “on the podium.” They were prepared, physically and mentally, for Tokyo 2020, but instead must wait another year—or even longer.

Their wait, however, is hardly passive.

“I am still training. I am the reigning Olympic champion and I would like to defend my title,” said Tianna Bartoletta, who won gold in 2016 in the long jump and the 4x100 relay team event, as well as gold in 2012 with a world-record time for the 4x100 meter relay.

Her motivation to stay focused, in spite of an uncertain future, comes from embracing the process—“practicing for the sake of practicing,” as she told Jed Hughes, a Korn Ferry vice chairman and sector leader for sports. “I believe no effort is wasted.”

Most of us will never compete in an Olympics. We will never know what it’s like to be on the podium. Our goals are less defined and more intangible. There won’t be a closing ceremony that marks the end of the pandemic. And yet, all of us have our own “Olympic Moment”—and what it would mean for us to be “on the podium.”

“It’s probably more difficult for people who are not athletes because there isn’t anybody waiting at the finish line with a gold medal or a parade for having pulled it off,” Tianna said. “They’re waking up and not knowing if their work is going to be validated or acknowledged, not knowing if there will be anybody who says, ‘good job.’ And yet, they still have to do it.”

Her wise words are a reminder to leaders that we also must be coaches—encouraging and celebrating others.

In addition, we all need to adopt an “athletic mindset”—in other words, each of us is only as good as our last game. A personal best yesterday won’t assure a personal best tomorrow. What happened last quarter no longer matters. We’re in a new day—the game has been reset for everyone. So, rather than focus on what’s not happening, we need to make things happen. Learning becomes our oxygen to fuel self-improvement.

Along the way, there will always be things we cannot control—whether an opponent or a pandemic. But there are things that we can control, such as our decisions and our goals. As Olympic runners know, it’s all about “focusing on your own lane.”

While our podium moments are to be cherished, it’s the journey that really matters. In other words, the destination is the journey! And we must journey together. In the words of an African proverb shared with me by an executive the other day, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

Here are some thoughts:

  • You need others. When asked how he stayed motivated day after day, Dwight Thomas, a Jamaican sprinter who competed in three Olympics and won a gold medal in the World Championships, emphasized the importance of others—in particular, coaches and managers. He recalled moments of setbacks and disappointments early in his career, when he entertained self-doubts of “I’m not good enough…I should quit.” It is an experience we can all relate to. “That’s why you have a coach—you have people who motivate you,” Dwight said. He credited his coach for “changing my mindset,” helping him learn “to turn disappointments into goals to achieve the next goal.
  • Take yourself out of the moment. When we get lost in our own heads, it can be a scary place. We feel hopeless and lose all motivation. Years ago, the catcher on my son’s baseball team suddenly couldn’t throw the ball back to the pitcher. He was a great player, so it wasn’t an issue of skill or physical ability. With lots of fans in the stands, he just couldn’t make the simplest of throws. Balls bounced off the pitcher’s mound—a few times the ball skyrocketed to the outfield. The catcher was thoroughly disappointed and embarrassed. Opposing players would mock him. It was a nightmare. Then one day, as I sat in the stands behind home plate, I heard someone singing “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Then I noticed the catcher was making every throw without a single error. I later learned that the catcher had been advised by a former professional catcher to take himself “out of the moment” and stop obsessing over every throw by singing a nursery rhyme to himself. We, too, will have days when we have disappointments—and that’s okay. We need to elevate our myopic focus to a broader horizon with a mantra, a purpose, visualization, or perhaps even our own version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”—whatever it takes to contextualize. Indeed, this too shall pass!
  • Positivity power. That will never work. That’s not the way we used to do it. No one will pay for that now. We don’t have enough people for that.  How’s that going to work when we don’t have a budget anymore? If we’re not careful, our doubts can turn even great ideas into bad ideas—and kill motivation. I learned this many years ago while working at a consulting firm. Seven of us on a project had different backgrounds and perspectives, which should have made us highly innovative. Except one of our teammates was the ultimate “downer.” With every scenario, this person only saw the worst possible outcome. It wasn’t an intentional derailment. This person was just hardwired never to see the blue sky—only “the sky is falling.” If we’re honest, all of us can and do have our own “downer” moments, depending on what’s happening—or the headline we just read. Negativity, however, never produced a winner. Nelly Korda, a golfer on the LPGA Tour, and ranked No. 2 in the world, was supposed to compete for the U.S. at the Olympics this year. She told us positive people make all the difference in staying motivated: “The more help you get, the better it is. The more support you have, the more positive you’ll be.” To be sure, you will become the company you keep!
  • Not all motivation is equal. Extrinsic motivation can only take us so far. Intrinsic motivation, however, is internally generated and far more sustainable. As gold medalist Tianna Bartoletta indicated, it’s the joy of the practice—of shaping the journey. Korn Ferry research has found that intrinsically motivated people tend to be more creative, solve problems more efficiently, and are better at conceptual thinking. These motivators will be more important tomorrow than yesterday as there will be more change in the next 2 years than in the past 10. As such, tomorrow’s fundamental leadership challenge will be to motivate others to actualize this change (or else risk becoming obsolete). Here are some steps:

                    Is our true North Star our purpose, mission, and values?

                    Do we proactively listen with empathy?

                    How are we celebrating others?

                    Are our employees seen?

                    Do we have an explicit opportunity mindset—can vs. can’t?

If we are waiting for the “podium,” or for others to believe in us, we may be waiting a long time. Instead, we must believe in others.