Swimming For Glory In Rio

A new coach fashions a dramatic turnaround in Rio for Australia’s Olympic swim team.

Australians love their sports and sports heroes. In particular, they love their Olympic swimmers, an accomplished group that, heading to Rio, has won 190 Olympic medals (including 58 gold medals) since the 1900 summer games, second only to the U.S. In the 2000 Sydney Games, Australians won 18 swimming medals including five golds. Swimmers such as Ian Thorpe, Dawn Fraser and Shane Gould are among the country’s most popular sports legends.

But by the 2012 London Games, something was amiss. The vaunted swimming program seemed to be in disarray as newspaper headlines described drug and bullying scandals, weak performances and dysfunction on the swim team. The team performed poorly in London and reports following the Games described drunkenness, bullying and a “toxic” atmosphere.

Looking to return the program to glory, Swimming Australia, the official governing body for competitive swimming, searched overseas and hired a Dutch swimming legend Jacco Verhaeren to turn things around. As the Rio Games are in full swing, the turnaround Verhaeren triggered is evident. Though the U.S. continues to dominate Olympic swimming, the Aussies have made their presence felt, winning multiple medals and showing signs that this team will be a major player in the 2020 games in Tokyo.

Verhaeren, a quiet but fiercely competitive leader, has by all accounts, remade the team’s culture and attitude. Verhaeren is what we call an “altro-centric” rather than “ego-centric” leader. He is calm, considerate, and visionary. He listens to input from others and displays a learning mindset. To that end, he reached out to a group of former Australian swimming coaches, including such legends as Forbes Carlile and Alan Thompson, for advice and wisdom about rebuilding the Olympic team.

In an interview, his brother described Verhaeren as ambitious, passionate and eager to learn, a future CEO in the making. “He keeps everyone with two feet on the ground,” his brother said. He insists that the national team members swim in a public pool once a week to ensure they won’t develop “diva” behavior.

The Dutch have a saying, “Be normal, that’s crazy enough,” an aphorism Verhaeren lives by. Understanding the subtleties of leading a team, Verhaeren eschews “hero” leadership and instead believes in individual accountability. His idea is “less rules, more guidelines” which represents a dramatic shift for a rules-based nation like Australia. In many sports and businesses, protocols and discipline are more important than individual choices, initiative and accountability.

In our recent report, Tone From the Top, Korn Ferry’s Hay Group, interviewed 13 business leaders about the strengths and weaknesses in organizational culture. Verhaeren’s approach illustrates the importance of creating a more positive, high-performing climate and supports our belief in the need for more vision, accountability and feedback for any organization, sports or business. With Verhaeren’s emphasis on both collaboration and accountability, the Australian swim team’s future promises to be golden indeed.

Heleen Cocu-Wassink formerly coached elite athletes with the Royal Dutch Rowing Federation.