Golden talent

Louis Montgomery Jr. leads Korn Ferry’s HR Executive Search Practice for the Mid-Atlantic and South Region and co-leads its Chief Diversity Officer Practice.

After 12,000 Brazilians have passed it among themselves for months now, the Olympic torch will be delivered this week to Maracanã Stadium, where a giant flame will be lit by a mystery honoree to launch the 2016 Rio Summer Games. For tens of millions of fans around the planet, the Olympics then will provide a stirring sports spectacle.

As a patriot, huge fan, onetime collegiate athlete, proud parent, and coach of kids’ teams, I’ll spend long hours fixated on the Games−and not just to see the pageantry, victories, and, with notable exceptions, the rare international camaraderie. I’ll also be riveted on the Olympics as an exemplar of the recruitment, development, and management of elite talent. Organizations can gain valuable insights about best talent practices from the Games.

Don’t watch just what occurs on the field of play. Consider what outstanding coaches and their staffs have done already to scour their nations, assess individual athletes, and develop metrics to compare them. What concrete steps do they take to determine how disparate stars will fit into their systems and with other teammates, who may be day-to-day foes, on and off the field? With pros filtering into more Olympic events, and with many of the heavily watched sports, such as swimming, diving, track and field, and gymnastics, requiring outstanding singular performances, how do coaches create a powerful sense of team, group, and even national achievement?

Scrutinize the Games from a human resources view, and it becomes clearer why certain competitors dominate─why the Cubans produce notable boxers, the Australians excellent swimmers, the Chinese superb divers and gymnasts, and the Eastern Africans distance runners. National Olympic movements create a business strategy and align their talent strategy to it. The successful outcomes turn, tactically, on talent, coaching, and specialization.

Consider Ethiopia and Kenya, for example, where top talent flocks to “the” national sport of distance running. Through years of trial, error, and optimal results, distance-training coaches in these countries have developed systems and processes to consistently help their competitors grow into winners. These athletes and coaches are also dedicated and specialized. They don’t dabble in soccer, baseball, and basketball as American kids may; instead, they and their coaches are laser-focused on excelling in distance running.

The results can be incredible, as is shown by just one event: the 10,000-meter race. Since 1968, Kenyans or Ethiopians have medaled in the first, second, or third spot in every 10,000 final, save for the boycotted 1976 Olympics. Any corporation would be over the moon for analogous business results over four decades.

The lesson for organizations: To compete with the best, a similar commitment to talent must be Olympic in aspiration and execution. Companies, with leadership from their top levels, will get superior outcomes by adopting a rigorous approach to identifying great talent early, then assessing, retaining, and assuring it gets developed to its highest level. This can require sweat, tears, and long hours. The joy that naturally results from elite talent performing the remarkable should not happen and be celebrated only in Olympic sports stadiums every four years; it also needs to be abundant every day in workplaces around the world.