In my workshops and consulting I encourage people not to rely on sports for metaphors about performance or teams.  It’s important because not everyone in your workplace enjoys sports, understands the basic rules, or cares about the need to “push it over the goal line.”

That said, I’m going to make an exception.  I think this one is worth it.  The most recent Olympics provide an opportunity to celebrate a couple of amazing performances and see directly how they relate to individual performance inside a team environment.  The gold medals earned by Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall show that focus on effort, process and team culture can bring historic results.

A Little Background

Jessie Diggins is a nordic skier from Minnesota who has been doing great things on the World Cup circuit for a number of years. For most events, skiing is an individual sport, but skiers understand the importance of the other members of their team in overall success.  In particular, the U.S. Women’s ski team has built a culture of support, challenge and competitiveness.  For a number of years they have been on the cusp of amazing performances-with flashes of brilliance from a number of skiers.

High Expectations

The women went into the 2018 Olympics with incredibly high expectations.  A number of skiers were medal hopefuls, but many people thought Diggins had the best potential to bring home the gold.  It didn’t start out as well as hoped.  On February 15th, she finished 5th in the 10 km race.  But here is where there is something to learn in a sport many people only care about every four years, when the only decent result is a gold medal.

Team effort

Photo: Jessie Diggins Facebook

From Jessie Diggins’ Facebook page:  “Don’t be sorry for me because I just missed a medal…be happy WITH me, because I fought like a hell today! I pushed my body so far past it’s limits I’m actually kind of amazed I didn’t pass out on that final climb. Looking back and knowing you gave it absolutely everything you had without holding back is a great feeling.”

Her raw reaction–devoid of any spin or sports-answer jargon–is celebration in the effort.  She understands that pushing beyond our limits is success in itself.  She knows that the process of winning requires extraordinary resilience, perseverance and comfort with the uncomfortable.

Two Days Later

From her Facebook page after the 4 X 5k team relay:

Photo: USskiteam

“Did we medal today? Nope! But that doesn’t change how I feel about myself and this team. I am so very proud of the entire team and how we have prepared and handled the pressure of the Games as one unit. Results don’t define our character and team spirit; how we deal with them does. And I couldn’t be happier to look at my teammates and see people who have gone the extra mile for one another, will turn themselves inside out on course for the team, and who cheer like absolute maniacs.”

I encourage clients regularly to reward effort instead of outcomes.  If we only reward success, then employees won’t take risks.  They will shy away from challenging projects, because sometimes challenging projects fail.  There may be lots of “success” going on in your business, but when no one really takes risks, small successes come easy.

Gold Medal

Photo: Jessie Diggins Facebook

Four days later, in an absolutely awesome relay race with teammate Kikkan Randall, Diggins pulled ahead on the last leg and they took the gold medal;  a first for U.S. nordic skiers.  This result would not have been possible without years of hard work, a cohesive and supportive team environment, and a lazer-like focus on effort and process.

As a long-time fan of the sport seeing Randall, who may be most responsible for the culture of the women’s team, stand alongside Diggins on the podium is something I won’t soon forget.

Examples from sports may not always be our best option to help build our work teams, but sometimes, just sometimes the actions and words of athletes can drive home learning better than any memo or meeting.

Jerritt Johnston is the Owner of True North Consultants, which promotes organizational, individual and team growth through challenging, fun and relevant activities and processes.  Contact us today to see how we can help with your nonprofit board or staff development.  True North is an Authorized Partner for Everything DiSC®and The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team™.