The surprise business learning from the Olympics

The Olympics came to an end last week and Great Britain seems to have surprised the world by finishing second in the medal tally. Obviously I would say that coming from England myself, but let’s forget the national pride and typical platitudes about plucky island nations. There is a real lesson that business leaders can take away from Team GB’s success and it is all around team rewards.

It’s not widely known, but most countries offer cash incentives for medals. They amount varies wildly, from $750K USD Singapore gave to their swimming golden boy Joseph Schooling, to the modest $2K USD Nigeria offers their athletes for a gold medal performance. The USA gives it’s stars $25K USD for a gold medal and follows it up with a tax bill. Nice one Uncle Sam.

You can learn more at the BBC link below:

The logic these nations are displaying is a simple one, if you want your people to be successful, incentivise and reward them.

So let’s consider the Team GB’s stellar result, finishing second in the medal rankings, second only to the USA, and ahead of China. They must of nailed the bonus program right?

Well actually no.

The only reward offered to its athletes was the simple acknowledgement of knowing you’re the best in the world. They paid their gold medalists nothing for winning.

I think if there was ever a proof point that short-term incentives don’t always drive long-term results, the Team GB’s Olympic success has to be it.

So why were the team so successful?

I’d argue the reason for the medal success is that their investment in the athletes focused on the journey to the medal, rather than just the final race. The athletes choses to forgo winner bonuses, and instead were offered funding via the National Lottery that allowed them to dedicate more time to their chosen sport. The country invested in building the facilities and trainers to give their athletes the best opportunity to shine.

In exchange the athletes were happy, as they knew the simple truth, if they could hang a gold medal around their neck, the financial rewards from future sponsorships would always far out weight a short term bonus cheque.

Surely this approach, leaves less to chance and improves chances of success on the day. So what can businesses learn from the UK’s approach to Olympic success?

Before we do our 2017 planning we should ask the following questions:

  1. Have we put enough investment in training and infrastructure to enable our team to succeed?
  2. Have we taken a mid-term (3-to-4-year) view on our return of that investment, rather than the immediate 12-month view?
  3. Are we using bonuses as a shortcut to success, or does our industry (particularly media and advertising) respond better to supportive and ambitious environments?

Perhaps bonuses aren’t always the way to go, and we have Team GB to thank in part for that revelation.

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