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7 Ways to Build an Olympic-Caliber Business Team

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With the Summer Olympics here, one can’t help but raise the question that many business leaders ask when the Olympics rolls around: “How do we create Olympic-caliber teams in our company?” This kind of question can lead to some cringe-worthy clichés about what makes a team. Following are seven strategies to do what it really takes.


1. Figure out what kind of team you really want.

Many leaders and managers talk in vague terms about teams, when sometimes they don’t even want a team at all. Jon Katzenbach’s classic book "The Wisdom of Teams" notes the huge differences between a working group and a team. In a working group, people come to work, do their jobs and go home. They don’t go out of their way for their colleagues and basically want to get the job done and be left alone. A team can increase performance exponentially compared to a working group and it takes a lot more time, commitment and effort to become a true team. In a team, people care about each other, go the extra mile, and figure out how to work closely together to perform at the highest levels. Many leaders set up incentives and structures for people to come together as working groups, yet they talk as if they really have a team.

Related: 5 Ways to Get Naysayers to Participate in Team Building

At the same time, there are many different types of teams. In a symphony, everyone works together in perfect synchronicity, following the exact score. Contrast this to a jazz band, which encourages improvisation and creativity and sometimes creates the music on the spot. Getting back to the sports analogy, a winning basketball team has specialized roles for each player, and works fluidly to find openings, pass the ball, and make baskets. At the other end of the spectrum in terms of coordination, there is the swim team or track team, in which players compete more or less individually in order to help the overall team win.

If you don’t define what kind of team you expect, and support people to create that type of team, you won’t get the kinds of results you intended.

2. Answer the talent question.

Olympic-caliber teams have Olympic-caliber talent. If you want to attract Olympic-caliber talent to your organization, you need to be the type of organization -- and have the type of leaders -- where Olympic-caliber talent would want to work. For instance, hospitals strive towards the designation of Nurse Magnet by putting in place systems and structures that attract the best nursing talent. Every year certain companies make the Best Companies to Work For list -- and some of them make the list every single year without fail. Whether you are a Fortune 500 Company or a small business, you can put in place the kinds of incentives, career paths, management team and culture that encourage people to do their best and also tell others about how great it is to work with you.

3. Create an environment that challenges talent.

Olympians love challenge. They love the rewards that come with winning. They want the best coaches to develop them. They thrive on autonomy and the opportunity to keep improving and being the best. While a lot of their passion and drive is internal, they still need the type of environment in which they can thrive. Does your company help people to thrive, or does it cause people to feel stagnant within a year or two? If you want people to thrive, create jobs with autonomy. Encouraging coaching and ongoing development at all levels. Give everyone a path to keep moving forward and up in the organization.

Related: 6 Ideas for Healthy Team-Building Activities

4. Set clear goals.

For most Olympians, the goal is to win a gold medal. In organizations, many teams have fuzzy goals, too many goals, goals that overlap or conflict with other teams, or goals that aren’t terribly inspiring. Almost every piece of literature ever written about creating a high-performing team notes that having a clear goal is the most important thing that a team can have to reach success. It is even more important than who leads the team.

5. Focus on habits that lead to excellence.

Olympic-caliber athletes have a clear routine and specific habits that they know will lead to success. They practice and then execute on these habits relentlessly. Swimming legend Michael Phelps never missed a swim workout while he was developing as a youth swimmer. Basketball icon Larry Bird would come before practice and stay after practice to practice his shooting. Members of top teams are extremely disciplined in their own routines -- whether it is providing consistent customer service, trading stocks, or reducing error rates to zero. At the same time, Olympians spend about 95 percent of their time practicing, training, or getting coaching and the rest to executing. In workplaces, it is the opposite. Executives, managers and their teams spend 99 percent of their time executing and devote almost no time to practice, training, or being coached. To develop great teams, build in more time for team members to practice, train and get coaching.

6. Model unrelenting positivity and grit.

I have had the opportunity to interview Olympic and professional athletes. One common theme they mention is that they all have had coaches, mentors, and other teammates who were incredibly positive. They always saw possibility, even in the face of setbacks or conflicts. As a result, they kept moving forward and expected others to do the same. How well are you modeling positivity and grit for your teams.

Related: 3 Team-Building Secrets of Successful Small-Business Owners

7. Build chemistry.

Organizations have employees scattered all over the world. Often, to save money and time, they insist on meeting virtually rather than in person. In contrast, Olympic-caliber teams realize how important it is to get to know each other face to face, break bread outside of work, and build chemistry. For an example of what it really takes to build team chemistry, see the movie "Remember the Titans." We are human beings, wired for in-person contact. Even if it costs a bit more money and time, Olympic-caliber teams need to make time to bring everyone together, spend time outside of work getting to know one another and build true chemistry. Otherwise, trust won’t be as high as it otherwise could be.

Andrew Neitlich

Written By

Andrew Neitlich is the founder and director of the Center for Executive Coaching, a leading coach training organization based in Central Florida. Neitlich is author of five books and received his MBA from Harvard Business School. His new book, Coach! The Crucial, Deceptively Simple Leadership Skill for Breakaway Performance, is available for purchase at   You can learn more at or connect via LinkedIn.