The 5 Principles I Used to Help Save the Olympics
How Mitt Romney and I helped guide the 2002 Winter Olympics through scandal and the worst terror attack in U.S. history.
It's been fifteen years since I worked on the organizing committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, and I can't help but think back to our challenge at the time. In December 1998, the state of Utah felt dejected by a bribery scandal to host the winter games. As Utahns, we pride ourselves on being honest and ethical, so to be given a scarlet letter that branded us the complete opposite was a big blow. National trust in our state's ability to host the games was dwindling -- sponsors were dropping out, the Justice Department was investigating legal issues and there was a huge budget deficit. How were we going to recover from this scandal and host the games in a little over three years’ time?
The Olympic Organizing Committee sought out Mitt Romney to help salvage the games, and thereby the reputation of the state. At the time, Mitt was at Bain Capital, and he gave up a lucrative career for public service. I had the opportunity to join him on the Olympic Organizing Committee. Together, we rebuilt the community’s confidence to host one of the most successful Olympic games ever, generating a profit of $100 million.
We used five major business principles to turn around the 2002 Olympics, but they can be applied to every facet of life -- especially in today's competitive business environment.
1. Be transparent.
While being truthful and forthright may seem obvious, it’s sometimes overlooked in the heat of the moment. We should be transparent -- open, honest and direct -- with our employees, customers and shareholders. Mitt was superb at open communication with everyone, which engendered great trust, and trust was something we dearly needed on the heels of the scandal.
At the same time, we all need to be thoughtful about what we communicate. I call this the “Washington Post Test,” but you can use your own preferred major media outlet of choice if it makes more sense to you. Before you say, do, or write anything, think what would happen if that action were on the front page of the Washington Post.
2. Be a product leader.
In business, product leadership means developing the best product in the market and working to continually extend that leadership over time. Product leadership is the foundation to any company and facilitates everything else, including marketing, sales, support and customer satisfaction. In every company with which I interact, I consistently preach the foundational value of product leadership.
When working ont he Olympics, Mitt and I wanted to develop the most ideal experience for athletes and spectators. Our commitment to an excellent product meant experiencing what the user wanted and needed. So, for an example of an athlete’s viewpoint of their course, I went down the skeleton track three times. Going headfirst at 60 miles per hour is equal parts invigorating and frightening, but it helped me understand the minute difference between a gold and silver medal -- which turned out to be just five one-hundredths of a second in the men's event and just one-tenth for the women. Experiencing this myself gave me the commitment to emphasize the importance of creating top-flight fields of play for athletes to demonstrate their abilities. My hands-on commitment also set the tone for my team: don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty (or in my case, hang on to a sled for dear life).
3. Build great team DNA.
Once Mitt and I established transparency and the goal of product leadership, we knew we needed to build a team that would work together rather than in individual silos. We helped our team understand that their jobs meant they had the responsibility to help others succeed. Putting the team first had to become part of the DNA of our organization.
We only truly succeed as individuals when all of our team members succeed. Mitt knew I shared this same vision and team DNA that he did, which is why he brought me onto the team for the Olympics project. In order for a project or business to succeed, all involved must be wired with that same team DNA.
4. Invest in your people.
Forming a team of like-minded individuals who are working toward the same North Star also means continually investing in them. Providing employees with new and relevant training helps them develop and further leverage skills to be the best they can be.
At the Olympics, we spent every Friday afternoon working on cross-functional training. Departments took turns presenting and sharing their key objectives, interfaces/communications and problems that other team members could solve. The training helped everyone learn, get better and come together as a team.
Investing in people with training and tools -- like new technology -- helps them be more productive and grow as individuals. Everybody wins.
Related: 11 Habits of Truly Happy People
5. Get back on your feet quickly.
In August 2001, we were about six months away from the games, feeling at an all-time high, having met all our milestones. We were ready for the games, both operationally and financially.
Then the terrorist attacks on September 11th happened, and security became more important than we had anticipitated. The Olympics had been a terrorist target in the past, but we now had a bigger challenge on our hands. We had to keep people from 83 countries safe in the face of the most horrific terrorist actions in history.
Some countries were so concerned about safety they were considering not sending their athletes. Sponsors were cancelling tickets and hotel rooms. We had two million ticket holders and we had to keep them safe. Somehow, we managed: We had a great Games and we generated a profit, which was almost unheard of in the history of the Olympics.
The lessons we learned from being part of the Olympics -- and the trying times throughout -- are principles that can be applied to any business setting. That's why, whenever I'm overcoming setbacks or trying to decide on how I should act as a leader, I fall back on these lessons: Be transparent. Create a great product. Build a great team DNA. Invest in your people. Get back on your feet quickly.
Do these five things and you can turn around any situation.