If there is no shortage of sports analogies applied to the business world, maybe it’s because the two fields really do have a lot in common. Like sports teams, businesses have rivals they want to defeat. They set long-term objectives and short-term goals. Discipline and hard work are essential to their success. Those that have a strong, capable, trustworthy leader generate loyalty from those they lead.
Which brings us to Janet Arnott, coach of the Canadian women’s Olympic curling team that made history by going undefeated during all 11 matches of the 2014 Sochi Games. Not only did the team, led by skip Jennifer Jones, win the gold medal, it annihilated the competition to stand alone in the record book.
So what business lessons can be drawn from Ms. Arnott’s winning playbook? In a word: Teamwork.
“You have the ability to decide if you want to a team player or compete on your own. I chose to compete and coach in a team environment and my workplace also reflects that,” said Ms. Arnott, 58, whose corporate skills were honed at Shoppers Drug Mart Corp., where she is a systems co-ordinator in the company’s Winnipeg regional office.
Her track record in curling – she’s a three-time Canadian champion and coached the women’s national team at three world championships – as well as her long-term success at Shoppers, demonstrate that playing well with others doesn’t indicate a lack of competitive desire. In fact, Ms. Arnott says the opposite is true.
“I work in a retail environment where competition is a way of life, and we are constantly trying to stay one step ahead of our nearest competitor. It is the same for coaching a highly competitive team who have decided that winning at the Olympics is their goal,” she said.
A strong team, Ms. Arnott said, requires strong leadership. That leadership, both in her professional life and on the ice, means establishing the short-term goals necessary to win bigger goals in the long run. The curling team’s success at Sochi, she said, started with a three-year plan, much the way a business team might map out strategy and an operational plan.
As in business, success in sports rarely comes overnight.
Winning Olympic curling gold not only requires the development of strong team members who understand their roles and responsibilities, it also takes a keen sense of timing to ensure the team reaches peak performance when it is approaching the most important competitions, much the way timing is essential to the successful introduction of new products.
“Success was something we achieved bit by bit to make sure that we were where we wanted to be [when we needed to be there]. Work is the exact same way,” she said. At Shoppers Drug Mart, she said, her team is always trying to raise the bar and constantly analyzes its strengths, opportunities and weaknesses while sizing up the competition.
She credits her 27 years with Shoppers for helping her develop the coaching skills necessary for her athletic triumphs and the mentoring skills needed in her business life. “I have been so fortunate to have worked with an understanding and supportive employer,” Ms. Arnott said of Shoppers, which gave her a month-long leave of absence to focus her energy on a win at Sochi.
It works both ways, as her coaching career brings back benefits to the business. “The past eight years of coaching the Jones team has given me a new appreciation and understanding of just how much a team can achieve with proper guidance and an effective leader,” Ms. Arnott said.
Maintaining a strong, high-functioning team is no easy feat and team dynamics require constant attention.
“Relationships take work,” she said. “When team dynamics begin to break down, it causes stress and tension, and that distracts a team from their preparation and goals. I have learned that issues need to be dealt with quickly as, whatever it is, it will not go away on its own. No one likes confrontation but if dealt with in a timely and respectful manner, things are resolved with less animosity.”
There is one more area where Ms. Arnott’s experiences as an Olympic coach mirror the business world: The relative absence of women in the top ranks.
According to the Canadian Curling Association, of the 36 teams (18 male and 18 female) at the beginning of the 2013-2014 season that were in the mix to represent Canada at the Sochi Games, 35 employed coaches. Out of that 35, six were female and 29 were male. Of the 28 Canadian teams sent to Sochi, there were 11 female coaches or assistant coaches, the Canadian Olympic Committee said.
Just as the contributions of women have been shown to improve business performance, the stellar performance of the team coached by Ms. Arnott should prompt other teams to think about improving that ratio.
The Globe and Mail presents the Canadian Olympic Committee’s Coach Reward Program, which recognizes the coaches of the Sochi 2014 Canadian Olympic Team medallists. As part of this series, we will be asking six Olympic coaches who are receiving the awards to share their stories on motivating, leading and managing talent.
Leah Eichler is founder of r/ally, a mobile collaboration platform for enterprises. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org