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Stephen Walker

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What can business learn from the Olympics?


Stephen Walker analyses the astounding London 2012 Olympic Games to draw conclusions about the UK's economic performance.
It is clear that individuals and small teams succeed in the UK today. We are not good at inspiring large teams though. Imagine the difference we could make to our children's, and our children's childrens, future if we could improve the performance of our large teams, our large businesses and our public sector.
Can you help make the legacy of the games a step change in economic performance? Will you volunteer to make a difference?
The UK is enjoying a rare elation after a successful Olympic Games, both as a venue and as medal winners. The Paralympics will have their share of astonishing team and individual victories too. Much effort has gone into promoting the legacy of the Olympic Games. Let me add to that effort.
The UK is bathing in post-Olympic euphoria – helped by a heatwave and the general feeling of holidays. Our athletes 'punched above their weight' and our medal tally was spectacular. We feel pleased with ourselves. We have shown the world we can organise a big event. I think I'll skip over the closing ceremony.
This article will compare the results of the great experiment of the Olympics with what happens in the UK, and increasingly across the EU, in the more mundane world of work. Finally there is a call to action, you can be part of the Olympic legacy and make a difference to the future.


The big celebration is around people and their stories. Athletes, who found the motivation to train, push their bodies and put their domestic life second, are the heroes of the Olympics.
"When the difference between first and fourth is measured in milliseconds that continual drive for incremental improvement is essential to success."
That all this was made possible by an army of volunteers providing the support to visitors and athletes is notable. I have written about the benefits of volunteers before (Is paying people to work wrong?)


Officialdom has not come off so well. In 2005 the Games were estimated to cost £2.37bn, current estimates are £10bn but watch this space. This is a 300% forecasting error – so far.
The G4S fiasco puts management in a bad light too. The process they used, reported in the media, was to ask people if they would like to work on the Olympic security but not sign them up at the time. So people made other arrangements, naturally. Does anyone see a flaw in this process?
Business in general has not had much business from the Olympics. Do you know anyone who won business? How many people did you meet employed by the Government and its agencies to tell us there was so much work to be had? We are good at puff and not so good at delivery. In our euphoric state, I don't even want to think what else we could have done with £10bn.

Individual events 

There are so many outstanding athletes to choose from, but I’ll pick Mo Farah. His performances in the 10,000 and 5,000 metres were astounding and inspirational. He had practised and practised with dedication. He knew his capabilities and he planned his runs to get the best result on the day. He was coached in the US, using their facilities and coaches. Mo's US training partner did very well too, they run well together. I'm not suggesting that the UK doesn't provide facilities and good coaches, but the facts stand.
Jessica Ennis won gold in the Women's Heptathlon. She was coached by Toni Minichiello since the age of eleven. Her Yorkshire grit was very evident in her performances.

Team events

Sir Chris Hoy and the team won stunning success in the cycling events. These successes needed to combine good athletes, team working, good coaching, good bikes and the backroom boys watching the telemetric data driving millisecond improvements in performance.
When the difference between first and fourth is measured in milliseconds that continual drive for incremental improvement is essential to success.

How does this translate to the world of work?

Historically the UK is well supplied with outstanding individuals, outstanding leaders. There are a number of them in my Great Leader series of articles. The UK's athletes showed all the inspirational qualities: hard work, the ability to surpass obstacles and that deep down determination to not give up, to do your best.
The UK 'punches above its weight' in science, in the arts, in outstanding individual accomplishment. We are also successful where small teams are concerned. The centre of motor racing excellence is in the UK. Legends like Williams F1 and back room boys Pi Research deliver the vehicles and the incremental improvements allowing UK drivers to go out and win!
We are not successful with large teams in the main. Jaguar and Land Rover (JLR) are successful now (2012). Building pretty much on the same plant and workforce, the new management, India's Tata Group bought JLR in 2008, are making a 'British' success story. Why are UK managers unable to run large teams? Is it because the founder of modern management was Henri Fayol, a Frenchman? What happens as a 'Williams F1' grows into an 'Austin Rover' that means we can't make a success of it?
Imagine if we could make the Olympic Legacy the ability to run large teams effectively. Imagine how the competitive position of the UK would change, how we would improve this country in a few short years.

Improving management ability

I don't use the word 'engagement' much because it has been debased. The ability to engage people in their work is a key management skill. How much would we have had to pay Mo Farah to achieve his medal wins? He has a passion in his belly that drives him, not his monthly pay cheque.
"The ability to engage people in their work is a key management skill. How much would we have had to pay Mo Farah to achieve his medal wins?"
The 2009 Macleod Report gave examples of successful engagement practices. Yet how many managers read it? The Macleod Report did paper over many cracks and rolled together much strange data. It is in the nature of business, that relating an outcome to an event is difficult.
The reality of my management experience is that astonishing performance is possible using the proper concepts of managing people. People are not machines and work is a social act. We can extend those individual and small team successes to large team successes by managing people as people.

The legacy

Share my vision and imagine the UK is a country of strong productivity growth, which is seeing businesses relocate here to tap into our amazing people and make good steady profits. The UK tax revenue expands as unemployment drops and the virtuous cycle goes on and on.
We can help deliver that legacy by improving management and skills across the country. We need to deliver skills that are used. You can be a volunteer. You can speak about the necessity of skills and engagement at every opportunity. This is your chance to make a difference.


We all have a big part to play in delivering a long lasting Olympic legacy. Can you volunteer to make things better? Can you offer apprenticeships or internships to struggling young people? We need to be inspiring achievement in all our population not just a few individuals. We need to make every individual more effective in everything they do. Can you help me find the platforms I need to get this message out across the country?
Stephen is a co-founder of Motivation Matters, set up in 2004 to develop the management of motivation to inspire greater performance. A published author of articles and Conference speaker, Stephen delivers workshops on personal, management and leadership skills across the country. You can follow Stephen on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Blog


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