Going for Corporate Gold: How to Build Olympic-Caliber Talent in Your Organization

Every four years, the Olympics inspire us with stories of hard-working and incredibly talented athletes – dynamic men and women absolutely dedicated to their chosen field. As leaders of organizations, many of us would give our eye teeth to have a team of similarly dedicated and motivated contributors. Although that sort of absolute life focus is probably unreasonable to expect in your own employees, it doesn’t mean you can’t take steps to enable those high performing individuals that do exist within your organization to perform at higher and higher levels.

How do you support top talent?

Beyond their raw skill and natural potential, Olympic athletes possess a couple of success qualities that you’ll also find in your own key talent. They tend to have a high level of intrinsic motivation and an overall vision of what they can achieve. In other words, their actions are connected to a much bigger purpose than the day’s tasks – they have their eye on the gold medal. How does this apply to your workforce? As a leader, help provide a clearly defined picture of what success looks like, and how it fits in to the bigger strategic picture. And empower the high performers to do more – such as lead a significant and challenging piece of work. High performing athletes – and individuals – are constantly learning from experience, and they’ll apply that learning to create great things.

Remember, the primary way to support high performers is to provide them the environment to thrive. Nobody gets to an Olympic medal without a rock solid support network. Organizations that are successful in developing high performers are those that enable them with the tools, information and inspiration to succeed. They create a true learning environment with real job responsibilities that demand constant growth. You can take this even further by letting high performers know they are valuable and deliberately telling them why they are getting extra responsibilities. This will make them more engaged and willing to put in extra discretionary effort – and less likely to look for another job.

What does this look like inside an organization?

Let’s leave the Olympics aside for a moment, and take a look at the underpinnings required to create this sort of environment. First, make sure you have strategic alignment with your top organizational goals. How you select and manage your employees should be driven by what your organization is aiming to achieve. Think about those goals when you think about how you want to cultivate your top talent (do you need creative thinkers? Analytical thinkers? Or is stellar teamwork what you need most? What supportive programs will help grow those skills?) The next step is making sure you have – and communicate – clear expectations of what it takes to be successful. These expectations set the stage for how you attract, select, incent and retain talent. They show up across all areas that are considered talent management: workforce planning, career development, succession planning, performance management, and recognition programs. Finally, remember that one of your most critical considerations is the talent that you already have. Talent analytics (making effective business decisions by using data on where your talent is, what your talent is, and where gaps exist) can help you identify if you have the right people with the right skills to support your future business needs. If you understand the capability and potential you already have, you’ll be better able to prioritize your investment in cultivating and hiring top talent.

So what’s stopping you?

One obstacle that often holds us back from nurturing Olympic-caliber employees is the misconception that singling out high performing individuals is somehow inequitable. This simply isn’t the case – you’re merely helping those that want to reach higher to do so. You can think of it as being fair, if not equal, for all employees – based on the level of effort and drive they demonstrate. Another reason we may hold back is the idea that we really don’t need to support high performers since they are motivated to succeed anyway. Another fallacy: research shows that without employer support and encouragement, employees expend as much as 30% less discretionary effort. And, even more alarmingly, 25% of high performers are looking for new jobs because they are not engaged. High performers, like Olympic athletes, have high standards for themselves, far-reaching personal goals, and the avid desire to grow and develop in their chosen profession. If you don’t provide the necessary incubator for developing their skills, they will look elsewhere.

To sum it up.

As we look back at the Olympics in Sochi, now is a really good time to take a look at how you’re nurturing your top talent. Think of yourself as an Olympic coach, and start looking at your top people as elite athletes. Provide them with opportunities to prove themselves – and learn in the process. Give them feedback, celebrate their wins. Make sure you both have a clear vision of where they are going, and how it helps support your organization’s strategic goals. And support them with a solid environment that gives them the tools to succeed – while helping you identify the next round of superstars to cultivate. Gaining clarity on where your talent potential is and how to bring out their highest capability will help lead your organization to deliver Olympic-caliber business results.



About the author:

Sam Crumley, PeopleFirm
Sam’s work and focus has long been in helping human resources be a strategic partner to the business. Prior to joining PeopleFirm, Sam served as a Global Offering Manager for HR outsourcing where he was pivotal in helping create, sell, and service people-related strategies and solutions for some of the largest companies in the world. In this role, he led external projects spanning system development, talent management and re-organization. From the client’s point of view, his commitment to balancing big picture with situational details, communication, and commitment has led to a proven track record of positive and trusting relationships. Sam’s focus and dedication to successful delivery of everything from competency models to complex organizational transformation make him an invaluable member of any project.


1. SHRM.org “The Care and Feeding of High Potential Employees” August 1, 2011