Be like an athlete

Think:Act Magazine "Performance: Faster, Higher, Stronger "
Be like an athlete

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Think:Act Magazine

Munich Office, Central Europe
September 5, 2023

What can leaders learn from the world of sport for their business performance?


by Detlef Gürtler
Photos by Getty Images, David Ramos, AFP, Andrej Isakovic

Read more on the topic “Performance”

What does business have in common with a decathlon? The winners in both see the art of success as being able to reach peak performances in multiple disciplines.

Citius, altius, fortius. Faster, Higher, Stronger. That's the Olympic motto, coined in 1894 by Pierre de Coubertin, (re)inventor of the Olympic Games. We usually see this as the exact description of what the athletes aim at when they compete for the gold medal. But few actually achieve it – besides the decathletes.

All of the other Olympic disciplines specialize in just one of those three qualities. Sprinters run fast, but aren't concerned about height or strength. Shot-putters are strong, but they don't take the high jump. The upcoming 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris are scheduled to feature 329 events, yet only two of them will cover all three parts of the Olympic motto at the same time: the women's heptathlon and men's decathlon. In a decathlon, athletes meet 10 very different challenges in two days and have to master all of them – including the 100 meter sprint (citius), the high jump (altius) and the shot put (fortius). Ten demanding events that help explain why decathletes are called the "kings of athletics."

Heptathlete Nafi Thiam poised to throw the javelin, facial expression focused, spectators blurred in the background.
World-class: Belgian heptathlete Nafissatou Thiam is a European, world and double Olympic champion and an inspiration for organizations competing across many fronts.
It doesn't matter how good you are – if someone's better than you, you're out.

How does this relate to business? Performance is mostly about being the best in your specific market. Especially in a winner-takes-all field like software or social media. It doesn't matter how good you are – if someone's better than you, you're out. The premium for the best is high, and so is the incentive for specializing in exactly what is needed to succeed: a niche focus. It also explains why measurements have come to the fore. The focus on key performance indicators (KPIs) amplifies specialist bias. In today's data-flooded world, almost everything can be ranked, from price-earning ratios to customer retention rates. Often, improvement in those rankings is set as a target from the boss or the board: "Hey, let's be first in our industry! Or, at least get a better ranking than our competitor!"

Being the best is a multi-event competition

Nafi Thiam set the world record for the high jump within the heptathlon in 2019, but her back-to-back Olympic gold medals in the event required excellence across a breadth of disciplines.

After becoming the youngest ever heptathlon gold medalist at the 2016 Olympics, she shot to third on the event's all-time winners list in 2017, securing her victory with the 800 meter race.

In 2023, she raised the world indoor pentathlon record to 5,055 points, including her personal best of 15.54 meters in the shot put.

While her goal is to "do personal bests everywhere," what she loves about combined events is "that you try to be the best in everything and find the balance."

2.02 meters: The height of Nafi Thiam's world record-setting high jump within a heptathlon competition in 2019, just seven centimeters short of the women's high jump single-event world record.

Sources: Olympics, World Athletics, Reuters

But is this good for business? Is it desirable to get to the top in one or some special disciplines? Or is it better to focus on a more general target – like being faster and higher and stronger? From biology, we know that there's usually a trade-off. When you're a world-class sprinter, like the cheetah, you're not cut out to be very persistent. Either you succeed in the first minute of your hunt, or you fail. When you're good at reaching like a giraffe, you're not good at digging like the mole, and vice versa. The more specialized you are, the more you depend on the invariability of the ecological niche you're in. A major disruption means game over. 

That's not just a biological story of evolution and extinction – it's also human and economic. Many successful silent movie era actors couldn't adapt to the "talkies" and many phone producers went out of business when the smartphone arrived. Specialized professions like wood carvers, copper engravers or typesetters were swallowed up by technological progress.

Still, it can make sense to be a highly focused specialist. Let's get back to the sports analogy. A small company can be a specialist like sprinter Usain Bolt, who always performs in the same discipline better than anyone else. As long as the rules and/or the markets stay the same, this pays off. But the more you are out in the wild – in different markets, industries, technologies and cultures – the more your performance mindset has to change. You have to excel in different disciplines, adapt to different environments and challenges. You can't be an Usain Bolt in all fields at the same time.

Sometimes, two out of three ain't bad. Take the metaphor of the tanker and the speedboat. The speedboat is faster than the tanker and is also more flexible. When your target is close-range and navigation is challenging, the speedboat always wins. But when your task is to cross the Pacific Ocean, the speedboat will eventually run out of fuel. And when there's a storm coming, the tanker is likely to be the more reliable option. But that's only a competition between two specialists – one fast and flexible, the other very strong and able to endure. In a long-term contest in unknown waters, the best-performing vessel should have a combination of strength, flexibility and stamina. It's a vessel that doesn't exist. So let's go back to the Olympics. To be stronger, higher and faster as a company, you have to be more like a decathlete. More like a king of athletics.

Nafi Thiam competing in the high jump, body horizontal as her back clears over the red and white pole, hair in full flow concealing her face, spectators blurred in background.
Record-breaker: Nafi Thiam is an Olympic gold medalist who beat off the competition with her pentathlon high jump in 2019.
2.13 minutes: Nafi Thiam's personal best in the 800 meter race. Although not a record, the win helped her reclaim her world championship title in 2022.

Sources: Olympics, World Athletics, Reuters

Think of the winners: Daley Thompson (UK), the best decathlete of the 1980s, Dan O'Brien (USA, 1990s), Ashton Eaton (USA, 2010s) or today's competing athletes Damian Warner (Canada), Kevin Mayer (France) and Nafissatou "Nafi" Thiam (Belgium), the latter of whom is a two-time gold medalist in the Olympic heptathlon, the women's seven-event championship that nonetheless requires the same endurance and approach.

They need to be almost as good as specialists, but in lots of different areas. This enables them to rise to ever new challenges in ever changing environments. To perform and to endure. Are there corporations that fit this picture? They are hard to find, since we do not have decathletic KPIs that measure overall business performance. And you can't identify them just by looking at their numbers. To bring it to an even more challenging level, from the outside you can't know whether a corporation belongs to the kings class unless it has gone through a major disruption. Only then do endurance and resilience really pay off, and they are the essential ingredients of a decathletic business.

Specialists vs generalists
Is it better to focus on one discipline or try to excel in many? Sports science offers some insights.

What is the best way to succeed in the decathlon?

The answer should be easy as there are huge and easily accessible data sets: the results of decathlon competitions. And there should be an easy way to measure this data: compare the best result in one discipline with the overall results.

Some researchers have done exactly that …

In 2002, biologists from Antwerp University found a negative correlation between specialists and generalists among 600 world-class decathletes: Athletes who excel in one discipline reach comparatively poor overall results.

… but with very different outcomes.

Yet in 2005, British sports scientists used the same method for the results at the Olympic Games – and found a positive correlation: The medalists had better peak specialist results.

One possible explanation is the difference between the good ones and the best ones:

To become a good decathlete, you have to perform in all disciplines or you'll be dropped early in your career. But once you are at the top (e.g., the Olympics), you're only able to become the best decathlete when you have a special trait that differentiates you from the others.

When Covid-19 struck, Microsoft seemed caught off-balance. The leading provider of office software was not really prepared for WFH or out-of-office requirements. A multitude of workarounds, shortcuts and formerly fringe apps were tried and used to keep companies going during lockdown – Zoom and Google Meet, Slack and WhatsApp – and none of them belonged to the Microsoft empire. Skype for Business had never gained traction. Its successor, Teams, performed at a rather low level in comparison with the skyrocketing Zoom or Slack. But the empire struck back and Microsoft was able to capitalize on its main asset: convenience for the IT department. Embedded into Microsoft's broader Office package, Teams could reduce communication breakage and data security concerns. Employees could not only work from home – the employer could also control their performance as if they were in the office. The early 2020 highfliers had to retreat to the fringes.

Nafi Thiam fully focused and about to throw the shot put, holding it beside her right jaw, hair partially covering her face as she prepares to throw.
Prepared for anything: A successful heptathlete, besides needing to be agile and swift, must be incredibly strong for events like the shot put and javelin.
You don't know which qualities may be needed in a market environment.

How do you maintain performance even in the most disruptive times? The decathlete's solution is generalized training. Implementing that in a company, however, can be a challenge. You may struggle to convince a division leader to train for the high jump when its success is measured in speed. So you have to translate multidimensional performance challenges into a language digestible for division managers and team leaders. One proposal for that translation was coined by the Irish innovation consultant and former rugby professional Aidan McCullen: permanent reinvention.

Reinvention is often viewed as something of a once-in-a-lifetime transformation – you were a runner and reinvent yourself as a high jumper. But this approach, McCullen argues, falls short in "a world that is changing at breakneck speed. What can we do to minimize the impact of disruption on our careers, in our organizations and on our lives? The answer lies with a mindset of permanent reinvention." So you don't do just one transformative event – you prepare yourself to become anything from a high jumper to stone-thrower.

One such testing ground for the reinvention approach was one of the highest-tech industries in the first years of our century: mobile phones. It was an arena where some of the world's fastest and highest-performing companies competed. Some names we barely remember: BenQ, Palm, Psion. Highly specialized and once highly successful in one business, they ran out of steam when the environment changed. But two others that disappeared from the market persisted: Nokia and Motorola.

Once Europe's most valuable corporation, Nokia lost the race to Apple's iPhone. From 1998 to 2011, Nokia was the number one producer of mobile phones. In 2012, the phone division wrote heavy losses and in 2013 it was sold off completely. The division – not the company. Nokia became one of the world's leading players for network technology, with more than $20 billion of revenue and more than 80,000 employees. Motorola took a similar turn. The mobile phone division was sold to Google in 2012, but the remaining businesses, mainly communications and surveillance systems for first responders and law enforcement, continued to flourish. Today, Motorola Solutions employs about 20,000 people, with annual revenues of $10 billion. Sure, Apple emerged as the biggest winner of the mobile phone market transformation. But even though Nokia and Motorola completely went out of that market, they did not go out of business. 

Nafi Thiam competing in the long jump with feet landing firmly in the sand and a triumphant expression on her face, hair flying about with the landing movement. Spectators and personnel blurred in the background.
Landing strong: Nafi Thiam was named the female IAAF World Athlete of the Year in 2017 for excellence across seven disciplines.

You don't know in advance which qualities may be needed in a specific market environment. It may be speed like Moderna's Covid-19 vaccine development. It may be a superior technology like Google's page rank. But to stay afloat in all the storms of today's and tomorrow's business, you should train at least some of your other qualities also. One day you'll need them.

The rise of digitalization and the acceleration of innovation, competition and disruption means that businesses have to prepare better for rapid and unforeseeable changes. Just like humans, as this was one of the most important reasons for our species' evolutionary success. We're fast, though slower than a cheetah. We're strong, though weaker than an elephant. We can adapt, though not like a chameleon – but we are flexible and able to learn. So, let there be companies like Usain Bolt or like a cheetah. And let there be corporations like Dan O'Brien or like the human species.

About the author
Portrait of Detlef Gürtler
Detlef Gürtler
Detlef Guertler is a German economic journalist and senior researcher for the Swiss think tank GDI Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute. His main focus is on change - reforms and revolutions, innovations and disruptions in history, future and right now. Detlef Guertler's latest book "Clusterfuck" was published in 2018 at Hanser Verlag, Munich. He lives in Berlin and Marbella.
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Munich Office, Central Europe