Own the Podium: when stretch targets go bad

Posted February 23, 2010 in Latest News & Insights

There’s lots of hand wringing and apologizing going on from the Own the Podium committee, athletes and the media at large these days. There’s a lesson here for all leaders in the importance of setting targets that motivate.

After spending years running businesses and sales teams, I am of the firm view that the ability to achieve a target is a blend of a number of factors, a few of them being: the environment (market/economy, etc.), the skills of your team, the skills of your competitors, your past track record (how are you trending) and your team’s belief (and I mean hard core, to the bones belief) that they can achieve the goal that’s been set out for them.  (The fact that Own the Podium’s CEO is questioning if it was the right language to use is not encouraging!)

In my experience, if you set a goal purely based on the external factors (eg: our market’s on fire, we should be able to grow 50% this year) and don’t factor in other elements (eg: your top performer is leaving and your next top performer will be exiting on mat leave mid-year plus your competitor just launched a hot new product that makes yours look obsolete…) you may be in for a nasty surprise by the end of Q1 when you see yourself sliding behind your targets.

And, this is where the team belief factor really starts to kick in.  Once a team feels that the target is sliding out of reach (along with their bonus), the motivation begins to slide and, in some cases, desperation starts to kick in.  And, in my experience, that’s a tough one to get back on track.

Own the Podium’s goal was to be #1 in the rankings for medals won on Canada’s home turf.  Was this a realistic goal given our standing coming out of Turin?  Sure we pumped in millions of dollars into the program, but wasn’t the Canadian sports effort chronically underfunded compared to the US’s to begin with?  Is 4 years a realistic time frame for our athletes to catch up?  And, many of the mistakes that have cost our athletes their podium moment seem to have happened because they were going all out to get the medal and not let down the Own the Podium program or the Canadian people.  Did the pressure to show that the program was a success push them to take risks that they wouldn’t have taken?  Were they driven by desire to win or desperation not to lose?  That’s a huge psychological difference that creates a different energy.

One has to wonder if the Canadian team had put their focus on besting their Turin results instead of “owning the podium” in first place, if that focus would have produced a different outcome.  In my experience, when the target is a stretch, but a reasonable one you actually increase the odds of knocking the lights out of it.  Plus, from the looks on a lot of faces, many of these athletes are being robbed of the joy they should be feeling.  Snowboarder Jennifer Heil looked completely despondent after winning a silver medal… there’s something completely wrong with that.

As leaders, we need to find the right message and stretch target that pushes team performance to a new level but that doesn’t encourage behaviours that may derail and demotivate.  Not any easy task, but one that, when done well, can lead to amazing results.

Happy leading!


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