The Path to Gold – How better team building can put you in front

“Stand still and the rest of the world will walk past you,” said Marc Woods, speaking at an SD Worx conference earlier this year.  However, doing nothing would have been very easy for this particular speaker. When he was aged 17, he was diagnosed with bone cancer and subsequently had his left leg amputated below the knee. 

Before he’d been a keen swimmer and had competed at county-level. But he admitted he’d not taken it all too seriously and preferred messing around with his friends. Now, not knowing whether he had six months, six years or sixty years left of his life, he vowed he’d make the most of whatever time he did have.  He was soon swimming faster with one leg than he ever could with two. Through dedication, commitment, great team work and sheer grit and determination, he became a member of Great Britain’s Paralympic swimming team and ultimately a multiple gold medallist.   

His touchstones for success include building a strong, supportive community; listening and learning from feedback; ensuring – and not assuming – everyone within the team has the same goals and focusing on what people can do rather than what they can’t do. Plus, maintaining a sense of humour and not being afraid to laugh at oneself.   

Team building in the business world can easy on paper, but difficult once personalities become involved, as, of course, they have to at some point. But it’s really no different in the world of sport and Marc’s observations translate well into business. 

In fact, few people are better qualified to talk about team-building than someone who has been in a Paralympic relay team. Marc explained how it’s the one time athletes with different degrees of disabilities work together, with a points system ensuring a good balance between the teams. 

Traditionally in a relay, the fastest team member goes last, with the second fastest giving the team a good start at the front. The other two run or swim in the middle section of the race. A smooth baton changeover is usually seen as essential to a good race – and is often where it is won or lost. 

Marc recalled that one of his fellow team members was extremely nervous about taking the baton. His particular disability made it more difficult than it would have been otherwise. However, because he swam second, there was no getting round the need for him to take it.  

So the team decided to do something different and placed this swimmer first. Initially, he didn’t like it because everyone on his part of the race was going faster. But he was persuaded to concentrate entirely on his own performance and become blinkered to what was happening in the other lanes. This brave move paid off and the relay team went on to be extremely successful. 

It’s so easy to stick to the same formula when it comes to building a team. But sometimes moving personnel around can pay off, even if it means they are outside their comfort zone, as this swimmer was at first. There will always be a mixture of abilities but it’s a case of finding a way to give everyone the scope to do their best. This might at first seem detrimental to the team; however, the sum total of everyone giving their optimum performance should counteract this initial dip. 

But one of the major lessons Marc learnt to his cost was that winning teams tend to all have the same goal. He illustrated this with a story about coming second. When he saw a photograph of the team collecting their silver medal, it became obvious to him why this had happened and they hadn’t taken gold. Two of the team (himself included) looked fairly miserable, whereas the other two looked delighted.   

The despondent pair had been aiming to win and had developed the mindset that they could do it. The other two hadn’t expected to come first, so were more than satisfied with second place. This came as a shock to Marc as he had imagined that, as sportsmen, the whole team was aiming for one thing – to be the best. However, as he pointed out, it was dangerous to assume anything. 

This goes for business teams too. Knowing what motivates people is a big factor here, especially if Olympic gold isn’t on the cards, merely the satisfaction of being the best at your job. But whereas success for one person maybe public recognition of their talents or beating their sales target, for another it may be getting home early to see their children as much as possible. There are no rights or wrongs – but awareness and alignment with the right goals and values all helps motivation. 

Marc was keen to point out that his disappointment at coming second doesn’t mean he is afraid of losing – good athletes never are as they can always learn from their performance. Nor are they squeamish about feedback, as some business people seem to be. It’s this open mindedness and seeing improvement as an ongoing issue that sets the champions apart from the rest. 

Another point he made was about targets. He gave an example of a business where everyone had the target of completing ten tasks a week. What happened was everybody went flat out to complete five on a Monday, took it a bit easier with three on a Tuesday and two on a Wednesday and then took the rest of the week off.  This is what happens, he said, when targets are not aligned with goals. 

For the fortunate majority who have never had to face a life-changing experience, listening to the stories of those who have turned their lives around is often like a shot in the arm. It’s a reprimand against mediocracy and a reminder that life can be short. Marc’s tale was a cue for us all to think again about our teams, our businesses – and our lives. 

Fiona Mckee, Head of HR, SD Worx

Image Credit: Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock