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Gold-medal HR

September 1, 2000
Related Topics: Strategic Planning, Workforce Planning, Featured Article
Lately,you’ve been thinking that the practice of human resources is nothing but day-in,day-out problems complicated by whiny, demanding employees and clueless, insensitivemanagers. No matter what you do, one faction or the other will be upset. It’s gettingharder and harder, it seems, to drag your bones into the office every day.

Ifyou found yourself nodding in despair while reading that last paragraph, then maybe, justmaybe, you need a dose of inspiration. So we’re going to give it to you. But first,we’d like you to think about the 2000 Olympic Games, which begin September 15 inSydney, Australia. (We know it sounds odd, but bear with us.)

Pictureyourself holding the Olympic torch high above your head, effortlessly running to the topof Olympic stadium to light the flame that will symbolize the start of the 2000 OlympicGames. You sense millions of people around the world watching, waiting, as you stop, catchyour breath, gently lower the torch, and ignite the flame that unites the world in ashared sense of human pride.

Ormaybe you’d rather envision yourself shattering all previous world records in the200-meter backstroke, or high-fiving your volleyball teammates after beating the Chinese,or tearfully singing the national anthem after a gold medal is placed around your neck.

WhateverOlympic vision you choose, chances are you’re not alone. Olympic athletes have alwaysbeen a tremendous source of inspiration; a motivational wellspring for those focused onachieving competitive excellence. Watching the athletes, we cheer, hope, agonize, andlearn exactly what it takes to earn a gold medal. Even if we’re not athletic, thedrive to achieve affects us and for a couple of weeks, at least, we start to believe thatanything is possible.

Hereat Workforce, we thought that if Olympicathletes can be so inspirational, what about the organization that supports them? Couldthe United States Olympic Committee teach burnt-out human resources professionals anythingabout how to obtain excellence or, at the very least, motivation? In short, the answer isyes.

Withjust 450 employees and a $125 million annual budget, the USOC manages to actively supportmore than 25,000 aspiring Olympic athletes each year. The organization maintains threestate-of-the-art training facilities, raises money and distributes grants to athletes, andprepares and coordinates US teams for competition in eight major international eventsevery four years. These are the summer and winter Olympic Games, the summer and winterParalympic Games, the summer and winter World University Games, the Pan American Games,and World Youth Games.

It’sa tall order for a small organization that is supported by licensing and fund-raisingfees. But even more remarkable is the fact that the organization, whose relatively lowsalaries are typical of non-profits, has a turnover rate of just 5 percent. This is almosthalf the national average of 9 percent, according to the International PersonnelManagement Association in Washington, D.C. The average manager at USOC has been with theorganization for more than 7 years, and 8 percent of employees have been there  for more than 10 years.

Howdoes the USOC do it? What lessons can the organization teach other companies that arestriving for excellence? To find out, we visited USOC headquarters in Colorado Springs,Colorado, and talked with the people who manage the employees who support the athletes.Here is what we learned:

Lesson1: Have a big vision.  First, let’s state the obvious: Helpingathletes make it to the Olympics is a big, inspiring goal that motivates every USOCemployee. It’s the kind of organization and the kind of goal that people want to be apart of, and they’ll willingly trade fat corporate salaries for the chance to jointhe USOC family. “Our salaries are in the 25th percentile of the for-profit market,”explains Mary Watkins, associate director of human resources. In other words, 75 percentof companies pay more than the USOC offers.

WhatUSOC has learned, almost by accident, is that employees will work hard if the company’svision is inspiring. Why is this? The authors of the book, The Search for Meaning in theWorkplace ( Abingdon Press, 1996) explain the phenomenon this way: “Perhaps thesingle most important element of a real community is the commitment by its members to ashared vision of the future.”

Thinkabout your company’s mission. Is there a way to enlarge and elevate the corporategoals to make them more inspiring?

Lesson 2: Reinforce that vision throughout theworkplace. From USOC headquarters in Colorado Springs, visitors can see the top ofPikes Peak, which, at 14,110-feet, is one of the tallest mountains in the continentalUnited States. Not only that, it was reportedly the inspiration for “America theBeautiful.”

Clearly,Pikes Peak is a fitting symbol for an organization that is hell-bent on helping Americansreach the pinnacle of their athletic abilities. But it’s not just the Rocky Mountainsvista that makes the USOC campus so inspiring.

Everywhereyou turn, you’re reminded what USOC is all about. There are flat, brightly coloredmetal sculptures of athletes in motion throughout the campus: runners kneeling in startingblocks, cyclists straining over their front wheels, volleyball players spiking at the net.Offices display posters from past Olympic Games: 1980, Lake Placid, New York; 1984, LosAngeles, California; 1994, Lillehammer, Norway. A good percentage of employees also wearshirts featuring the Olympic logo of five interlocking rings.

Thenthere are the athletes themselves, who work out in the weight room, swim laps in the pool,and load their plates in the cafeteria. “Every day, we see the direct impact of ourwork,” explains Darryl Seibel, director of media and public relations. “It makesyou feel good to drive into the parking lot and see the boxing team out for a run.”

Howdoes your work environment remind employees of the good work they do every day?

Lesson 3: Staffing should be based on a formula, notguesswork. Staffing an Olympic event is an activity that literally takes years toplan. That means arranging housing, coordinating transportation, and defining jobresponsibilities. To ease the process, the USOC has created an intricate staffing formulabased on the number of athletes chosen for the U.S. team.

“Knowinghow many staff members we can afford to send makes it easier for us to plan and negotiateour staffing needs with the National Governing Bodies [which are sport-specificorganizations such as USA Swimming or USA Wrestling], explains Greg Harney, managingdirector, games and organizational support. For instance, if only four athletes from theU.S. Badminton Association are chosen for the U.S. team, then those athletes might have toshare trainers, masseuses, and public-relations specialists with another group ofathletes. The staffing formula is something all governing bodies understand.

Doesyour HR organization utilize a formula for staffing that line managers understand, or doyou advertise new positions on the basis of who presents the best argument?

Lesson 4: Temporary employees are not always theanswer to short-term staffing needs.  Forthe 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, the USOC will send nearly 650 staff members includingequipment managers, trainers, medical personnel, transportation coordinators, and cateringspecialists. Where do these people come from? Are many temps hired to staff the two-weekevent?

“Wedon’t really hire anyone specifically for the event,” Harney says. Instead, theUSOC uses a highly creative staffing strategy that might best be described as thebeg-borrow-and-steal approach.

First,the organization sends employees who work in “organizationally identified”positions. These are permanent employees in the International Games Division who work onevent logistics and planning on a full-time basis. These are the people who know what ittakes to put on the Games.

Second,the organization borrows employees from other departments in the USOC who may have specialknowledge or skills that are needed at the Games. These might include transportation orhousing specialists. The trick to borrowing employees, Harney says, is maintaining goodrelationships with other internal managers who may have to do without key staff membersfor several weeks at a time.

Third,the USOC borrows employees such as trainers and press representatives from affiliateorganizations such as the National Governing Bodies. The USOC pays expenses associatedwith sending those employees to the Games, but the affiliate organization pays theirsalaries.

Fourth,the USOC uses employees from official Olympic sponsors such as United Airlines and LucentTechnologies. A Lucent employee, for example, will be “borrowed” to set up andmaintain the U.S. team’s on-site phone system. Here again, USOC covers all expenses,but doesn’t pay the employees’ salaries -- the sponsoring company does.

Finally,there are some volunteer positions that are filled by doctors, trainers, and otherspecialists who want to be a part of the Olympic Games. “But there are not as manyvolunteer positions as you might imagine,” Harney says, and there is stiffcompetition for those that are offered.

Arethere creative ways for you to fulfill short-term employee needs, such borrowing fromother internal departments or partnering with your suppliers?

Lesson 5: Times of intense activity require differentways of thinking about jobs.  The vastmajority of the time, USOC employees work on-site at routine jobs with well-defined jobdescriptions. But when a major event like the Summer Olympics or Pan American Games comesalong, the employees who staff the events can easily put in 15-hour days with wildlydifferent work responsibilities.

Toavoid confusion over roles and responsibilities, the USOC creates separate, event-specificjob descriptions for all employees that spell out their duties and reporting requirements.Furthermore, all employees who staff the Games receive stress-management training to helpthem deal with the long hours and intense demands of such an event.

Doyou make it clear to employees what is expected of them during times of intense activity?Do you provide special assistance during those times?

Lesson6: The HR Department doesn’t have to be involved for a company’s human resourcesto be managed effectively.  You’d think, given the size of the eventsUSOC manages, that the organization’s HR department would be intimately involved inall aspects of staffing. As it turns out, HR has very little to do with staffingrequirements at the Olympic Games. Instead, Harney, who manages the International GamesDivision, is responsible for HR requirements because he understands the logistics ofstaffing the events. While HR oversees staffing at USOC headquarters, there is little needfor the function to get involved in the athletic competitions.

Arethere HR responsibilities in your organization that could be managed more efficiently byother departments?

Lesson 7: Hire employees with the same traits as yourcustomers’. The USOC considers its customers to be the athletes it supports. Inorder to better understand and serve those customers, Seibel says, the USOC tends to hirepeople who, like the athletes, aspire to excellence in the execution of their dailyduties. “We also hire people who are achievement oriented and competitive, but whounderstand the concepts of fairness and fair play,” he says.

Doyour employees understand and embody your customer needs on an intuitive level?

Lesson 8: Hire former customers to serve asspokespeople for the company. The USOC’s director of public relations programs isBenita Fitzgerald Mosely, a former track-and-field Olympian who competed in the 1980 and1984 Olympic Games, taking a gold medal in the 100-meter hurdles. (She also was named analternative to the team in 1998.)

Obviously,Mosely is a perfect person to serve in such a public role because she’s been a directbeneficiary of USOC’s services. She knows what important work the organization does.“I’m ideally suited to this job,” she says. “I have a passion forathletics and in one way or another I’ve been affiliated with the USOC all of mylife. I think it’s important for employers to hire people with a passion for whatthey do. This ensures these folks will give their all in their jobs.”

Arethere key public positions that your former customers or partners can fulfill? Are youhiring people with a passion for the work?

Thelesson for human resources professionals is clear: Even when you’re doing a good job,you can always do better.

Lesson 9: Training should be based on scientificmethodology. One of the most important missions of the USOC is to help train athletesfor optimum performance. In so doing, the USOC maintains a Sports Sciences Division, whichis devoted to performance improvement using scientific research and methodology. Forinstance, to help boxers improve, staff scientists have embedded computer chips inpunching bags to measure the boxer’s acceleration and point of impact. Using thesemeasurements, scientists can evaluate an athlete’s standard performance and then workwith trainers to develop highly individualized training regimens.

Thesescientists do the same thing for volleyball players, cyclists, and swimmers. In fact,thanks to a specially designed pool, swimmers can experience what a medal-winningperformance “feels” like so that they can practice until this “feeling”becomes standard.

Doyou measure individual employee performance prior to developing training programs? Do yougive employees a concrete sense of what improved performance will look and feel like?

Lesson 10: Even when things are going well, they mayneed improvement. If you measure the success of USOC by the number of medals broughthome by U.S. athletes, then the organization has been wildly successful over the last fewyears. During the last Summer Olympics, held in 1996 in Atlanta, the U.S. team earned 101medals -- 44 gold, 32 silver, and 25 bronze -- making it the team’s strongest yearever.

Butthe USOC, like the athletes it serves, is not content to rest on its laurels. Over thelast year, the organization has been involved in a major transformation effort thatincluded bringing in a new CEO, rewriting the strategic plan, establishing a newmanagement team, and running the non-profit organization more like a commercial entity.The restructuring, which was prompted by an internal review by McKinsey and Company, isdesigned to streamline the organization, allowing it to focus more closely on its mission.

“Inthe past, we were trying to be all things to all people,” Seibel explains. “Nowwe’re becoming much more focused on our mission to serve the athletes.”

Wasthe reorganization prompted by the bribery allegations in the selection of Salt Lake Cityas host for the 2002 Winter Olympics? “No,” Seibel says. “It wascoincidental more than anything else.”

Regardlessof what prompted the reorganization, the fact remains that USOC decided to become moreefficient at a time when it had racked up more athletic successes than at any point in itshistory.

Thelesson for human resources professionals is clear: Even when you’re doing a good job,you can always do better.

Swifter.Higher. Stronger. That’sthe English translation of the official Olympic motto, and every person who’s everfaced a competitor has had to be one if not all of these three things.

Theneed to constantly improve is essential not only for Olympic contenders, but also foreveryone involved in competition, including HR professionals. To compete in today’sever-changing business marketplace, employers cannot rely on the talents and abilitiesthey had yesterday. They have to continually work to be swifter, higher, and stronger thanever before, and HR has a key role to play in making sure those improvements take place.HR professionals light the torch for every other employee in an organization.

Workforce,September 2000, Vol. 79, No. 9, pp. 62-68 -- Subscribe now!

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