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A Behind-the-scenes Look at Olympic Management

February 1, 1997
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I was the field-of-play coordinator for the Team Handball competition at the 1996 Summer Olympics. I arrived in Atlanta six weeks before the Games to assist with the last-minute preparations and stayed until after the closing ceremonies. My role? To ensure the competition ran smoothly during the Games. That meant managing a paid and volunteer staff of 100 people.

What an experience! To be involved in the Olympics is not only an honor, but also an intense learning experience. It's as if years of management training were packed into a few short weeks.

I have for a long time had some theories on management and specifically organizational development that I felt were critical to the success (or failure) of any major undertaking. My Olympic experience confirmed all of them.

Solid relationships support team work. Relationship building is the key ingredient to success when you bring together a group of people to complete a task. If the relationships aren't on solid ground and well-defined before you begin, you're in for trouble. Within our management structure, we had strong relationships onto which we built a solid event competition—the core management team all knew each other from the Olympic test event held a year prior.

Our group was composed of Americans from at least a dozen states, two French Canadians, a Native American and one Australian (myself). Our core staff comprised 30 people, with eight of them composing the management team. We also had a total volunteer force of 150. In addition, we had to deal with another 150 people from other functional areas, such as medical, security and press. Plus, the International Handball Federation brought a staff of more than 80 people from around the world, the bulk of them being from Europe.

At one point during our Olympic preparations, new staff were joining our merry band each day. By this time, the core group had become very task-specific. The result was that the newer staff felt they were left out in the cold (or in the heat in Atlanta) and our relationships suffered. The new staff were key to our overall long-term success but they were forgotten. If this had continued, the entire team performance would have suffered. Two members of our team (the two who were most aware of both the importance of relationship-building and the fact that the new members weren't being included) made an extra effort to include the new staff members.

What did we learn from this team-building experience that can be applied to the workplace? Spend time upfront to get to know your work-mates, clients and contractors. Only by understanding and knowing someone can you form a relationship with him or her. The coffee room or water dispenser may be seen as a time-waster but it allows for relationships to be developed and kept. Look around your workplace. Do you have a relationship with everyone you see? If you don't, have a cup of coffee with each of them every day until you do.

False expectations lead to failure. Part of building relationships is building trust. Trust comes with meeting expectations. Our own expectations at work are critical to our performance and happiness.

It's management's responsibility to clarify and know the expectations of their staffs. At the Olympics, I saw countless examples of reality not meeting expectations. Here are two examples of how the ACOG (Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games) set our expectations. In the first instance the organization did a good job of meeting expectations. However, the second example shows how ambiguity and an organization's unmet promise can have a major negative effect on workers' morale.

We were promised accommodations in a college dorm. This is what we received. Although some people weren't happy with the quality of the rooms, nobody could argue about a broken promise or false expectations. (We were only a 10-minute walk from the venue for our sport, so in this respect I believe the expectations were exceeded.)

In the second case, prior to our arrival in Atlanta, we had been promised we'd receive meals from the time we started working until the end of the Games. When we arrived, however, we were informed we wouldn't get meals supplied until the start of our third week. This upset many people. If the food hadn't been promised, we wouldn't have been disappointed. Our expectations weren't met. To make things worse, when we started to receive the food, it consisted of three cold boxed meals per day. Breakfast was basically cereal, whereas lunch and dinner were cold sandwiches (and I mean really cold). Although most of us expected a boxed lunch, we also expected a hot dinner. (The day the broccoli was still frozen now lives in infamy among our staff.)

After one week of nothing but cold, boxed food, every dinner conversation among the staff turned to food. People started to feel ill and the need for good food became such a priority that their work began to suffer.

Lessons learned: Find out upfront what people expect, clarify what you expect and don't make promises to your staff (or clients) that you can't meet. Always plan to exceed people's expectations. It's only by exceeding expectations that you get the, "Wow, you knocked my socks off," response. Also, when you do promise something, make sure everyone understands exactly what the promise is. Don't leave room for ambiguities.

To meet and exceed expectations, it helps to put yourself in your staff's positions. Understand their perspectives. What may seem insignificant to you may be a major motivator—or demotivator—to your staff. In our case, I believe the people with the power to rectify the situation never understood our plight, partly because they lived in Atlanta and could go home and eat a real meal. They weren't stuck with boxed food three times a day, day after day.

Communication is the key to success. The last theory of mine that was proven at the Olympics probably is the most critical and deals with communication. Most people understand how important communication is, but nevertheless only give the subject lip service. I saw many examples of miscommunication at the Olympics that could have been invitations for disaster.

An example: For the women's Gold Medal match, the procession in was changed to add more pizzazz to the introductions of the players. I knew plans had been made for changes in the introductions during the men's finals, but never had been informed about the women's event. The result was that, as implementors, we nearly instructed the teams to run on incorrectly, which would have confused the announcers and embarrassed the players. Thankfully, it worked out.

One key lesson for managers to remember from this is to keep people in the loop. Power is the ability to get things done, and information is power. Let people know what they need to know to perform their functions. Don't hold back information and don't play politics with it. A manager's responsibility is to help people get things done, not to hinder them. Sharing information is part of this responsibility.

Sure, good communication takes a lot of work, especially with a large staff in a hectic situation. Eighty percent of our staff started only two weeks before the Games. It took a concerted effort to keep everyone abreast of the major happenings. One way we accomplished this was by holding full staff meetings. These meetings were important because they became the only time we were truly together as a complete group. As the Games drew closer, these meetings were held more frequently. However, once the Games began, a second method of group communication became critical. This was an informal communication tree led by the various department leaders. It became their responsibility to pass on information to their staffs. This ad hoc system worked surprisingly well. In this system everybody took on greater responsibility to ensure the message was delivered accurately. The direct result was a strengthening of the team's relationships.

Management strategies reap gold-medal results. The interdependence between working relationships, expectations and communication is a strong one. Communication is a tool, clear expectations are a state of mind and solid relationships are the final piece to the puzzle. All three are necessary conditions of success.

As a final retrospective on our team's success, it's amazing we were able to not only pull it off but also perform at such a high level. To me it comes back to relationships and how we were able to function as a team. Although we had our fair share of problems, through it all our relationships stood strong and grew. It was the final, culminating piece of our puzzle, and thank goodness it wasn't missing.

The Olympics were an amazing experience. I learned much about running a major handball tournament, but I learned even more about management. I've been asked a number of times since the end of the games whether I would do it again. The answer is a resounding yes! But the next time I would just do it better, in view of the lessons I brought home from my 1996 Olympic experience.

Workforce, February 1997, Vol. 76, No. 2, pp. 26-27.

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