STRATEGY

7 Business Lessons From the Sochi Olympics

The drama that's unfolding both inside and outside the Games offers plenty of takeaways for entrepreneurs.
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There is something absolutely fascinating about the Sochi Olympics--in the I-just-can't-turn-away sense of the word.

In fact, I think the stories that are swirling around the Games themselves are 10 times more compelling than what's happening on the ice, down the slopes, and in the bobsleds. From half-finished hotels and charges of corruption to local residents displaced for new construction and activists whipped by Cossacks, the most absorbing dramas are separate from the actual competition.

There are clearly some good takeaways for entrepreneurs and leaders in the spectacle that is Sochi:

Be a good budget steward.

The budget for Sochi was $50 billion (yes, with a "b"). That makes it the most expensive Games in history--nearly 14 times what the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games cost. You and I probably don't have that kind of cash in our corporate coffers--but what we do have, we're responsible for managing well and ethically.

That's an attitude that should extend across all teams within the company, touching every person, regardless of level. Whether it's purchasing office supplies, acquiring a new company, or simply deciding if an hour spent on a particular task is really valuable for the business, every single person can take some pride of ownership in managing the company's resources advantageously.

If you choose extravagance, the payoff better be huge.

Please see above. Now, if you have decided to gamble big to get noticed, you better be certain that the payoff is assured. Russia has clearly doubled down on the notion that Sochi, a resort community, will be a tourist draw after the Games conclude. We'll see.

For the rest of us, those kinds of big gambles are typically signs of the desperate or (on very rare, once-in-a-millennium occasions) the absolutely brilliant. If your gamble fails, you're the chump who blew through finite company resources, imperiled employees' livelihoods and loyalty, lost customers, and damaged your shareholders.

Anticipate and fix issues before they become crises.

Remember the Sochi stray dog issue? Olympic organizers rightly thought a significant number of undomesticated strays roaming free could pose a health and safety risk to spectators. (On the flip side, it's not hard to imagine that some minority of spectators could also be a risk to these animals). Yet putting a plan in place to poison them was a heartless--and clueless--plan, one that ultimately drew international media scrutiny and opened the door to accusations of barbarism.

Fortunately, most companies don't have actual life-or-death decisions on the line, but you certainly always need to think about the issues lying in wait for you. Perhaps it's addressing a toxic leadership situation that's driving high turnover within a particular team. Maybe it's an unforeseen bug in your product that fouls things up for customers--or competitive intelligence you've failed to acquire. Be clear-eyed enough to identify issues quickly and decisively. Then, be wise enough to choose a course of action that addresses the problem without exacerbating it or opening a fresh can of worms. 

Be honest about your shortcomings.

During the opening ceremonies, one of the Olympic rings failed to light, though Russian state television cut to the rehearsal to make it appear flawless. Nonetheless, the snafu still made it into international media outlets, leaving organizers on the defensive ("What's the big deal?").

The lesson? Don't cover up, own up. A bit of well-timed humor or even a straightforward acknowledgment would have taken the wind out of this story's sails. Instead, it became something else for organizers to try (unsuccessfully) to explain away.

Ongoing issues tank your narrative.

Sochi's problems have been an immense distraction from the achievements of virtuoso athletes at the high point of their careers.

Likewise, major company screwups overshadow the amazing work you're doing, disrupting the story you're trying to tell about who you are and what you do. Once you lose control of the narrative, you're at the bottom of the slippery slope, trying to scratch and claw your way back to a point where you can refocus the conversation on the themes that matter to you. 

Stay gracious.

Though it would be easy to concentrate on the negatives, or even blame such circumstances for personal failures, the Olympic athletes have largely been focused, kind, and gracious, three qualities that also translate well to business. Even when talking about courses that have been too warm or designed unsafely, most Sochi competitors have been honest yet thoughtful in their assessments. As you listen to a new idea from a junior colleague or conduct a performance review, for example, you could do worse than being forthright and considerate in your feedback.

Stay focused.

These Olympic athletes never forget that they're here to win, so the external elements are just that: external. What a reminder for business owners! Excelling on any playing field requires real focus. You must analyze and understand external factors, certainly, but neither can you let them deter you from your own performance.

What business lessons do you draw from the Sochi Olympic Games?

IMAGE: Sochi 2014
Last updated: Feb 21, 2014




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