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Leadership lessons from the Olympics

10 January 2007
Leadership lessons from the Olympics

Give staff a sense of purpose and celebrate their successes, says leadership guru Alan Patching

Have you ever had one of those times when everything was going right in the workplace - which is obviously not usual - and you just had to know why?

I had precisely such an experience during the preparation for the Sydney Olympics. I was running the design and construction of the largest Olympic stadium ever built, and it occurred to me that we had not lost a single day due to industrial action.

There had to be a reason, and I needed to know what it was. So I asked a few older workers what was going on. I was astounded when one answered: "We are not building bricks and mortar here; we are building part of history, and we will tell our grandchildren that their family built this place."

There it was: the secret to doing it differently. Create a work environment that gives people a sense of purpose and appeals to their deeper values and they will perform to levels you could never achieve with pure economic motivation.

We completed the stadium in stages, each marked by the achievement of a predetermined milestone. We celebrated each milestone with a dinner where I presented each team member with a personalised bottle of wine.

Fast-forward four years - Athens was about to begin. I attended a barbecue for a few involved with Sydney. There on the mantlepiece was one of the wine bottles. "Not consumed yet?" I asked. Everyone looked at me incredulously. Not a single person had drunk their wine, and all professed they never would. It would remain a family heirloom.

Yet another lesson: it does not have to be a big thing, but celebrating success always has more impact than leaders imagine.

The Olympic experience taught me that, as leaders, we really must do things differently. But doing things differently is not so much about doing extraordinarily different things; rather it's about doing the usual things with an extraordinarily different sense of purpose and attitude.

• For more views, and to hear Alan Patching speak, attend the Master Innholders General Managers Conference at the Dorchester hotel on 15 and 16 January. For tickets visit www.masterinnholders.co.uk.

What ‘carrot' do you use to inspire your staff?

Carl Smith, training and talent manager, Royal Lancaster hotel, London
"Employees react well when they are made to feel valued, together with open recognition. They are rarely financially driven. We award our Employee of the Month and Manager of the Quarter, as well as giving certificates of achievement and ambassador's awards for things like health and safety."

Kevin Whitehouse, general manager, Draycote hotel, Warwickshire "Appreciation of your staff is the most effective way to raise morale. If you understand them, having worked through the ranks, it's easier to work together. We consciously work with all levels of our team and this pays off over busy periods like Christmas, when teamwork is really needed."

Richard Ball, managing director, Calcot Manor, Gloucestershire
"Motivation is helped by giving staff the responsibility to achieve attainable goals. We encourage employees to engage with each other, as poor communication can have a damaging effect. Our heads of department are very involved in the company, and this gives a sense of empowerment. Every employee should feel part of the team."

Kathy Guimas, operations manager, In House
"Staff need to feel supported, and it's easily done by taking a few minutes to thank them for their effort - which inclines them to do the same tomorrow. A good working environment is beneficial, and employees will take more pride in what they do. When people lack motivation it's usually because they don't care about standards."

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