7 business lessons from our Olympian Heroes


A lone rower on the water at sunrise

Mahe Drysdale sometimes cut a lonely figure on the water as he rowed his way to Olympic Gold at Eton Dorney. As he competed for the medal you could see the focus, the commitment, and imagine the hours of personal training and sacrifice that it took to put him on top of the rowing world.

But as he and the rest of the Kiwi Olympic team have been quick to acknowledge, every aspect of their medal winning performances, personal bests and record setting times have been as the result of a carefully developed plan, years of investment and a significant support network.

If as a business owner you are running a hard race, out there on your own on the course, digging in hard to make your way to a distant finish, there are some lessons you can apply from our rowing team’s success at the Olympics.

1.     Have a strategy – and set short term goals

Since illness saw Mahe score an impressive – but for him disappointing – bronze at the Beijing Olympics he has been planning to win gold in London. Along the way he has performed well in championship meets around the world. From the outset of this regatta, Mahe has clearly came out with a game plan and stuck to it. Both short and long term planning have been vital to achieving his goals, allowing him to manage each step along the road to the gold medal, while overcoming each challenge as it was presented.

2.     Get your systems in place before you head out

As Team GB demonstrated in the lightweight men’s double skulls, a systems failure can cost you a win. And in business, unlike in their race, there’s not always the opportunity of a restart to get you back in the running. Preparing your systems and operation for the stresses and challenges of competition is extremely important.

3.     Identify the talent that will take you across the line

Rowing New Zealand’s development programme has really paid off at the London Olympics, with a mixture of established and developing athletes showing well at the regatta. For any employer, finding the right talent is vitally important for business success. And like the Kiwis, you are looking for a combination of the right skills and a winning attitude to ensure your team is as productive as possible.

4.     Know your opposition – and how to beat them

Mahe Drysdale is a master of psychology. Right from the first heat he has dominated his pool, giving the opposition a mental mountain to climb if they wanted to beat him. In any competitive activity, understanding what motivates other teams, where their strengths and weaknesses are, and what they are likely to bring to the race is vitally important. At the same time, like Mahe, you are often the most successful if you run your own race, leaving others to follow your winning example.

5.     Invest wisely – and focus that investment on development

The $20 million Rowing NZ has invested in the development of the sport, and the support of key sponsors like BankLink, has been paid back in gold at these Olympics. With sport now such big business, these organisations are taking a very strategic view of investment – creating a model businesses of all sizes can follow. They set clear performance targets, and invest in training, personal development, systems and equipment in order to ensure each individual has the best chance of success on race day.

6.     Find the right coach

Struggling with nerves before the race, Mahe Drysdale said he recalled the words of Murray Halberg: “He said I’ve just got to beat 12 scared men, and that was some pretty good advice, because you’re going through the ringer and you know all your competitors are probably doing a similar thing.” The right inspiration at the right time – particularly from someone with real experience of what you are going through – coupled with expert support from people you trust can make the difference between success and failure.

7.     Stick to the plan – even when times are tough

Struck down with the flu in Beijing, Mahe rowed one of the gutsiest races in New Zealand sporting history. And with the weight of the country’s expectations on his shoulders before the race, the Olympian confesses he didn’t feel much better. But when racing, all the training, all the hours of expectation and the clear and concise plan set out by coach Dick Tonks, to ‘just get out in front and hold on’, paid dividends.

As Mahe told New Zealand media after the race: “I had a dream 12 years ago I wanted to be an Olympic gold medalist. It has been a tough road and it has taken me three Olympics to get it but it just shows you can achieve your dream if you work your butt off.”

In business, having commitment, skills and drive is important, but equally so is having a dream and the passion to see it through. And you should know that, as someone who contributes to the well-being and prosperity of our country, that there are 4 million plus Kiwis who are proud of what you do and inspired by what you achieve.

| General Manager – MYOB

  • Nice one Julian!

    • Thanks Linda – those rowers are pretty amazing eh! :)

      • Hi Julian

        Thanks for your article. We can indeed learn lessons from our Olympic athletes. Disappointments at previous Olympic Games have created the determination and focus for returning and succeeding next time. The gold medal winning performances of Mahe Drysdale and Sarah Walker are just two examples.

        The Guardian’s medal weighting which factors in population and GDP makes interesting reading. On a population basis NZ comes in 3rd after Grenada and Jamaica but for GDP we come in at 19th, worse than our official medal count of 18th! My personal view is that we often separate our hearts (aka Kiwi passion for sport) and minds when we go to work. If we could get the two in synch more often our GDP would be humming. :)