3 Things We Can Learn from Michael Phelps About Talent Development

How would you like it if all your employees performed their jobs with the same level of quality and commitment as Michael Phelps gives to swimming? Of course you would. He’s participated in 5 Olympics; won a total of 25 medals, including 21 Gold, 2 Silver, and 2 Bronze; and earned the title of world's greatest swimmer—possibly even the world's greatest Olympian.

Let’s then consider the ongoing challenge facing leaders, in an often-referenced quote from McKinsey & Company: “What’s needed is a deep-rooted conviction, among business unit heads and line leaders, that people really matter—that leaders must develop the capabilities of employees, nurture their careers, and manage the performance of individuals and teams.”

While very few of your employees will ever reach a level of performance on the job equal to that achieved by Phelps, he provides a great example of how leaders should approach the task of talent management.

Here are 3 lessons we can learn:

ONE: Everyone has a unique and critical role

Someone once said, “There is no ‘I’ in team; but there is an ‘M’ and ‘E.’ While teamwork is often crucial, people and their contributions are unique and should be considered as such. Phelps is a strong swimmer and a valuable member of his swim team, but he’s excellent in certain events, like the Men’s 200M Butterfly.

His coach also recognizes that his talent is most beneficial to the team during all-team events when he’s in the position of finisher. That’s why we see him in the fourth and final position in the Men's 4x200m and 4x100m freestyle relays—they depend on his ability to close gaps and help win the race.

TWO: It takes time

Phelps began swimming at age 7. He made his first Olympic appearance in 2000, but didn’t earn a medal. Yet, he came back again in 2004 and won 8 (6 Gold, 2 Bronze), and again in 2008 and won 8 (all Gold).

I’m not suggesting it will take you 15-20 years to develop your pool of talent; but I am saying that it doesn’t happen quickly. It takes an investment of self, time and resources—on the part of both the employee and employer.

THREE: Coaching is required

How do you coach someone like Phelps? Bob Bowman knows. Believe it or not, he says there are no secrets or shortcuts, just lots of hard work. That’s because both he and Phelps understand that talent development doesn’t stop; there’s always room for improvement.

Leaders often make the mistake of thinking that executive coaching is best used in situations involving problem employees. Successful leaders, on the other hand, understand that coaching has it’s most practical and effective application when used for developing good talent.

There are three reasons why this is the case:
1. Coaching star performers is a better and less risky investment.
2. Coaching provides just-in-time, just-what-I-need, individualized training for very busy executives.
3. Coaching is experienced by employees as a terrific benefit with long-term payoffs, as it gives them opportunities to learn and grow.

As Bowman said in a recent interview, “All best swimmers in history, there was a very close partnership with a coach.” I think it’s safe to assume the same can be said of any great executive.