Applying an Olympic Approach to the Journey of Career Success

As we move forward in this unprecedented time, the lessons of my past will continue to inform my perspective on leadership for the future.

Jacob Lund/ Shutterstock
Jacob Lund/ Shutterstock

Though things don’t always go as planned, it is often life’s unexpected twists and turns that shape us into who we are.

In 1988, I qualified for the Summer Olympics in long jumping—a dream I had been working toward my entire life. A few months prior, however, I suffered a devastating injury from a softball game, causing my ACL to snap and my jumping knee to fully collapse. The severity of my injury crushed my dreams of competing in the summer games. Although I would eventually work my way back into the competitive running circuit, and even score a bronze medal in the 400 meters at the New Zealand Nationals, it wasn’t good enough for me. At age 25, I made the decision to retire, choosing to go out on my own volition as opposed to letting the injury dictate that for me.

Though I never imagined this future, I’ve taken the lessons, values and overall experience that I learned from the time I spent training for the long jump, and the sheer disappointment I felt when I found out I couldn’t achieve what I set out to do and applied them to my career. I am now translating those lessons even further in my role as CEO of Criteo, especially during a time of global crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic.

There are four key areas of business ethics and strategy I’ve taken from my time as an athlete. These guiding principles have helped me to excel in my role and get through the challenging times.

  • Your mindset: Leadership requires the same mindset of an Olympic trainee: no matter what, you must get out there each and every day, whether you like it or not. This doesn’t mean working crazy long hours, but instead working smart and helping those around you do the same. It’s important to remember that even on the days you feel defeated, there is a team of people depending on you and you must rise to the occasion.
  • Looking at the bigger picture: While it’s easy to get caught up in day-to-day crises, there is always a bigger picture and a larger goal to work toward. As a new sports season approaches, an athlete must consider his or her objectives for the entirety of the season and how to train efficiently and effectively to meet the larger end goal. To get better throughout the season, athletes must time and pace themselves, so that in the end, they have the sustainability to meet those objectives. This is the same in business. Meeting goals means zooming out and finding the best approach to sustain momentum for you and your team—looking at the objectives for the full year just as an athlete would at the start of a new season.
  • Being consultative in your approach to teamwork: My experience as an athlete always showed me the importance of teamwork. As an athlete, you realize that nothing gets achieved alone, and it’s the same in business too. When competing in track and field, you depend on your coaches, your physical therapy trainers and the support of your family to help you succeed. At work, your colleagues should be leaned on in the same way. This cohesive ideology will get you far in many aspects of your career.
  • The ability to know that you won’t always win: Lastly, there comes a time where you must realize you won’t always win—even if you have tried your hardest. This is something athletes face often. You can spend months training and still not win the final race. It’s similar in business; you often have great days and bad days, and those bad days can come a day after your most perfect day. Choosing to not fixate on the fact that you haven’t won, but instead figuring out ways to do better next time, and picking your battles wisely, takes you far in any job or role you have.

Whether it’s running track and field or running a business with 2,800 employees, principles like discipline, vision and teamwork are crucial for long-term success. I’ve learned how to be a better leader by embracing my roots in track and field and empowering teams with the resources they need to succeed. As we move forward in this unprecedented time, the lessons of my past will continue to inform my perspective on leadership for the future.

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