Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?
Megan: I’ve done thousands of presentations over the years and probably the most surprising thing people hear is that I wasn’t genetically blessed to be a good swimmer. I started late—at nine years old—and was literally getting lapped by kids half my age. I’m also quite a bit shorter than most of the competition I faced in my career. I had also broken my arm when I was young and the surgeon said he wasn’t sure if it would grow normally after that (fortunately it turned out ok). So, I like to share with people that hard work is definitely the most important part of accomplishing anything, and I try to be a good example of that.
Adam: Looking back, what is your sharpest or most significant memory from your Olympic experience?
Megan: Two things come to mind. First was my level of confidence going into Sydney. I knew before I stepped up on the blocks that I was going to win the gold. I was in a heat with the current world record holder, the former world record holder and champions from around the world, but I was just so confident that I knew I was going to win. The second memory was an offshoot from the first and came from when I was on the podium during the medal ceremony. The national anthem was being played as the American flag rose toward the rafters, I looked around the natatorium and thousands of American flags were being held, and I was just so proud of being a part of that moment for my country. I thought to myself, “Gosh, I wish our national anthem was so much longer!”
Adam: What is something that would surprise people about the life of an Olympian?
Megan: It’s definitely not all glamorous, and even in an individual sport, it is so important to have a good team by your side. I was a “professional athlete” for fourteen years but there were many of those years where it cost as much, or more, to compete as I made from doing it. So for most of us it isn’t a matter of being able to focus strictly on your craft. But as a result, you get really good at juggling multiple side jobs with training, endorsement opportunities, and just multitasking in general.
Adam: How did you get here? What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?
Megan: There were so many things that have been obstacles along the way, but I’ve learned from every one of them, so I don’t call them failures. My perspective is that if you learn something from an event, even if it’s negative, there’s value in it. Some of the more notable for me were that my coach left right after the Sydney Olympics and I ended up in a less-than-ideal training environment for several years. Then I missed making the 2004 Olympic team by eleven one-hundredths of a second and temporarily retired, and after I came back, I broke my leg at National Team training camp right before the World Championships one year, so my sponsor dropped me. There are more, but I just prefer to look at is as there have been lots of “learning opportunities,” for sure!
Adam: What are the best lessons you learned from the achievement of becoming an Olympian and then a gold medalist?
Megan: Hard work pays off and you have to ignore the critics. Even my family thought I was crazy when I said I was going to win a gold medal in 2000, but they supported me, and I was blessed with two. After I retired and came back in 2005 to go for the 2008 team, I read in the newspaper one day that some reporter thought it would “take a miracle” for me to make Beijing. I used it as fuel to remind me of my goals and I took it in stride. In fact, my husband, Nate—without telling me—got me an awesome surprise gift because of that. He picked up a Jack O’Callahan Team USA jersey (from the 1980 ‘Miracle on Ice’ team), and got Jack to sign it for me. Jack wrote, “Megan – Believe in Miracles!” And in the end, I didn’t just make the Beijing team, I brought home a silver medal. And, that jersey still hangs on my wall at my office to serve as a reminder to remain positive and focused.
Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?
Megan: Effective leaders listen and put the team first. Leaders earn their position because of their ability to steer the ship, so to speak. And that can only happen effectively if leaders put the team first. There are going to be times that you want something very specific, but your people are telling you that you need to go a different direction. In most cases, you have to defer to your team. They are the reason you are successful and they are by far your most valuable asset. Leadership isn’t necessarily a democracy, but if you hire the right people, you have to recognize that these people are with you for a reason, and it’s because they’re great at what they do. They have a different perspective, and you’re going to be better for it by hearing them out and being part of the team rather than trying to dictate every move. I see a lot of organizations that hire people for what they can bring to the team, but then ignore everything that doesn’t follow the status quo. The best leaders hire great people and then help guide them to be their best and to contribute as much of their skillset as possible, which is ultimately best for everyone.
Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?
Megan: Adapt, Overcome and Reevaluate. These aren’t new concepts, but they’re so important to being successful. If you’re in a situation that’s unusual or uncomfortable, adapt to your surroundings. Don’t be afraid to learn new things so you can operate efficiently. Too many people say, “Well I’m just not good at that.” Great, then you know what you need to get better at, so do it. And when I talk about the need to overcome, it’s really broad and applicable to so many situations. If you run into obstacles, don’t just throw your hands up and quit, find a new route. If your product or program isn’t successful or you can’t get it off the ground, great, now you know what doesn’t work, and you can do something different. Lastly, and a tie-in to the first two, it is never too late to reevaluate. If you’re going down a path, even if you have contributed massive resources, and it isn’t working, or maybe it was working and isn’t now, it’s time to take another look at your overall strategy. This isn’t poker, you’re never “pot committed,” and you have to be humble enough that you are willing to take ownership when something doesn’t work. I look at my career in public administration now just as I did in swimming. I spent years and years honing my training and technique, one rep and one stroke at a time, but no matter how much work I put into something, it was never too late to change if it could make me better.
Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?
Megan: The best advice I’ve ever received probably came from something my husband said casually one day, but that I took with huge significance: You can always better your best. I loved that, and I continue trying to be better every single day.
Adam: What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward?
Megan: Keep a mindset that is as simple as this: Leave everything better than you found it. Whether it’s picking up a piece of trash in the break room or completing revamping your product line-up, if you’re always looking to make your situation better than you found it, you will pile up success stories not just in your business, but even more importantly, in your personal life.
Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you as a leader?
Megan: I am a mother, a wife, a city Director and a student all at once, so I don’t carry on too many hobbies these days, unfortunately. But I love getting outside and enjoying my surroundings with my family and friends and looking for ways to be better for myself and others, which ties into a leadership philosophy of never settling and always looking for improvements.