7 Traits Bankers Can Learn From Olympic Champions

There are thousands of great athletes, but only a few ever reach the Olympic podium. Skill definitely has a lot to do with that, but there are traits that differentiate the best from the rest. The good news is that bankers can learn from these traits to change outcomes and make success more achievable.
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As I watch the Olympics, I am in awe of the skill of the athletes that compete at such a high level. While the media tends to focus only on the best of the best, I realize that there are thousands of others that either make it to the Olympics but don’t reach the podium, or don’t even qualify for the Olympics despite all of the skill and training that has occurred over many years.

It made me think about what sets the champions apart from other highly skilled competitors, and whether there may be analogy that could apply to the current and future state of banking. In doing some research, it is clear there are many lessons to be learned by both bankers and the organizations they work for.

While there may not be any Olympic champions reading this article in the banking industry, here are 7 traits of a champion that could help people and organizations achieve greater success.

1. Having a Vision of the Future

A winning athlete, or a winning financial institution, will not become the best if they use the past as a measuring stick. While people and organizations must live in the present, success is achieved when there is a goal in the future that can be visualized.

A downhill skier may have a time they know they have to achieve to win. A bank or credit union may have a maximum digital account opening time in mind that they realize they must reach to satisfy new customers and avoid process abandonment. It needs to become a matter of when, not if, the goal is achieved.

Part of the vision of the future requires letting go of many of the established ways of doing things that have worked in the past. For instance, a financial institution can’t achieve digital banking greatness by simply automating analog processes, using old technologies, or not improving talent and skillsets needed for the future. To be successful, a champion embraces a growth focus of “where is improvement possible, what needs to be changed, and what do I have impact over?”

2. Being Willing to Take Risks

The difference between a good athlete and a great athlete is often defined by the willingness to take risks … pushing the limits of what is possible. As opposed to seeking perfection, champions balance the ability to achieve more than their competition without sacrificing winning. Not only can this create winners today, but can extend the winning over longer periods of time. You can see the transformation of Shaun White that has allowed him to be a perennial elite athlete for multiple decades.

Mindset of a Winner Includes Risk-Taking:

Your goal should be to increase your willingness to take appropriate risks that put you in the position to win. The challenge is that it goes against traditional banking norms.

In much the same way, banks and credit unions can become financially stronger, modernize their technology, enhance their use of data and analytics, and improve their products and services. But the final piece of this puzzle is the willingness to take risks. The movement from a “risk avoidance” mindset to one of “risk management” must start at the very top of the organization. It goes beyond credit risk, to include compliance risk, innovation risk, and the willingness to create a “premortem” that assesses the impact of a new idea failing.

Accepting risk is opening the door to opportunity, creating a competitive advantage against slower competitors. Risk takers are the most adept at pivoting when the marketplace changes direction.

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3. Making Incremental Improvements

The author, James Clear, discusses the power of incremental improvements in his best-selling book, Atomic Habits. He tells the story of the British cycling team, that endured more than a century of mediocrity in both Olympic competition and in the Tour de France. One medal in the Olympics and no winners at the Tour de France. That was until they hired Sir Dave Brailsford, a performance coach who used a strategy that he referred to as “the aggregation of marginal gains,” which was the philosophy of searching for a tiny margin of improvement with everything that is done.

We often convince ourselves that massive success requires massive action, while continuous 1% improvements can be far more meaningful, especially in the long run. The math is straightforward, whether you’re an elite athlete or a financial institution – a 1% improvement each day for one year equates to being thirty-seven times better 365 days later.

Bottom Line of Small Improvements:

“Success is a few simple disciplines, practiced every day, while failure is simply a few errors in judgment, repeated every day.”
—Jim Rohn

Just like Olympic champions, a focus on incremental improvements does not mean focusing on small challenges. There’s a need to identify the critical success factors and ensure they are in place – then focus the incremental improvements around these important factors. One of the ancillary benefits of these continuous victories is that it creates a contagious enthusiasm. It also opens the door for broader participation in finding ways to improve and create innovative ideas.

Read More: To Achieve Big Transformation Changes in Banking, Think Small

4. Learning With Data and Analytics

The quest for a competitive advantage in sports and business often rests with how well data and analytics are leveraged. From changing the designs of equipment used, to selecting the right individuals to be part of a winning team, there is a direct correlation between the ability to generate insights and the success realized.

In some sports, the equipment used by each athlete is already optimized for performance. For example, cyclists leverage real-time data to optimize results versus effort expended. Data collected from bike sensors, such as power, speed and pedal revolutions, are beamed wirelessly to the cyclist’s glasses while riding.

In banking, the importance of real-time data enables employees to find the best possible financial solution for any customer. The same source of data can also drive product development, back-office efficiency improvements, and revenue optimization. Most importantly, data and analytics can increase both the flexibility and agility of an organization as marketplace changes occur.

Dig Deeper: How to Build a Data Culture that Supports Digital Banking

5. Investing in Technology

According to The Washington Post, this year’s Winter Olympics features potentially the most extensive (and expensive) collection of sporting equipment in the world. More than simply a test of an individual’s or team’s athletic ability, much of the competition will rely on which competitors have the best gear.

From scientifically designed helmets, gloves, apparel and boots, to skis, bobsleds, skates and even smartwatches, the equipment used by each competitor is customized to maximize performance. In the quest to be the best, nations also invest heavily in sensors, artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR) and other cutting-edge systems.

Just like in banking, while having the most modern technology at your disposal doesn’t guarantee success, it certainly helps. Now more than ever, being constrained by systems and technology that were created decades ago is like using wood skis when everyone else is using a modern composite ski. Or using a slide rule when others have super computers housed in the cloud.

Having the best available technology also enables your organization to recruit the best talent to generate the desired results. At a time when competition for talent is more intense than ever, skilled workers want to work in organizations where they can make an impact … quickly.

6. Leveraging Aligned Outside Experts

Several studies of super athletes found that they did best when coaches fully satisfied their emotional needs by acting as friends, mentors and unwavering supporters — in addition to providing superb technical support. In other words, being able to deliver the best technical and tactical support is not enough.

Not surprisingly, many athletes change their coaches several times throughout their career, as their skills and capabilities evolve. Sometimes the change is based on new skills needed or the style used by the coach. But no Olympic champion takes the journey alone.

Power of Partnerships:

In banking, as with Olympic champions, outside partners use their experiences and focused skills to build and maintain confidence and achieve success. This usually results in a positive, growing relationship.

In financial services, it has become increasingly important to find outside partners that can provide the digital transformation capabilities at the scale and speed required to keep pace with the leaders. The benefit of partnering with outside solution providers is that the best have been down their road of specialty more than a few times, learning from each experience. They can help organizations avoid pitfalls others have experienced and take advantage of “easy wins.”

Learn More: Competitive Pressure Forcing More Bank+Fintech Partnerships

7. Committing to Win

Competition is the fuel driving every successful Olympic athlete. Just as important (if not more so), is the unwavering commitment to beat the competition … as opposed to simply “being good.” This requires a level of confidence in the ability to win as well as the ability to focus on what can be controlled when distractions are an everyday reality.

Even when all of the traits are in place and working in unison, failure to achieve the intended goal is possible. When setbacks occur, the power of resilience is required to move to the next level. According to McKinsey and Company, during times of massive disruption, some companies freeze and fail, while others innovate, advance, and even thrive. The difference is resilience.

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