News & Views

Three Habits of a Successful Team - Secrets of Continuous Development

14 March 2019

Author: Silja Kanerva

Secrets of Continuous Development

The biggest difference I find between professional sports and working life is the intense strive to become better. Aiming for an Olympic medal in any sports requires years of uncompromised dedication to make your team and yourself better and facing your weaknesses every single day of the year. Working life and professional sports are not comparable in this respect. However, there are lessons to be learned from the mentality. Below, I have identified four elements of our Olympic team’s learning process that could be implemented in any ambitious project or result-oriented employment.

Setting Milestones

The precondition for any learning process is that there is a clear goal. For teams it means all members should be committed to a common goal; answers to questions “Where to?” and “How high?” should be the same. A clear goal helps the team refocus in moments of doubt and redirect the plan if needed. However, one ultimate goal is rarely enough to motivate and guide you throughout a long project. To maintain a clear view on our performance level and to support a steady learning curve, our Olympic team decided on several ambitious yet achievable milestones for the years preceding 2012. Setting milestones is important, but it is also important to set them at a realistic level, so that achieving them gives the team a proper confidence boost going forward. To balance out excessive confidence, our brilliant American training partners offered us constant benchmarking to the top of the fleet and made sure our feet stayed firmly on the ground. Developing your team optimally, also in work-life, requires not only encouraging experiences, but also constant and honest benchmarking to your target level.

Stretching the Comfort Zone

Another feature of our learning process was that we were constantly reaching out of our comfort zones. We started with a set of tasks as I described in the first blog post and added on responsibilities as soon as we felt that we could handle some more. This did not mean dropping anyone into the deep end of the swimming pool. On the contrary, it was like heading steadily towards the deep end as fast as possible without drowning a team member, each member starting from the depth best equivalent to their skills. As most professions today, sailing is a lifelong learning process where one is never ready and can always learn more and go a tiny bit deeper. Raising the bar gradually but consistently is a controlled method that generates trust instead of fear and creates a shared comfort zone that allows constant reaching out of the personal comfort zone, always aiming to be a touch better. Once again, energy is directed to the actual goal and development, not worrying about performance and being good enough.

Keeping Up the Performance Level

A crucial part of continuous development is maintaining the performance level so that you are able to adopt new things and perform at the best possible level every day. Having ownership of an Olympic project entails taking responsibility for your own wellbeing. In our Olympic team, each member was committed to keeping herself in sterling condition, taking the necessary measures with nutrition, sleep, and recovery. Sick days can never be fully eliminated, but there are many ways to keep them at a minimum (at least when not parenting a toddler). Often, it is a question of discipline and prioritising sleep and rest ahead of something more fun, productive-sounding, or other temptations. Smart choices are easier to make when you know your limits and recognise early signs of imbalance in your body – a skill athletes have learnt to master. It is definitely one of the skills worth bringing along and treasuring in work life, as it is so easily forgotten. But just as in professional sports, the ability to maintain a routine and a steady pace for long periods is often more fruitful than short and exhaustive sprints.

Debriefing Regularly

The continuous willingness to develop opens doors for self-criticism but also for feedback and open conversations with others. An inseparable part of continuous development is a culture of debriefing and willingness to change. A standard part of our Olympic team’s daily routine on training camps was a debrief that took from one to two hours each day.

Debriefing is a concept that is easily misinterpreted. For us, debriefing meant that we analysed the events of the day thoroughly, focusing on decisive moments, whether they were good or bad. What was considered decisive enough was up to each individual team member; topics were not given or decided ahead. Each topic was discussed in order to understand the reasons that made the moments decisive and to find the best solutions going forward. Conversation was open brainstorming and solution-oriented. Most of all, the debriefs were a safe, agreed moment of the day where everyone had the right and obligation to bring forward possible issues and doubts. Every single day, there was an opportunity to solve problems and clear the air, and using this opportunity was each individual’s responsibility that benefitted the whole team.

Read more about the building blocks of our strong team spirit in the upcoming and last blog post of this series.

Silja Kanerva was a professional athlete in Olympic sailing, winning the World Championships and Olympic bronze in match racing in 2012.