Published on: September 3, 2008by Michael Sansolo
Forget Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt. Sure, they dominated the headlines from the recently concluded Olympics. But when it comes to business lessons, the two keys to remember are fingernails and beer bellies.
Fingernails are a tribute to Dara Torres, the amazing American swimmer who at age 41 came within one one-hundredth of a second of winning a gold medal. Asked about it after the race, Torres gave the quote of the Olympics. Essentially, she said, “I shouldn’t have filed my nails last night.”
It’s a metaphor we should all remember when we think of the importance of the smallest detail. Torres trained harder than most of us could probably imagine. Lord knows how she balanced motherhood with swimming, but she did. And she came in second by a fraction of time none of us can imagine and couldn’t measure with a stop watch if we tried. Which is why she talked about that shortened fingernail.
I’d love to see companies put up posters of Torres and start “fingernail” awards to remind associates of the importance of every last bit of effort. Winning a silver medal is great at the Olympics, but in business it is all about the gold. And that means finding every edge, down to the fingernail.
Beer bellies are a less obvious Olympian effort. Although I love sports, I don’t always enjoy the entire experience. One of my least favorite parts of a live event is the “wave” and other organized crowd activities. However, I’m always amazed at how a handful of guys who’ve had a little too much to drink can get a crowd of 50,000 or more organized into a wave with some yelling, cajoling and a lot of effort.
I mention this because I had the amazing good fortune to attend part of the Olympics in China. And for the most part, I was blown away.
China is a country of ironies and contradictions. I get chuckle thinking about how annoyed the ancient emperors must be as their Forbidden City is visited by thousands of commoners. Likewise, there’s great irony in Chairman Mao’s portrait peering down at his Nike-wearing, IPod-listening people. (Not to mention that Col. Sanders’ picture outside KFCs in Beijing is equal in size to Mao’s.)
China has its issues. The most populous communist country on earth is exploding with capitalism. Rich and poor, ancient and new are side by side everywhere. And Americans (in fact all westerners) better take notice. China’s technology, wealth and drive were displayed in many ways beyond the country’s emergence as a sports power. It was apparent in the architecture, in the roadways and in every other impressive part of the city.
In fact, it was more than a little stunning to leave Beijing’s brand new, technology advanced airport to return to Dulles Airport outside Washington. A visitor from China would be stunned at the step backward.
Of course, the power is backed by a totalitarian regime and the problems, such as air and water pollution, are more obvious than the horizon on most days. But the bottom line is that China is a country exploding into modern times, which creates tremendous implications for the future of energy, food, water and business resources. Looking at the incredible number of construction cranes around the city, one retailer with me on the trip said he now understood why the cost for steel has shot up. China is using it.
But that brings us back to the beer bellies and the wave. At the Olympic closing ceremonies, a team of Emcees supported by an army of volunteers around the stadium did their best to get the crowd into a wave. There effort was robust and organized and, of course, a failure. In the US, three guys with big guts and voices would have never accepted such a weak showing.
We’ve got more than big guts going for us. We have creativity, entrepreneurship and individual drive. We have people who can make great things happen with their voices, their drive and their effort.
And we had better not forget it because the competition is getting better all the time for our companies and our country. We don’t need slogans, we need action.
Remember, every last fingernail matters.
Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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