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Roger Martin
Dean/Scholar

Roger Martin

Roger Martin is Dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto and author, most recently, of The Design of Business. His website is www.rogerlmartin.com

'Own the Podium,' vindicated

Canada appears to have fallen far short of its goal of "Owning the Podium" at the Vancouver Olympics. How can leaders know the difference between a "stretch" goal that inspires people to reach new heights and an unattainable goal that winds up demoralizing people?

We fret about how short-term oriented the capital markets and companies have become but this question shows that short-termism isn't limited to the capital markets: It also applies to the Olympics. The Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) developed a strategy for the Vancouver Olympics, and it was carrying it out. It would not be at all clear whether that strategy had merits until the end of the 17-day Winter Olympics.

However, after the end of day 12, On Leadership already was ready to declare the strategy to be a 'flop' and ask whether this failure provided an object lesson to leaders who may try a similar thing. Now, if On Leadership had been a hedge fund and COC would have been a public company, On Leadership would have gotten a bunch of its predatory hedge-fund friends to launch a concerted (and illegal) short-selling attack and would have forced either a strategy change or CEO sacking.

As of the end of day 12, On Leadership certainly looked right. Canada had only 11 medals, a mere third of the total estimated to be needed to be the medal-leading country - the target of Own the Podium. But in the five days between On Leadership's question and the end of the games, Canada earned another 15 medals - including 8 gold medals. While that didn't mean that Canada achieved the Own the Podium goal, it did achieve its best performance ever, the 9th highest medal total in Winter Olympic history, and third at this games; the highest finish Canada had achieved since its third-place finish in 1932.

While it wasn't a clear success, it is arguable that judging it to be a failure before the event actually finished appears remarkably premature. Fortunately On Leadership doesn't have the power of craven hedge funds, so Canadian athletes were able to stay the course and experience a magnificent five days of accomplishment. To me it is a lesson in how quick we give up on strategies. We need to ask how we can stay the course on strategies and keep our hands off the controls.

On the specific question of stretch goals, the key is to realize that the world is a sufficiently complicated place that it is really hard to predict a single goal. But just because the singular goal is not achieved does not mean that setting the goal was not productive.

In this case, the goal was to win the most medals - i.e. to show that Canada could really compete at the highest level with the much bigger countries like USA, Germany and Russia. We failed at that very specific goal, but interestingly the effort resulted in the accomplishment of another goal entirely, arguably a more impressive one. Canada won 14 gold medals - the most ever in Winter Olympic history, double our previous best, and more than the highest total ever for powerhouses such as USA (10), Germany (12) or Russia/Soviet Union (13).

Far from being demoralized, Canadians and Canadian athletes have been wildly energized by owning the top step of the podium to an extent that no nation ever has. And that wouldn't have happened without setting the Own the Podium goal.

By Roger Martin

 |  March 1, 2010; 6:10 AM ET
Category:  Sports Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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According to the latest poll (link provided below), the vast majority of Canadians believe Canada lived up to its goal of owning the podium.

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/globe-online-poll/article1484618/

Posted by: purecatalyst | March 2, 2010 11:32 AM
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To me, that approach just shows what is happening to sports. The same thing that is happening to government and many other things. Money owns it. The countries which can build the billion-dollar training facilities and, in some backhanded way, subsidize their athletes win the most prizes.

I don't see it as a matter of pride that a country can use a slogan like "Own the Podium" and then carry that out because they they are rich. And that applies to the USA too.

If I were going to try to buy the Olympics as a nationalistic goal, at least I'd keep my mouth shut about it.

Posted by: tinyjab40 | March 1, 2010 1:39 PM
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This was an object lesson for me in how small-minded and mean other countries can be when they're not the centre of attention, and how quickly athletes I respected pick up bad habits from other countries, such as wrapping themselves in the national flag like a giant burrito. Canada spent years perfecting how to be a graceful and gracious loser, and I guess that's what the rest of the world continues to expect of it. This is evident from many of the comments.

Everybody who hosts the Olympics gets an opportunity to run the courses before anyone else, as the venues are prepared a year or two in advance. So what? When the margin of victory is a fraction of a second, I'd dispute that running the actual course is as much of an advantage as some here make out. Course conditions on the day the race is run are unlikely to be identical, and I'm sure they have snow in other countries. I'm sure nobody will scream injustice when British athletes have a chance to run the actual tracks and course of the summer Olympic Games well in advance, and I'm sure nobody will suggest that doing so made them faster or better.

What it boils down to is that it's expected of a victor to strut and brag - unless they're Canadian. That's fine with me; I always thought that kind of behaviour was unbecoming. It'd also be fine with me if we not only never hosted the Olympic Games again, but if we didn't even participate. People of whom I once had a fairly high opinion (the British) greatly disappointed me with their constant whining and scandalmongering in their press, and people of whom I already had a low opinion have settled a bit lower.

Maybe in 2012 the IOC could just save a lot of money and aggravation, and direct-mail all the gold medals to the United States. Then you could dance around and shriek, "We're Number One!!!" without having to leave home.

Posted by: marknesop | March 1, 2010 1:09 PM
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The goal was appropriate and Roger Martin's analysis is spot-on. The differences between top competitors are very, very small and sometimes hinge on tiny, almost random events during a run. These games were a rare opportunity for Canada and the goal defined a risk worth taking.

After all, the consequence of failure was much less than the reward for winning. Failing, Canada would have been no worse than "ordinary" - not a big change from how Canada is often regarded already. Winning, they became extraordinary. And Canada DID win in more ways than one.

We Americans are lucky to have such a good and decent neighbor as Canada. The Canadians did things their way and succeeded magnificently. They deserve high regard for taking risks and achieving excellence.

Kind regards and best wishes, Canada!

Posted by: redant | March 1, 2010 12:21 PM
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Well, bully for you, Dean Martin. Thanks for showing us that Canadians, too, can be a bunch of ill-mannered, boastful, chest-thumping yahoos.

Posted by: lydgate | March 1, 2010 12:11 PM
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Dear Canada,
Yes, you own the podium. Thanks for letting us use it so much.

Posted by: diogenes22 | March 1, 2010 11:41 AM
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"We failed at that very specific goal..." Leadership is recognizing when you don't meet the goal you set, not changing the goal to trumpet victory.

--Excellent Point. The goal from the COC was to be the overall leader in medals. An arrogance that started months ago and continued through the games. However the Canadians were not the country that won the most medals and "owned the podium" as it were. The United States were the winners with a record haul of neckwear, despite the many subpar Canadian facilities.

Posted by: southside721 | March 1, 2010 10:23 AM
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Congrats to the Canadian athletes and team. I enjoyed watching the Olympics this year and am happy for the athletes who trained hard and won. Clearly the Canadian athletes were inspired to do well at home. I know many Canadians and it's hard to not be happy for them.

I also would congratulate our own American athletes on a terrific set of games and winning in some events where we haven't traditionally done so. At the same time, I can't easily leap from my pride in the individual athletes to the aggregrate number of medals won... I am still just really happy for the individuals who won each and every one separately and can't help but be thankful that we live in a country that can sponsor and support so many.

As for the goal setting vs. the achievement and the idea of enlarging the concept to the entire nation as a whole... I don't care. The Canadians purported themselves well in a city that I have had the pleasure to visit and really loved.

Best of luck to the athletes and coaches who this morning woke up and were inspired by the Olympics to go train. Right now in some very poor country there are probably athletes building their own dreams...

Posted by: Rickster623 | March 1, 2010 10:03 AM
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I find this braying about medal counts to be utterly crass and tasteless, whatever country it issues from. You're Canadian, and thus harmless, but really, you come across as a slightly more polite version of the Texas yahoo on the Simpsons.

Posted by: tkinnama | March 1, 2010 10:02 AM
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Sojourner. It depends on the weight you place on Gold. I agree if you use 3,2,1 for Gold, silver and bronze you get one result but try 5,3,1 or other weightings (4,2,1)and you get different results. So we cannot say that there is any overall winner. I think both countries (Canada and USA) can see themselves as winners.

Posted by: fanofobama59 | March 1, 2010 9:31 AM
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Hey BC2010, you need to do a little research. Not only is restricting access to Olympic venues pretty standard procedure, the majority of Canadian medals were not even won in the venues that were restricted. The sites where the skiing events took place are regular World Cup stops (not to mention the fact that courses are always to some extent custom built for each event). The Richmond skating oval was the site of a major pre-Olympics test event last year that was mentioned a number of times during the long track events. The men's hockey was played at an NHL rink.

I think the main complaint was about the sliding track access--but look at the results there; most of the medals were taken by countries traditionally strong in those events. The complaints about the safety of the track are another thing altogether--there's lots of blame to go around about that.

The complaints also seem to reflect the surprise that Canada was doing what other countries have always done before Olympics in their countries. Canada has always been "nice"--maybe too nice.

I also challenge you to point out any Canadian athlete who was a poor sport. Put blame for those pre-Olympics policies where they belong--on the Canadian Olympic committee--not on the athletes who, to a one, represented their country well. In fact, the IOC and its member organizations in the various countries have often shown the worst side of the Olympics. The best side is always shown in the athletes, who almost always act with grace and good sportsmanship regardless of which country they represent (certain Russian figure skaters notwithstanding)

Posted by: FAC33 | March 1, 2010 9:30 AM
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Congrats to Canada.
Good Games.
Glad you guys paid for it though.

Posted by: jfv123 | March 1, 2010 9:27 AM
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Hey BC2010, you need to do a little research. Not only is restricting access to Olympic venues pretty standard procedure, the majority of Canadian medals were not even won in the venues that were restricted. The sites where the skiing events took place are regular World Cup stops (not to mention the fact that courses are always to some extent custom built for each event). The Richmond skating oval was the site of a major pre-Olympics test event last year that was mentioned a number of times during the long track events. The men's hockey was played at an NHL rink.

I think the main complaint was about the sliding track access--but look at the results there; most of the medals were taken by countries traditionally strong in those events. The complaints about the safety of the track are another thing altogether--there's lots of blame to go around about that.

The complaints also seem to reflect the surprise that Canada was doing what other countries have always done before Olympics in their countries. Canada has always been "nice"--maybe too nice.

I also challenge you to point out any Canadian athlete who was a poor sport. Put blame for those pre-Olympics policies where they belong--on the Canadian Olympic committee--not on the athletes who, to a one, represented their country well. In fact, the IOC and its member organizations in the various countries have often shown the worst side of the Olympics. The best side is always shown in the athletes, who almost always act with grace and good sportsmanship regardless of which country they represent (certain Russian figure skaters notwithstanding)

Posted by: FAC33 | March 1, 2010 9:23 AM
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I don't like 'medal counts' but since it seems to be the measurement of success for the modern Olympics, then I suggest that to give a true measure of which country was the most successful at the Olympics, from a medal standpoint, that values be appointed to the medals - 3 points for a gold, 2 for a silver, and 1 for a bronze. I think if this was applied, that the US would still be #1, Germany #2, and Canada #3.

Posted by: Sojouner | March 1, 2010 9:04 AM
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"We failed at that very specific goal..." Leadership is recognizing when you don't meet the goal you set, not changing the goal to trumpet victory.

Posted by: cheneydave | March 1, 2010 7:17 AM
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Leadership? Canada needs to take a hard look at itself. Sure, you finally won a gold medal on your home turf and you ended up winning more gold medals than any country in history thanks to this whole goal to "own the podium." But you did it by keeping anyone who wasn't a Canadian from practicing in any of your venues prior to the Olympics, thus securing the home field advantage all to yourselves. The Canadians "owned the podium" by becoming just as bad as the Soviets ever were. They are now the 21st Century epitome of poor sports.

Posted by: BC2010 | March 1, 2010 7:10 AM
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Canadian Olympic Committee "own the condom" campaign was highly effective.

when will the government commission on the retarded special olympics aggressively distribute rubbers?

Posted by: therapy | March 1, 2010 6:47 AM
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