Business Coach Returns to Olympic Roots

Posted by: Nanette Byrnes on February 17, 2010

(This item updated Feburary 26, 2010 to include subsequent medal wins.)

When Tom Steitz took over as Head Coach for the US Olympic Nordic Combined Skiing Team in 1988, it had just finished dead last that year’s Games. He had little money or athletic talent to work with. It was, as he says “a challenge”.

One his team has now met. On February 14, one of the skiers he recruited and helped develop, Johnny Spillane won the silver in the first of three events, the first American ever to win a medal in the event. On February 25, Spillane repeated his silver finish in the large hill Nordic Combined, crossing the finish lines seconds behind teammate Bill Demong, who’s gold medal makes him the nation’s first ever champion in the sport. In between four of the American team, including Spillane and Demong, won the silver in the Nordic Combined team competition.

Steitz is no longer the team coach. Now he’s a leadership consultant who works for big companies like Johnson & Johnson and Hewlett-Packard, applying the lessons he learned on the field of play to the board room.

He's in Vancouver this month, and still a welcome adviser to the athletes if no longer their top coach. In the mornings, Steitz says he's up early dressed in sweats giving speeches on communication to the athletes in the Olympic Village. By cocktail hour he's in a sports jacket giving the same talk to the corporate executives and clients of two of his firm 3 Peaks Leadership's major clients, Nortel and Avaya, the communications network provider of the 2010 Olympic Games.

Nordic Combined isn't the best known of the winter olympic sports. It lacks the X-games aesthetic of snowboarding, the ambiguity of judged sports like figure skating, and even the frightening dynamic of Alpine skiers throwing themselves down the side of a mountain. But the team's getting good air time in Vancouver. Steitz attributes that to the combination of "ski jumping's power quickness and dare devil aspect with the rigors and endurance of cross country."

"Building an Olympic team," Steitz says, "is as complex in execution as any of the business plans I've seen in the Fortune 500."

Looking back now he can identify a few key moves.

* Out with the old - Right away Steitz overhauled the coaching staff and started to hunt for promising athletes who had good team spirit, who wanted their teammates to do well. He recruited Tod Lodwick, a star of this year's team, in 1993 though he'd never cross country skied in his life, because he fit in well culturally and was a promising athlete.

* Set goals - Just attending an Olympics couldn't be anyone's goal, they had to want a medal, and every athlete had to be improving whether they were already easily going to make the team or not. Steitz tied those goals to fund raising. He asked sponsors for modest contributions up front, but a promise that they'd give more if the team rose in the world cup rankings. That strategy took them from the worst funded team to the best competing in the 2002 Games.

* Togetherness -- Steitz relocated the whole team and all their coaches, nutritionists and medical staff from all over the country to Steamboat Springs, Colorado. He lost a third of his athletes and staff, but he knew those who stayed were committed.

Not everything from sports transfers to business. A coach will invest 10 to 15 years into training an athlete, Steitz notes, only to find that competitor's age start to slow them down. Corporate managers face a different problem: the chance their great talent will jump ship for another company. So when Steitz is working with a corporate client one of the metrics he uses to measure his own performance is how likely the talent is to take those headhunter calls.

Now Steitz is adjusting to his team's success. "Emotionally I’m still trying to figure it out," he said shortly after the first medal win in an interview by mobile phone from Vancouver. "It’s tough to summarize those emotions." A few minutes after Spillane had crossed the finish line, his mother grabbed Steitz and they cried together, as the photographers covering the event snapped away. "It was as much a sense of relief as a high," says Steitz. "For 22 years we’ve labored to get this job done."

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Reader Comments

eric dalius

February 18, 2010 12:33 AM

you know that sports has a big crossover to business not only in coaching but in the desire of one to succeed and rise to the top (go for the gold)!

eric dalius

February 18, 2010 12:33 AM

you know that sports has a big crossover to business not only in coaching but in the desire of one to succeed and rise to the top (go for the gold)!

eric dalius

February 18, 2010 12:35 AM

you know that there is a big crossover from sports to business from coaching to the desire of one to rise to the top of their profession (ie. going for the gold!)

Rachel S

February 21, 2010 09:06 PM

What a fantastic cross-over story! I like the emphasis on the importance of his communication abilities when either talking to a team of Olympians or a room of corporate executives.

I'm curious about what Steitz would say about the changing nature and definition of "togetherness" as it is translated into the contemporary corporate culture. In an increasingly technological world, conference calls, webinars and emails have changed what it takes to demonstrates "commitment."

I wonder what he (or you) would say businesses have gained or lost in our changing widespread communication landscape.

Dave Cathcart

March 11, 2010 09:04 AM

Tom, congratulations. You've redefined the term 'perseverance!'

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How can you manage smarter? BusinessWeek writers Nanette Byrnes, Patricia O’Connell, Emily Thornton, Matthew Boyle, Michelle Conlin and Diane Brady synthesize insights from the brightest business thinkers, critique the latest management trends, and comment on leaders in the news.

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