Talent Management Lessons From the Consultant Behind 123 Olympic Swimming Medals

September 16, 2019

Photo of US Olympic swimmer Simone Manuel

Over the past four Olympic Games, swimmers representing the United States have won 123 medals, including 56 golds. USA Swimming’s long-time high-performance consultant Russell Mark has his fingerprints on many of those medals. Russell studies video and data then makes suggestions to swimmers and coaches to help them achieve faster times. In fact, The Washington Post recently called Russell the team’s “secret weapon.”

So, during the recent USA Swimming National Championships at Stanford University, LinkedIn invited Russell to speak to our Global Talent Organization about what it takes to coax ever-better performances from the best swimmers in the world. We were excited to hear what he could teach us about creating high-performing teams and about giving people insights that allow them to become more effective and productive. Here are a few things we learned:

1. Breakthroughs come from understanding convention and having the courage — and support — to challenge it

An easy trap for top-performing teams to fall into is letting success get in the way of innovation. This is what Russell confronted when he joined USA Swimming in 2002 as a 22-year-old with a freshly minted degree in aerospace engineering and a background as a competitive collegiate swimmer. He had a sense that things could be done better but he also faced decades of institutionalized — and largely unquestioned — beliefs about swim technique.

“I had to understand where the conventional thinking came from,” he says, “which was the science and information available at the time, reinforced by very respected people in the sport. And I had to adopt the mind-set of proactively going out and looking for ways it could be done differently and better, and studying why and how that worked, to get to new thinking with some facts and evidence behind it.”

So, data and a growing comfort interpreting it became Russell’s friends. Seventeen years later and more established in his field, Russell tries to make sure that he doesn’t become calcified in his thinking. For example, in breaking down the races of high school backstroke phenom Regan Smith, Russell noted that her starts were shockingly average. In the first 15 meters, she was falling behind. Starting in February, the team gave Regan focused work on her start. She trimmed four-tenths of a second off her time in the first 15 meters — and set world records in both the 100- and 200-meter backstroke at the World Championships in July.

Like world-class swimmers, successful large-scale businesses often have a hard time embracing innovation (even when they’re the source of it). Kodak, for example, invented the digital camera but didn’t change its focus and eventually had to file for bankruptcy. Innovation is hard, but you don’t want to lose sight of the big picture. Turning to data rather than relying on hunches or habit can help you stay ahead of the pack.

2. Culture is the foundation of both team and individual success

Russell attributes much of USA Swimming’s success to a strong team culture. What many do not appreciate is the diversity of the team, from athletes in their teens (freestyler Katie Ledecky, who has five Olympic golds, was 15 when she first swam at the Olympics) to veterans in their 30s and sometimes 40s (freestyle sprinter Dara Torres was 41 when she earned three silvers at the 2008 Olympics).

“To enable our athletes to perform,” Russell says, “we need to have a great team environment — a place where everybody from all around the country and all different backgrounds and ages feels comfortable.” Creating this atmosphere can include everything from joint training sessions to making viral lip dub videos. “People point to how much fun we’re having,” Russell says, “despite how serious the moment is. And I think that is a huge part of our success.”

Getting the culture right is just as critical, if not more so, for businesses. As the legendary management consultant Peter Drucker purportedly said: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” And that starts with making sure that every member of your workforce feels as though they belong at your company.

3. Mentality and adaptability distinguish great from good

The physical abilities of Olympic athletes are incredible, but Russell says they are not what distinguish the highest-performing athletes. Instead, he points to their drive to be the best, their willingness to consistently put in the necessary work, and their openness to feedback and change.

“Our lead athletes,” Russell says, “have this uncanny ability to make a change in a swimming motion right away — they actively seek the opportunity to make adjustments that make them better. They don’t need me to be on top of them and remind them.”

For example, while reviewing video after the 2015 swim season, Russell noted that freestyler Simone Manuel didn’t seem as mechanically efficient when she breathed to the right. At the 2015 World Championships, Simone had finished sixth in the 100-meter freestyle with a time of 53.93. During that race, she took 22 breaths — 19 to the right and three to the left. Simone and her coach, Greg Meehan, took Russell’s suggestion to heart and worked on her taking more breaths from the left side. At the 2016 Olympics, Simone won a gold medal in the 100 free with a time of 52.70, becoming the first African American woman to medal in swimming at the Olympics. She took 21 breaths — one to the right and 20 to the left.

This willingness to embrace continuous learning and improvement, to persevere through pain and fatigue, to serve as your own toughest taskmaster is, in a word, grit. And when you recruit for grit, whether you’re looking for swimmers or financial analysts or pastry chefs, you find people who will thrive no matter what their obstacles.

4. Preparation requires continually planning around talent, years ahead of the next big push

Strategic workforce planning is all the rage in the corporate world, given the technological, social, and economic shocks that contemporary businesses face. Due to competition and the long-term nature of developing athletes, USA Swimming actually started thinking about the team for next summer’s 2020 Tokyo Games in 2014 — before the last Olympics in Rio had even taken place. “We know that some of our best athletes at any point in time are going to retire by the time the next Olympics roll around,” Russell says. “And we have to figure out how we’re going to fill that gap.”

After the 2016 Olympics, Russell crunched the numbers and found that over the previous four Olympiads, only four U.S. swimmers had medaled in butterfly events compared with, say, 13 in the backstroke. And two mainstays of the stroke — Phelps and Dana Vollmer — were not likely to be around for the 2020 Olympics. So, with Russell’s numbers in front of them, USA Swimming launched the Butterfly Revolution, using social media, swim clinics, webinars, and other tools to boost interest in the stroke among swimmers across the United States. In 2017, just two U.S. swimmers medaled in the butterfly at either the worlds or world juniors; this year, the U.S. collected eight medals at those two meets.

Your company may not be facing a shortage of butterfliers but it may already be considering what pending retirements, business growth, and new technologies all mean for the makeup of your workforce in five to 10 years. If you don’t have the UX designers, cryptocurrency experts, or drone pilots you will need, you need to start developing a plan to make sure they’re in place when you do need them.

5. Everyone needs a break sometimes

The Olympics are an all-consuming passion for those who strive to get there. The leadership at USA Swimming acknowledges this, and Russell cites purposeful efforts to mitigate the inevitable “post-Olympic blues.”

“All of our Olympians go through that,” he says. “They’re real. You plan your entire life to achieve a goal as an athlete. Similarly, I have my entire professional life pointing toward this one moment. And then it passes. It’s our job as coaches and as a team to help athletes see past the Olympics.”

Companies, too, need to monitor and control for burnout, particularly among their top performers. One way to do that is to incorporate sabbaticals into your benefits portfolio. A growing number of highly regarded companies have adopted sabbaticals — an extended break, separate from paid vacation, awarded to employees who hit tenure milestones — as a way for employees to decompress and reenergize. Interestingly, this already happens occasionally in the world of Olympic swimming.

Michael Phelps, the most accomplished swimmer in history, “retired” after the 2012 Olympics. Phelps stayed away from competition for nearly two years and then returned to the pool. Two years later, he added five golds and a silver at the 2016 Summer Games. U.S. breaststroker Breeja Larson took a six-month break from swimming after the 2018 nationals to focus on her job . . . as an IT recruiter. She returned to the pool and won the 2019 nationals in the 100 breast.

Personally, Russell doesn’t know what he’ll do after the 2020 Games, but he knows it will be something to do with his away-from-the-pool passions of hiking and climbing. For the next year, he and the rest of USA Swimming are focused on bringing home Olympic medals from Tokyo — and having fun along the way.

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* Photo by Mike Lewis/USA Swimming

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