12 December 2019
December 2019

Claire Carver-Dias, PhD, MA, OLY, ACC

It was midway through the 2018 Olympic Winter Games. As I travelled up thirty floors in a packed lift, the Canadian Olympic medal tally flashed up on the elevator television screen. The stranger beside me announced to the sardined passengers, "I am so proud to be Canadian right now. Our Olympians are doing so well…” Then she added, "It's too bad our summer Olympians suck so bad."

As a summer Olympian, I cringed a little, but remained silent. While the wording of the woman’s criticism was a little harsh, I can’t help but agree with the spirit of her comments.

The fact of the matter is Canada’s Summer Olympic team does not achieve the same level of success as its winter Olympic team does.

The elevator experience moved me to thinking about the impact of investing in talent, and how a targeted approach to developing people can reap impressive returns over time. You see, historically, Canada’s winter Olympians struggled as much as its summer athletes to win a spot on the podium. Here’s the math: “In the first 17 Winter Games, Canada won a grand total of 64 medals. In the last four, Canada has won 82” (Toronto Star, Feb 4, 2014).

So, what happened?

As Canada geared up for a Winter Olympic Games on home soil in 2010, organizations like the Canadian Olympic Committee, Own the Podium, and corporate sponsors, began to invest heavily in sport and athletes. Focused talent-development programs took root. Results improved.

The story is not just a Canadian one, either. Australia saw its own summer Olympic medal tally sky-rocket in the years leading up to the 2000 Games in Sydney, as it focused its funding on state of the art facilities, top-notch training programs, and on tailored development programs for high-potential medal contenders and sports. The same story is true of China, or Great Britain as a result of their investment in the lead up to their own Games.

The professional service world can certainly learn from this Olympic people-growth model, but here are some things to keep in mind as you map out your business’ talent development plan:

  • Focus on the high potentials: Let's be honest, funding for talent programs is scarce, in both the Olympic and corporate worlds. Despite considerable criticism, many of the Olympic development programs target funding to just the top medal potential individuals and sports, rather than spreading the limited resources wide and thin. Because of this targeted focus, they can offer a full breadth of development and support programming that actually has a positive impact on the individuals’ performance. For the record, I think it is also important to look for ways to address the development needs of all individuals (athletes/employees), but unless the budget is unlimited, the intensive talent development programs I am referring to will likely need to be restricted to your highest potential. Select your top talent and invest in them.
  • Tailor the program to fit the needs of the individual: One-size-fits-all-programs often have less than impressive results. In the sport world, talent programs take into consideration the specific and individual development needs of each participant. Some athletes need more attention than others. Some need new equipment. Some need sport psychology support. Some need specialized coaching. Some need a combination of the above. In a business setting, the same approach can be taken. A top-notch talent program should have room for customization based on the needs of the participant. Once you’ve selected your top talent participants, work with a professional to assess their development needs, and build out a program to address those needs.
  • Know what you’re aiming for: Olympic athletes compete throughout the year. They know what they’re aiming for (usually a personal best performance or medal finish). Every talent development program, in any context, should have clear success measures.
  • Adjust: In a sport context, each race or game is an opportunity to measure the effectiveness of the development programming. Workplace talent programs need to have “check-in” points as well, where the participant is able to measure their progress and make necessary adjustments to their program or approach.

I hope that the business world takes the sporting approach to performance by adopting more of these high-potential initiatives. Because one thing is clear, these intense, tailored and targeted talent development programs work. Just check out Canada’s latest winter Olympic medal tally for proof of that.


Claire is an Olympic medalist, PhD, professor and communications consultant who specializes in designing and delivering soft-skill learning, talent and coaching solutions for her clients across the professional service world. Additionally, she runs presentation and communication skill development programming for corporate leaders, Olympians and Paralympians. She is a sought after facilitator, coach and speaker. 

Contact Claire to discuss your firm’s talent development needs: claire@clearday.ca; +1.905.901.4740.

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