Why Designing for Strengths Matters in Teams
One year to the day later, I showed up to the most important meeting of the year in a non-Olympic year, the World Championships Teams Trials, and the day I got there, I got sick. I got the real flu, not the fake flu, and I was down for the count for five days. Threw up every day, didn't skate. Day six, I got out and did three laps. Threw up again, got off. Day seven, first day of a three-day meet, 13 races and the first event is a 1,000-meter time trial, and here I am feeling sick as a dog, and I've gotta go a minute and 40, minute and 30-second race. Very long for me, and I'm thinking, "There's no way I'm making this." They take the top 16 and they send the other hundred home, and I was pretty sure I was gonna be sent home. But I lined up. What else could I do? And they shot the gun. And it's run pursuit-style, so you've got two skaters. And the other guy was really good at it, he was second in the trials the year before, and I thought, "Well, if he doesn't catch me, "then maybe I'll ...
live to skate another day. "So, I'll just skate as tight as I can, "because I'm not gonna be going very fast." So, they shot the gun. I skated off the line. I'm directly at the first blocks. Stayed tight to the blocks, and a couple laps in, I noticed the first of several strange things. I start catching my pair skater, who's really good at this. Now, for four seconds, I caught him and they made him swing wide, and all I could think of was, "Man, he must be out of shape, 'cause I'm sick!" But, I kept going, and I made six and seven laps, and I noticed something else. It had gotten quiet in the arena, which is pretty unusual, because it's quite loud. There's 400 people in there, kids running around, and coaches and skate sharpening, and. So the first time I sort of looked up, and I was spreading my awareness, and I could see people had gathered up and faces were pressed against the glass, and so then I decided to look at the lap times for the first time, and they're running tenths, and it said .2, and I thought, "Okay, 10.2. God, I hope it's not that slow. "9.2, I can't skate that fast. "So, I don't know what that means." So I just kept skating. And I finished the seventh and the eighth and the ninth lap, and I finished the race, and I coast around the corner, and was coming down the straightaway, and I saw this sort of... Some movement in the coaches' box, and then my pseudo-former coach had jumped out on the ice, and he's holding his stopwatch up, and he's standing in front of me, and I'm coming at him at 30, so I try to steer around him, and he just stays in the way, so I had to skid to a stop. And he's standing there looking angry, and he looks at me and he's like, "Coyle, what the hell have you been doing?" And I was about to burst into tears, because I was pretty sure I had just screwed that up. And so, I mustered some courage, and I said instead, I said, "I have been sick." (laughs) And he says, he looks at me, and he says, "No, you don't understand." And keep in mind the margins of this sport. He said, "You just broke the U.S. record by five seconds. "You just skated a full second faster "than the world record." Same me, same skates, same skin suit. Asked and answered a better question. When you double down on your strengths, you can achieve not just small improvements, you can have incredible breakthroughs. I went on to set every single U.S. record back to back in that event. Went on to set the fastest time in the world at the 500 meters at the World Championships that year. I don't keep this piece of paper, or maybe I do. And how do you distill this down to a nice, pithy phrase? I think Buckingham does it well. Marcus Buckingham, Now Discover Your Strengths. I'll just use his words. "Every person's greatest room for growth "is in the area of his or her greatest strength." You actually get better at the things you're good at, more so than you get better at the things you're bad at. And, "You excel only by maximizing your strengths, "never by fixing your weaknesses." Or, as I heard a quote recently, "If you're over 25 and still trying to fix your weaknesses, "that ship has sailed." And you can actually learn to enjoy and derive satisfaction from activities. Started having fun again, traveled the world. It was really great. This matters really a lot in teams as well. We went to the Olympic games as a team and competed in the relay. In the relay, you actually go out seven times. So it's not just one relay exchange. You go out seven times. The anchor goes out eight. And off and on, most often, I had been the anchor, because I had the fastest lap times as a sprinter, so it makes sense to skate your fastest guy for the final two laps. Except, we get stuck with figure skating ice, which is soft and slow, and I'm a big guy for my sport. So the night before the gold medal round, we sat down with the coaches to determine who would actually anchor the relay. And it clearly wasn't gonna be me, because I'm too big. Clearly it wasn't gonna be one of my teammates, Andy, because he was also large. Went down to Randy, who was a smaller guy, lighter, could skate on terrible ice. And we knew it would be slush, maybe he's the guy. We ultimately chose Eric, who not only actually probably had the slowest lap times of the team, but never gets tired. Smallest guy, lightest guy, terrible ice, never gets tired. Perfect choice, as it turns out, to skate your slowest guy for the Olympic final, because by the end of that race, everybody was so destroyed. We go out for our final exchange, we're in bronze medal position, maybe even gonna lose that, he goes out with a big smile on his face, passes his way right into silver, is on his way closing to gold. If the Italians hadn't had such a gap, we probably would have caught them, too, because we chose the right person for the right time, in the right environment, and we used his skills vis-a-vis that. We don't do that well in work environments. We hire for diversity of experience and background, and then we ask everybody at the same level to do the same things the same way. And I think that's a huge miss. If we can ascertain what their skills and experience lend themselves to, and then have team members double down on those, delegate and defer, or reorganize around the weaknesses, that will really, really engage people and teams in ways that we haven't seen in a lot of organizations. And it truly, truly works.