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What A Winter Olympian Can Teach Us About Talent Development.

February 28, 2018


I recently spent many evenings watching the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, partly due to the fact I've always really enjoyed watching sport on TV, and perhaps partly as a way of trying to soak up the televised icy conditions and pretend it wasn't over 30 degrees celcius with extremely high Queensland humidity lasting late into the evening outside. 


One of my favourite moments of the Games was when Czech snowboarder Ester Ledecka won the Super Giant Slalom (Super G). The reason this was so impressive was the fact Ester wasn't "supposed" to win. As a snowboarder, she'd apparently always liked skiing, and her coach had instructed her to do it a bit more for fun to mix up her training programme.  Due to this, she'd entered some competitions in skiing over the last couple of years, but went into the Winter Olympics ranked 49th in the world in the ski event. Her actual event, the Parallel Giant Slalom, was the one she was predicted to perform well in.


Ester went on to win the gold medal in the Super G, and follow this up with the gold medal in the Parallel Giant Slalom around a week later, becoming the first female athlete ever to win gold medals in two different sports during the same Winter Olympics. Her face when she crossed the line to be informed by a scoreboard she'd won the skiing event by one hundredth of a second (beating the reigning 2014 Sochi Olympic Champion) was one of sheer disbelief. It seemed simply by enjoying the sport, and casually having had a go at it, she had accidentally become the best in the world in that moment. This got me thinking about what happens when we restrict ourselves to certain activities, and don't try new things.


A teacher of mine in my early years taught me "if you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got". By trying skiing (and her coach certainly takes some of the credit here for encouraging her to do so), Ester ended up with something new - two Olympic gold medals. It's the same in our careers and businesses. If we stick to what we know, and don't let ourselves embrace new ways of working or risk failure by trying something new, we may never actually know what we're truly capable of.


Sheryl Sandberg said in her book Lean In "careers are a jungle gym, not a ladder". The career jungle gym concept represents trying new things, with employees perhaps spending one day on the "slide" before switching to the "monkey bars," then a different piece of equipment the next day. It emphasises moving between different skills and areas, as opposed to looking up at the rungs of a ladder we believe we have to climb. The ladder, whilst traditionally the only way to develop in our careers (and how success was and still is often defined) isn't sustainable in today's fast-moving, ever-changing world of work, and research is showing those with the ability to adapt to a more jungle gym like approach will have more chances to thrive.


The emerging talent of today frequently expects the opportunity to try out different pieces of the jungle gym when they join a new company, and wants to be given the chance to learn new skills in their role. Adopting the jungle gym approach is a great way for employers to tap into talent they didn't even know existed within their existing employee base - perhaps by letting someone have a go at coding, they may just end up being an organisation's software engineer of the future (and I've seen this happen very successfully). Due to her coach giving her the freedom to play on the jungle gym, Ester Ledecka learned she is one of the best Super G skiers in the world.


What's important is letting people have the freedom to try, ensuring they can have fun whilst doing it, and employers  being open to the possible results. They may even end up with a surprise Olympic gold medal, like Ester. 


Sian Havard is Founder at Milkshake Group, a Brisbane, Australia based consultancy which partners with startups wanting world-class talent strategies. Find her at



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