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Olympic greats on success, failure, and career change

Submitted on Wednesday, 22nd June 2016

The struggles of career transition, confronting fear and failure and understanding that it takes teamwork to achieve personal success were the hot topics of conversation among four Australian Olympic greats at last week’s Melbourne to Rio event, hosted by the Victorian Chamber.

In a surprisingly honest Q&A, Michael Klim; James Tomkins; Nicole Livingstone; and Craig Mottram described what it’s like to achieve a lifelong dream of competing at the Olympic Games, win gold, fail spectacularly, and find new passions outside of elite sport.

Below are some of the key points you can apply in your own work whether you’re preparing for a career-defining moment, working as part of a team or thinking about a career change.

Four years of preparation can be undone in the last month before competition

In the lead up to a major career milestone such as the Olympic Games, our panel emphasised the importance of self-management, keeping a normal routine, an unwavering attention to detail and managing fear.

This sentiment was emphasised by Klim, who spoke of his first Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1998. Going into the 200-metre freestyle event ranked number one in the world, Klim said he felt very confident until he missed the bus to the pool the morning of his race. “[When I got there] I couldn’t find my coach … I was rattled.” Klim failed to make the finals of that event, an experience he says changed his approach to racing forever.

When it comes to external factors (such as doping allegations against competitors), Klim recommends focussing only on the things you can control, like your own skills and training regime.

It takes a whole team to achieve individual and collective success

As a member of the Oarsome Foursome rowing team, Tomkins said he and his teammates constantly challenged each other to be better, but it wasn’t up to the athletes alone – everyone had a responsibility to innovate: “[It was also up to the] coach, nutritionist, [and] psychologist to come up with new ways of doing things,” he said. Tomkins also noted that athletes often rely on the support of their family and sometimes employer to pursue their passion.

Livingstone and Klim stated the importance of the leadership team and their role in setting the expectation of behaviours, with every team member working to demonstrate these. “We were a team of leaders … [and were] led by our own values,” Klim said.

What makes a great team? “Little self-interest,” said Tomkins, who went on to admit that he missed what he called the “selfishness” of sport: “Having a team who are all there to help you succeed feels great,” he said. This is something that doesn’t necessarily happen in the corporate world.

From counting medals to counting cash flows

Each panellist emphasised the importance of having interests, passions and skills outside of sport so when it came to (or in the case of Mottram, comes to) hanging up the goggles, runners or oars, they each had a good idea of their next career step.

“All my key learnings came out of sport,” Klim said. After years spent in chlorinated pools he knew a lot about skin care, so he began his skin care products business with the help of his dad and some financial investors.

For Livingstone, planning for her next career move came early. Unlike today’s swimmers, who can enjoy much longer careers, she knew she only had a small window to achieve all she could as an elite sportsperson. She knew she wanted to get into media and planned accordingly. Livingstone is once again in the process of transition, as she moves on from being in front of the camera and is pursuing other roles in business. When it comes to career planning, she emphasised to the audience to “not fear of re-inventing yourself and evolving.”

Mottram echoed this sentiment and spoke of the challenges he faced: “You go from being the best in the world in your sport and then you have to go to work and report to someone, manage budgets and have KPIs to meet.” With an increasing number of workers seeking a mid-to-late career change, understanding that you have to manage your expectations and be prepared to learn from mistakes is an important lesson.

When asked what characteristics every Australian Olympian has, the words the panel gave were grit; determination; passionate; humble; respectful; desire to be the best, and resourceful. Sound like any entrepreneurs you know?

See photos from this event on Facebook.

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