Today more than ever companies need to be ahead of the game to keep up with technology, their competition, and changes in the market. A key element to success is the team you will build along the way.
In this episode of the People and Business podcast we had a conversation with Kelly VanderBeek, an Olympian, broadcaster, public speaker and world cup medalist. She shares with us the lessons she learned as a world class athlete and how they can apply in the business world.
You might be surprised of how business can feel like traveling at speeds over 144 kmh, down an icy mountain.
Retired Alpine Skier Olympian.
Not only has she reached the top of the world’s sporting stage, as an Olympian and World Cup medalist, she has also reached a level of excellence in her work as a broadcaster & motivational speaker, while nurturing her artistic side as a photographer.
[1:18] you had mentioned that life is all about moments and the importance of crafting them. Can you talk more about this topic?
Kelly: It’s an interesting idea and the reason I talked about moments and why I focus in life a lot about moments is the term goals often seems like there is a destination, there is somewhere where you are headed. There is an end result.
Whereas a moment, you are focused more on the emotional aspect of it. What are you trying to feel? What are you trying to create?
What first got me thinking about this actually was wanting to go on vacation. My husband and I work a lot, we travel a lot and we hadn’t been on vacation in forever and I was kind of going crazy. And he looked at me and said, what do you want to feel on vacation? I said I want to feel unplugged. I want to feel like we are just connected, that there is nothing else I need to do in the world and I can just relax and read a book.
All things that I could do in my daily life. And he went, why don’t we carve out time in our daily lives and when we can go on vacation, we will?
That got me thinking was that a lot of our goals are destinations. And it’s often the emotional aspect that we are working towards. So that’s where the idea came from.
And the idea of crafting them in that you can have control in the same way that you can set a goal, you can set an aspiration for a moment. And that can be something that you can craft and you can create and you can nurture and work towards.
So when you are looking at teamwork to work cohesively and to work together, a lot of what I talk about and a lot of what I work towards in my own life is fostering a culture that is conducive towards team work, towards inclusiveness and towards a common goal that can unify us while utilizing everybody’s strengths.
There has been a really common thread in my life where I’ve tried to look at every person I interact with, I can learn something from them. Everybody has something to teach us.
When you look at life and as people as teachers rather than as perhaps adversaries or even colleagues, it really changes the dynamic for which you bring into a conversation or into a moment. And you can also think of yourself as a teacher in a way. But it really is about working together. And as an athlete, there are so many people who come into creating the performance element of actually going out and doing a sport and performing and being one of the best in the world.
Our association had about 25 – 30 people and then we had our immediate staff on hill, coaches, physios and trainers, technicians, then we also had all of our medical support staff like surgeons, doctors, psychologists.
So when you look at the whole package and then you look at the sponsors as well who are on board who are financing what we are doing, it’s 100s if not 1000s of people depending on how far you cast that net for who’s influencing your performance.
Now how to you unify and how do you create teamwork within that big of a group? It takes leadership.
But it also takes an openness to wanting to work together and an openness to understanding our differences in order to bring us together.
It’s a very complex question. It’s a very long answer and I could go in so many different directions.
[6:00] Olympians are world class athletes, you are known for their dedication, perseverance and hard work. You are world class athletes. these are characteristics that we all want to develop in ourselves and within our teams. what would be your advice to build a world class team?
There are a lot of different things I think that go into it. I often refer to the challenges of being great or being world class at anything. It’s like a jig saw puzzle, there are so many pieces to that puzzle and it’s a very fluid jig saw puzzle in the sense that one piece might fit one day and it might not fit the next day.
So you are always having to adapt, you are always having to tweak your jigsaw puzzle for a matter of a metaphor here. But how to build a world class team? It takes a lot of leadership.
I have a story where Simon Whitfield who won an Olympic gold medal in triathlon, in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. And Ron McLean is a broadcaster in Canada who is our most famous broadcaster. They were having a discussion and Simon who was a natural born leader, he was loud, he was energetic, people would follow him and he would just blast straight ahead and lead.
He said he wasn’t a King. And Ron McLean the broadcaster looked at Simon and said what do you mean? What’s the difference between a King and a leader?
And Simon just said, ‘I was a leader but I was not a King because I didn’t foster an environment where others could excel at what they did. I was a leader where I was loud and forceful and like follow me, here we go.’
But he didn’t create a healthy environment for those around him.
I really come to this idea quite often and think about the different between leadership and creating an environment that allows people around you to excel at what they do.
So that I bring into a lot of the cultural discussions that I talk about because culture influences everything we do. And the culture within an organization and the culture within a team, that can decide whether you will become world class or not.
In Canada we had a culture as a general sporting nation of participaction meaning you participated, here is a ribbon.
We hosted two Olympic games and we were the first country ever to not win an Olympic gold medal at an Olympic games you are hosting. And we did it twice.
So to then go from that type of nation into the nation that won more gold medals than any other nation ever at the Vancouver Olympics, was a real transformation. And it was such a grass-root transformation all the way through to the top that it takes a very decisive, very distinctive and very intentional change in culture in leadership and the way that we speak to each other, the verbiage we are using. And that it was all of a sudden OK to say I want to win. It was OK to say I want to beat everybody on that day.
It doesn’t mean I want them to do badly but it’s OK to want to win. And that was a big shift for Canada. And being a part of that was really interesting.
[9:48] Our next question is about fear. You have written about it in different occasion. What does fear means to you? And why is it important to understand it?
Kelly: I’m an Olympic downhill skier and anybody who knows the sport, you are traveling at speeds of 120 kph – 160 kph. You are kind of averaging 130kph. There is no car, there is no airbags around you. It’s just you and two planks strapped to your feet and you are trying to be the best in the world.
So you aren’t just going around these gates, you have to actually attack it. You have to go towards that speed and want to have more of it.
I am not a risk taker. Inherently I have a very high level of self preservation, meaning I don’t want to die, I don’t want to get injured which I think is pretty common.
Most people, if you are doing something that scares you, your body will say stop what you are doing right now.
So I had to learn how to live with the fear that I felt and face it every day. And that kind of innate fear, we all feel it as fear creeps into everything in our lives, whether it’s a decision to go to school, whether it’s a decision to take a job or even to say no to a job because it’s not the right one.
Or whether it’s a decision to go out and try to be an entrepreneur and grow your own business.
All of these decisions, you are going to be facing an element of fear. Am I going to be able to provide for my family? Am I going to be able to pay my bills? As well as will I be judged? Will I be welcomed?
There is all of these insecurities that every human being has.
And so it took me a long time but once I started to understand that everybody feels fear and that that’s OK, it helped me to come to peace with my own fear.
And once I was at peace with it, and I could walk beside my fear, then I was able to actually utilize that emotion.
The first downhill race I ever did, I stood in the start gate and literally I was crying so hard saying to my coach that I didn’t want to do this. This is so freaky and scary and I didn’t want to go out of the start.
Then I pushed out of the start as my coach kind of made me do it, I didn’t get to the finish and I didn’t cross the finish line. I didn’t do well.
But I realized that once I had done a few gates and I was standing on the side of the hill, I had overcome nearly crippling emotion.
I had overcome my fear and that is what I got addicted to as an athlete, the ability to face an emotion that powerful and to see the other side of it.
So whatever fear I was feeling, I started to slowly like being able to overcome it and then I learned how to be at piece with it. And then at the end I learned how to harness that emotion, how to utilize that kind of power that comes from our desires, whether it’s to keep us safe or to win and be the best at something.
So how do you use that emotion? How does it fuel you?
There have been a few things that I think everyone can bring into their lives. And the first thing is recognizing you have fear. The second thing is naming that emotion.
So recognizing you have an emotion and then naming it takes a lot of the negative power away from fear. Once you’ve name it and said I am scared of success or bodily harm in ski racing which was my biggest fear.
Once you’ve named it, the negative power that often comes with fear is neutralized. It’s a remarkable powerful thing because it takes a lot of raw honestly to even name that type of emotion.
And the last step is really harnessing it. It’s tapping into what scares you and facing it and being like, it’s OK that I’m scared, I’m going to choose to do this anyways.
That conscious choice to walk with fear and to use it is incredibly powerful. And that power manifests in so many different ways whether it’s physical performance as an athlete. Whether it’s being daring and courageous in your decision making within your organization. Or how you market your company. Or even how you give your sales pitch.
If you are a timid sales pitch person and you are standing back and you are scared, it comes across, people can tell. But if you are walking with your fear and you recognize that you might fail and you are OK with that, then it’s [inaudible] powerful in your message, in your voice, in the way you stand, your body posture, everything changes.
[15:38] You once said that what made you fast at 12 years old wouldn’t work when you are 20. So how can we keep reinventing ourselves?
Kelly: I think a big part of reinvention is honesty. It’s also being very present to what is happening in your moment. And being OK with change.
Because reinvention always comes with periods of change and change is incredibly uncomfortable.
In general there is a reason we like picket fences or hedges that are all cut the same, or flowers that all look the same. We like uniformity. We like what we can rely on and count on and see coming.
So change is extremely uncomfortable. But it’s such a rare time and it’s a time when you can reinvent.
And so let’s say you’ve lost a job, or for myself, when I got injured and I retired from my sport and moved onto broadcasting, there was a period in there where I didn’t know what I was going to do.
And the reinvention process, I thankfully had a mentor who really helped me embrace the time when I didn’t know what I was going to do. It was like what a gift, go out hiking, go biking, do all the things you don’t have time to do otherwise.
And embrace life. And be open, just keep your vision open to what might be coming towards you.
And you also don’t want to rest on your laurels and do nothing. And so during the period of reinvention, I reconnected with friends. I reconnected with people I had worked with who I enjoyed working with.
I reconnected in lots of different ways, whether it was with intention for work or not.
All of a sudden things started popping up, I started to be given different job opportunities. And it was very hard because some of the job opportunities were fabulous but they weren’t right for me.
And so it was taking the time to navigate all of that and to know what do I want? Because this is a miraculous time in my life where I can reinvent with intention. I can reinvent with some purpose.
As uncomfortable as reinvention is, being present to it, continuing to still network and being open to your world around you, you don’t reinvent sitting in your bedroom and not getting out of bed and closing all the doors and windows.
You can’t reinvent in that state.
To reinvent you have to be alive. You have to connect with who you are. Even if it’s just going for a walk and smiling at a neighbor that you walked by, you don’t know where inspiration is going to come from.
I never thought I would become a TV broadcaster. Everybody hates people on TV, all they do is complain about them.
I really was like, this isn’t what I want to do. And then I kind of fell into it and then had one experience that went really well and people kept calling me back.
It just sort of organically grew from a way that was very healthy and very fostering towards building a strong career.
So I would’ve been very closed to that option had stuck with my original impression of what that world would be like.
I think the biggest advice for reinvention would simply be open and be willing to work hard throughout it. But be open to keeping your vision wide, your peripheral vision open so that you can see something coming into your sphere of influence that you may not have expected.
It’s OK to change. Because we associate so strongly with our identities that sometimes it’s hard to change, it’s hard to evolve. And your identity can be you, it can be your character and not necessarily your job or your title.
It’s always an interesting period and it’s interesting for everybody.
[20:24] Was there a time in your career where you felt like quitting? If so, how did you handle it?
Kelly: Absolutely it happened to me.
That’s humanity, we all think about quitting. And sometimes quitting is the right choice. And if it helps to label it something different, whether it’s moving towards something else or reinvention or whatever, I think that you have to be somebody who every now and then takes a step back from their lives and says, am I on the right path? Is this what I want to be doing?
Am I the motivation behind what I’m doing? Or is an outside influence like a parent or a cousin or a social influence impacting my decisions here?
That’s very hard to do and it doesn’t happen overnight. You don’t come home to conclusion to these big philosophical questions in life quickly. It takes time and I’m a very busy person, so sometimes I will lose touch with what’s going on emotionally and I’ll have to stop and go, what’s going on with my life? Am I happy? Is this the direction I want to go in?
So I would encourage everybody to take a moment and step back and ask yourself, do I want to quit? Am I done? Do I want to change directions? Is this the right place I should be in right now?
Maybe the answer is give it 3 or 6 months. If you are unsure, set a timeline.
That was something I did regularly. When I felt like quitting, because sport is extremely grueling. It’s physically challenging, mentally draining. I was delaying school and all kinds of things that were..
I hate to call them sacrifices because I don’t feel like they were sacrifices but they were a very different path than what my friends and family were doing.
And so when you do something different, it can be scary.
So I would take those times when I wanted to quit and I was like I’m done.. I was 19 years old when I started on the World Cup circuit and I was 6 seconds back. And I’m looking at video going, I know where 4 of those seconds are, but the last 2 seconds to become one of the best in the world, I don’t even know where they are.
So it was such a daunting thing to face that I wanted to quit. I wanted to be done.
Again I had some fabulous mentors around me and in that instance, it was my now husband David Ford who is a more experienced athletes than me at the time, and he said give it 3 months. Don’t make a decision now. You are now recognizing these emotions are here, you recognize that you are considering very seriously if you want to quit.
So give it 3 months.
The next day, I said OK I’m giving it 3 months. And it took a lot of this weird stress and pressure that I was feeling away. And I started to just ski for fun, not ski for a job, not ski for results, not ski for all the things that are trying to be world class.
And I started to reconnect, it was like, I have 3 months left, I’m going to have some fun at it.
Well within 2 weeks I was 4 seconds faster. It was like I became a different skier overnight by connecting with the passion within me.
So my answer to the question is yes.
I wanted to quit many times and there are times when it makes sense to quit or makes sense to not take a job or take a job. And I think that you just have to give it 3 months.
That’s my tip, give it 3 months.
[24:29] A couple of years ago, you created a TV series called Raising an Olympian. And on that TV series, mom’s open their hearts and share great stories with you. I believe that many of the Olympian’s mom’s advice can apply to building a great team. Can you share some of the advice with us?
Kelly: It was an awesome experience. I have now worked [inaudible] mothers who have raised Olympians and world class athletes.
So these are people who have won world championships and won Olympic medals. And many of them multiple times.
And talking with them and after about the 10th or 12th, I started to see patterns. And I started to see commonalities between their stories because every personality of people that are world class is very different.
You could be world class and be a complete introvert who is very.. And you can be a world class athlete and performer and be a total extrovert who might look like the classic athlete of what you envisioned in your minds.
And then you can have the dorky, glasses, overweight person who figures out they can throw a shot put with the best in the world.
All I am saying is every type of personality and person can become world class at something. And so when I was interacting with these moms, I was trying to slowly sift out commonalities between the stories.
And one of them was being present. So being present in a very real and real connected way.
And in order to be present, you have to unplug. You have to listen. You have to engage. And whether it’s with your immediate family in your house or whether it’s in an organization with your co-workers, having moments of true presence means that you are then able to lead into the next commonality that I learned from these mothers and it was know your kid.
In my talk, I put parentheses around kid because kid can be in your organization, it could be your family or it could be actually your child.
Knowing your kid. It took presence in order to know your kid and knowing your kid was the key factor in order to make the appropriate decisions around them.
For example, Adam Vancouverton who is an Olympic gold medalist and world champion in the sport of flat water kayaking. And his mom, she knew that her kid could go either way. He was either going to be on this side of the law or that side of the law.
He was going to be a high achiever or he was going to be a total delinquent.
She recognized that this is a situation where she had to harness this energy in this boy in a healthy way. And was desperate to find something to give him that he could hold on to.
She tried tons of different sports and nothing was sticking with him.
It was the most obvious way to keep him busy and keep him engaged in a healthy environment was through sport.
And she saw this flat water paddling thing and just sort of said do you want to try this? And he went and he loved it and he sunk his teeth into it.
But then the critical thing came where she realized she had to almost play hard to get with this new sport. So she said, you want to do it? Well then you have to wake me up, you have to have a coffee in hand and you have to be ready to go for 5AM practice every day as I am not getting you out of bed.
So you really set parameters where it had to come from him the impetus to go and do this sport and not from her.
That was just knowing the details of her son’s personality where it had to be his idea and it had to be his love and it had to be his passion.
And it worked. He’s a very functional person and contributor to society as well as a world class athlete.