The Dream Team played in the Olympics in 1992, it is generally considered the greatest sports team ever assembled. The accolades that have followed these basketball players has been nothing less than extraordinary. Michael, Magic and Larry were the most famous athletes in this amazing group but there were others who played a major role in winning gold in Barcelona.
There was also great controversy about the American professional basketball stars playing for the first time in the Olympics. Prior to 1992, only the national teams were invited to play in the games because they were still considered amateurs. The arguments ensued across borders, some of the sport’s most knowledgeable people thought it would ruin the games and others believed it was a way to demonstrate American superiority.
As the games approached, the debates continued with those attending the venues and even within the Olympic Village, there was no end to the chatter.
The Dream Team didn’t disappoint as they defeated their opponents by an average of 46 points a game and left a wide swath of devastation. They won their first game against Angola by nearly 70 points and took the gold in the final game by beating Croatia by 32 points.
But the controversy raged as some fans still believed that the American team should not have been allowed to make a mockery of the sport’s most prominent stage. But there was no shortage of supporters for the Dream Team and those supporters argued vociferously that this spectacle was good for the Olympics.
As a group of enterprising reporters watched the semifinal game where the Americans beat an under matched Lithuania team by 51 points. They decided go down to the floor and ask the coach of the losing team whether or not the Dream Team should have been allowed to play in the games.
Now it was a common misperception that the coaches, who spent two weeks being humiliated by the America professional stars, were angry that their teams had to play against such talent.
But when the reporters got down to the floor with their press passed in hand and asked the Lithuanian coach, “Should the American Pros have been allowed to play in the Olympics?” His answer surprised most everyone at the games.
He said, “Of course they should be allowed to play, not only that, I wish that my team had the opportunity to practice with them, have lunch and dinner with them, and hang out with them. He went on to say “my men are better today as a result of getting crushed by the Dream Team.” When asked why by the reporters, he replied “how can my players ever improve their skills unless they understand the talent gap that exists between where they are versus the elite players from the U.S.”
The talent gap, as he explained, was what the other Olympic teams didn’t understand. They never realized how hard they had to work, how much they had to practice to close that gap because they were never given a chance to compete with the best basketball talent in the world. It was this understanding that turned basketball on its head at the 2004 Olympics, the Argentina National team beat the Americans in the semifinal round and when on to win the gold medal.
How did the unthinkable happen? They national teams from other countries exploited the gap, they understood the gap in talent that existed in basketball after playing against the American professionals in 1992. They learned how hard they had to work, they improved their skill sets that made the American teams so dominant, they worked on conditioning required to play at the most elite levels and they now understood the depth of sacrifices made by those who perform at the highest levels.
This gap exists, we now know, in sports but it also exists in business. There are people with extraordinary talents, others who are average performers and those who just can’t make the cut. Understanding the Gap and “Exploiting the Gap” to your advantage can bring significant rewards for any organization.
Let me explain.
I speak to variety of business leaders at conventions nationwide about leadership and culture. I always ask this question, “Do you have anyone in your organization that is a superstar and do they significantly outperform your next best employee?” Let me put it in the context of your business, do you have a salesperson who sells twice as much as others do in your company? Do you have delivery personnel who deliver double the load compared to the rest of your crew?
The response is always, yes, every company has superstars that are so talented that they significantly overachieve compared to rest of the organization. This is a common refrain in business, “How do I raise the performance levels of my employees to that of my best, most consistent talent?
Think of the dream team, when employees are allowed to see the performance levels of your best workers and they begin to understand what it takes to be an exceptional contributor, they can adjust their efforts through working harder, becoming more knowledgeable about the job, raise their technology savvy, go to school to improve their skill set, get in better shape physically, set goals to surpass their previous performances and learn more about their industry. If employees never have a chance to understand who and what it is that makes someone a superstar then they have no understanding of what it takes to climb to the top of the ladder, just like the Lithuanian team.
Here is the solution, put your best talent on display, let others in your company see what it takes to achieve at the very highest levels. Research has shown that employees want to perform in their jobs, they want to acquire better skill sets to advance so that they enjoy the rewards of high achievement.
Put in place an awards program, that is essentially what the Olympics does every four years. Create a yearlong program that acknowledges top performers based on metrics that are easily understood. Every month at your sales meeting, describe to your teams the factors that delineated the top performers from the pack. Demonstrate why Sue or Tom outsold the rest of the team, what behaviors were evident, what techniques were used to get the sale. Talk about it in a meeting, and let those who don’t know what it takes to be great, what sacrifices are neccessary to be a top performer, actually see it with their own eyes.
Closing the Gap is the quickest way to raise the level of performance in any organization, large or small. Reinforce this message, praise employees who go beyond what is required for the job, set up benchmarks and bring home the gold. Exploit the gap!