Every year in college basketball, 64 teams compete to make history. The winning team is crowned as champions. Coaches and players don the caps and t-shirts, hoist the trophy and cut the nets.

Business champions are built over time as well with the CEO building his or her team in a similar fashion as the head coach. The goal is to develop skills, foster teamwork and build a culture where winning is the paramount goal.

When I looked to merge historic business success with the month of madness, I discovered that the official opening of the Eiffel Tower occurred on March 31, 1869.

I have always been impressed by people who are, and were, builders.  They transform material … stone, metal, and glass … into structures, roadways and factories.

The CliffsNotes abstract of Eiffel’s historic achievements might feature his early bridge structures, the Tower and the structural skeleton of the Statue of Liberty. His expertise as a designer was well regarded internationally.  The success of his design-build enterprise, Eiffel et Cie, allowed him to personally fund 6.5 of the 8.0 million French francs required to build the Tower in only 26 months.

Less apparent to me and to history, however, was his proposal that won the project – valued at 125 Million francs – to design, build and install the lock gates for the Panama Canal, pictured here.  

The importance of all this? The sports parallel is that business “championships” are forged through many seasons of player skill and leadership, or coaching, vision.   In your own enterprise, take time to mark your company’s achievements in a way that gives ownership to your own history and legacy.

In a conflict, you lose a lot of battles, but still win the war.  Covid-19 is a war … and with casualties.  However, it is a war that we will win and I’ll let history weigh-in on the efficacy of our medical and governmental leadership.

The benefit of hindsight will help us with future pandemics, but for now I’d like to reminisce about the 2020 spirit in those workplaces I have experienced.

Looking back on the human spirit, I think about the legions of people who face similar personal priorities, but back of the job had to work in industries that supplied our conveniences or were frontline healthcare professionals.  They were the best of humanity, that on top of taking care of themselves, took care of us.

Warehouse and Delivery: Retailers relied on legions of workers to move product from factories and producers to warehouses and store shelves. At point-of-purchase or online “clicks”, the goods had to be “in stock”. Online purchases required a second human effort via FedEx, UPS, Amazon or USPS. In the early days of the pandemic, I recall extra urgency on these workers when there was a rush on paper goods, masks and sanitizing products. Remember?

Grocery Store Workers: In addition to the “normal” job functions now they had to be trained to take on health protocols of maintaining aisle flow, shopping cart sanitizing … then interface with customers from behind acrylic shields. Open deli bars had to be closed, self-packaging containers of bulk dried fruits and nuts emptied. Whole bean and ground coffee dispensers the same. And through it all, they soldiered on.

Nurses and Physicians: This group stands out because they were in direct contact with the disease itself … and early on without completely established protocols, PPE and ventilators. Hospitals were ground zero where it was the only answer. Today, in hindsight, I think about those who were not only on the front lines at work, but then again at home.

Fund Sites: Another group are heroes set up funding sites to support individuals and businesses shut down by the virus. There are others, but Barstoolsports founder Dave Portnoy, has raised $27,430,970 ( as of 1/19/21 ) from 192,536 supporters and has financially supported 152 businesses.  Speaking of the human spirit, others like Dave had the capacity to think beyond themselves.

Government: I believe most elected officials were unprepared how to plan and execute actions to protect us as citizens. They had to take steps based on CDC or World Health Organization recommendations and data. Lockdowns or not? Masks or not?  Some saw the quarantines as overreach. Tough duty on that battlefield, but let’s hope that great work by pharmaceuticals to produce a vaccine will win the war.  Reserve some space for gratitude.

Finally: In any battle or war, it’s always us, the foot soldiers, in the trenches, that respond to, and adjust on the front lines … that produce victory.

This past week did you catch the news coverage of the UPS and FedEx semis hitting the road with the initial shipments of vaccine? Clouded by the severe economic hardships created by the COVID-19 virus in 2020 … I’m not sure that we instantly grasp or appreciate the medical achievements of developing and delivering this vaccine in nine months. Years from now I believe we will look back on this work as equal to any medical breakthrough throughout history.

This event reminds me that the one constant driving force that gives work meaning is the purpose served. I experienced this myself as a 12 year old delivering the Cleveland Plain Dealer daily newspaper on my bicycle in the morning before school. My task included untying the bundle of papers dropped in my front yard earlier that morning, tucking them into tri-folds and stuffing them into the canvas bag that hung around the seat post and the rear fender of my bike. Each morning I would deliver those papers to my 32 customers. In the winter the task became a bit more challenging. On some mornings in the fall, winter and spring ( it did snow in April one year ), there would be as much as 12 inches of new snow on the ground and at that time of day the sidewalks hadn’t been cleared and the streets hadn’t been plowed.

In addition to the daily deliveries, I went door to door on Saturdays to collect for that week’s work. Saturday door-to-door collection was kind of a drudgery – I mean Saturday was for playing and building my Revell models. However, on a few occasions I was acknowledged by my customers for my dependability, care to place the newspapers inside the storm doors safe from the elements, and for bringing the important news of the day. That personal feedback made Saturday’s OK and gave my work meaning. It was not he “paycheck” or even the generous Christmas tips.

I was just a paperboy, but in those days the newspaper was one of the primary sources of news to the world besides radio and the three TV networks. So, without exactly realizing it way back then … I was experiencing meaningful work.  Even as a young boy, I was enjoying the satisfaction of performing a difficult task that was connected to my very noble humanitarian purpose of bringing the news of the day to those 32 customers.   OK, so a neighborhood paper route is not equal to delivering a vaccine to heal the world.  But hold on … what if we take time to elevate the context of our own business endeavors from tasks to missions?  For example, at a hospital, what happens if Shirley’s work as a hospital janitor is portrayed as contributing to the purpose of healing?  That gives work meaning – which is the true and lasting reward for work that we do every day.

The want ad here is a tongue-in-cheek facsimile to a real recruitment effort. Around 1912-13, 5,000 applicants applied for 27 positions. Which aspect of this job description appealed to the motives of ambitious scientists and seafarers? The opportunity for fame, of course.

Ernest Shackleton made four attempts to reach the South Pole between 1902 in 1920. Each failed. His most famous was his third try, the second under his command.

His Endurance set sail, soon became entrapped in ice for nine months, then crushed in the ice floe and sunk. For the next five months they existed in tents and three lifeboats. Finally, Shackleton, with five companions, left the remaining crew behind, sailed in one of the lifeboats to an island 800 miles away, and walked across glaciers to a whaling station.  After three months to arrange a rescue ship, Shackleton returned to rescue his entire crew. All 27 survived.

Shackleton’s leadership example makes headlines 100 years later because once their mission became impossible, it took exceptional leadership and respect for his men to maintain discipline and sustain the will to survive.

I think there are three dimensions of fame aboard the Endurance that we can capture and relate to our work and to leadership today.

Mission: organizations that have clear missions give an elevated purpose to work and winning accomplished instills pride and elevates esprit de corps.

Teamwork: in business and industry, very little is accomplished by solo performances. At work leaders form teams to blend the skills and temperaments to achieve results. Having achieved the mission there is satisfaction in collaborating on something bigger than ourselves.

Challenge: we look up the leaders who challenge us to use our hands hearts and minds to win… To be first… To earn the customers favor because of our excellence and expertise.

Each of these categories offer the promise of fame. How? When the leader expresses his or her respect for their people. Shackleton put his crew ahead of himself they knew his heart at work fame is bestowed by the CEO, not tabloids, Hollywood or social media.

At work today when a leader who loves their people, expresses that love, people will live up to that.

There are some parallels between sports and work in this “season” of unprecedented human interruption.  In sports, many professional athletes are playing shortened or rescheduled seasons with restricted arena attendances.  Or even worse, consider the diminished satisfaction of winning the World Series on a far-from-home neutral ballpark.  At work in business, we are limited in our  hours ( even furloughed ) or are adjusting to working remotely.  In either sports or business, the new reality requires adjustments in management as well as human adjustments on the court or shop floor.

The macro parallels between sports and industry is that they both have a product to sell that requires skilled labor. So down on the court or shop floor what are the human parallels in effect?

1 – Making a Living: no matter your rank or financial stature everyone needs food and shelter, then maybe toys and entertainment. And everyone looks to improve their situation … rookies or superstars … entry-level or CEOs.

2 – Winning: on the field or in the factory, we crave winning.  That’s human nature, to be champions or heroes. In sports we keep score and record stats … rebounds or RBIs. At work … productivity or zero recordable‘s.

3 –  What Matters: no matter the season or global circumstances, we all seek to make our mark. At our core we have an innate need to belong to something bigger than ourselves. We need a sense of contribution or ownership – how our vigilance created award-winning safety cultures … or how defensive rebounds produced a championship. Finally, 50 years from now, did our work have meaning?  Were we a part of a championship team … moon shot … or Covid front-line hero?

Takeaways: our humanity gives us the will to survive and to make the best out of the most dire circumstances. Isn’t it evident that these events have revealed unchoreographed heroic actions from all walks of life?

Final Score?: While the world is on “pause” from our usual pace, freedom and activities … I’m reflecting that the interruption may reveal new and improved work-life balance patterns and behaviors.  The final score is always a reflection of the skill, heart and will of those on the shop floor or playing field.

Years ago I listened to a recording of John Maxwell telling a Hollywood story to Darren Hardy, publisher of Success Magazine on a CD insert in each monthly issue.  Maxwell, a former pastor, “preaches” leadership and my favorite quote of his is “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”.

Here’s the story: John had been asked to consult on a movie.  When completed, naturally, John and his wife were invited to attend the premiere attended by everyone who played a part or supporting role. 

When The End came up on the screen at the conclusion of the film, John stood up to leave. Immediately, he felt a tug on his coat sleeve and his wife whispered  “John, sit down nobody is leaving! They’re all waiting for the credits to roll”!

Just let that soak in for a minute. Think about those in the audience that night who were in a supporting role, like carpenters or grips.  [ Wikipedia reports that the label grip may have come from the days of hand-cranked cameras where grips steadied tripods. ]  The Maxwell story keys a human emotion that provides clues about why we should “roll the credits” at work. Here are my “Do’s and Don’ts”:

  • Do: consider ways to applaud your supporting cast (your “grips”)
  • Do: make your own “Oscar®” design(s) … Custom artistry will be prized (can’t be purchased and no one else will have one)
  • Do: plan your own “Academy Awards” events with your CEO is host ( celebrities not needed )
  • Don’t: award only the “best” ( what does that make everyone else? )
  • Don’t: honor only P&L related activities; consider praising human qualities ( innovation, loyalty, etc. )

To me, the art of inspiration involves how you creatively and memorably let people “sign” their work.  Get a grip … roll the credits!

Need a greeting card? Recently my wife and I went to the local Hallmark store to purchase some thank you notes, a sympathy and birthday card. I think there are three keys, maybe four, to expressing our thoughts of celebration, friendship, gratitude or sympathy. The image here represents only about one-quarter of the total inventory in the store.

So, from the store’s gallery of cards, what is the process we all go through to select the right expression from hundreds of pre-designed choices?

1 – Visual Artistry and Cover Message

Our first impressions are defined by the artistry of the card face and how that visually sets the tone. Does the image create the right emotion? It is important to make a judgment about the recipient’s personality and taste. In addition, along with the art, do the words complement the image and invite you to open to the inside expression?

2 – Inside Expression

Do the pre-printed words match the event, occasion or milestone? In addition, do they reflect your feelings about that individual and their experience or event?

3 – Your Words

Up to this point you have chosen the most apropos card in the store from hundreds of choices. You took the time to travel, choose and purchase. The recipient knows that. What we also know is that your acknowledgment will be remembered by the hand-written note you took the time to add above your signature. How many of you save those you have received?

4 – The Cost

Do you know Hallmark sells $.99 cards?  Of course, and we buy them to include with grandkid’s Halloween or Valentines care packages. Plus, you get a hefty discount on the seasonal talking/dancing stuffed character. On the other hand, I think low budget or lower quality is not a good match for an authentic expression. I don’t think the card recipient looks at the barcode cost at the back of the card, rather they will appreciate more the gesture and personalized message if only a few words. Those are the ones that get saved and remembered.

One More Thing

This just occurred to me – maybe there is another factor. It’s that a snail-mailed card is in stark contrast today to the prevailing, #hashtag world of emoji’s, likes and shares. I know … I’m old-fashioned.

Conclusion – And Awards?

Awards to mark or celebrate success or milestones should be chosen similarly to greeting card purchases with these parallels:

Visual Artistry: how is the crystal/medallion/sculpture visually and artistically applicable?

Inside Expression: your inscription … make it more than logo, date and “presented to”.

Your Words: own the expression, write it and add your signature

Cost: custom design permits cost ranges appropriate for the achievement  

Finally: be present … consider this

Intrinsic motivation at work comes from the understanding that our contributions are valued by leadership. In this white paper, Leadership Unplugged, we explore how the pure expression of acoustic music, i.e., without amplification, speaks to the clarity and impact of executives using their own voices to acknowledge – and respect – employee contributions.

The beauty and story behind the creation of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic medals reminded me of the significance and symbolism of the bronze-silver-gold triad in athletic competitions.

Just a thought: apply the same symbolism for excellence and winning at work. For example, where there are corporate-wide excellence standards at your company, set bronze-silver-gold performance qualification metrics.

If not corporate-wide, then apply to teams or job sites. And, in those cases, make the award for degree of metrics desired, not team-against-team or job site versus job site.

The idea is to enroll everyone in excellence. It’s more about striving to live up to high standards for everyone … company-wide.

In this scenario my belief is that no one will be satisfied to be the bronze winners; gold will always be pursued and treasured. This is not particularly revolutionary, but consider setting up an “Acme Quality Olympiad” complete with pre-designed bronze-silver-gold mementos. 

Just the historical bronze-silver-gold cache brings an inherent validity that attracts winning behavior. Customize yours with your unique criteria, theme and presentation celebrations …  at least annually. And with C-Level executive endorsement and top-billing at your celebration event.

In case you are as interested in the Tokyo medal story as I am, here are a few highlights:

 Tokyo 2020 Medal Design:  

  • The medal design was won by Junichi Kawanishi from more than 400 entries from professional designers and design students.
  • The IOC design criteria: must include the iconic five rings, the official name of the games and the Greek Goddess of Victory Nike in front of the Panathinaikos Stadium.
  • The base metal for all of the 5,000 Olympic and Paralympic medals was refined from 78,825 tons of gadgets including 6.21 million mobile phones, donated by Japanese citizens over a two-year period.
  •  The gold medal is silver with a heavy 6 gm. plating of gold.
  •  Watch this …

In a sports context, in our battle against this dangerous virus it feels like half-time. In our imaginary locker room, planning for the second half, we recognize that the coaches are principals from government, health organizations and hospitals.  The players are nurses, doctors and first responders.

Across the arena in the visitor’s locker room there is a faceless opponent that wants to win too.

What’s the score? In this contest the important tabulation is not just a scoreboard in the arena, but rather the safety of the fans who are not even in attendance. They’re watching and cheering from home. And while we’re in awe of the coaches and players for their expertise and dedication, the curves are flattening out as an outcome of the behavior, hygiene and personal responsibility of those fans.

The Epoch Times April 2-8

History does repeat itself and we are pleased to be reminded by commentators who see the pattern of personal sacrifice and pitching in, reminiscent of World War II and 9/11.

Again, what about the score? At the moment there is no dominant contestant. With lives at risk, researchers, doctors and nurses are scoring points … at the same time, the virus continues to take its toll.

In this match-up on the court of global well-being, it’s the entire human spirit versus COVID-19 and the game is being played every day. We know the second half will not end in a tie.  Ultimately the pandemic will be subdued and the final victor will be the medical remedy … or multiple remedies.  

When the game finishes, the box store will allocate points to various institutions and medical professionals, but down at the bottom of that list of points scored, etc., pause to notice that the ATTENDANCE at this “game” is the quarantined worldwide population of  7.8 billion fans?

Fans? That’s us… in solidarity against a common foe. When tested, the human spirit of winning always rises up.