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Want a high-performance team? ask an olympic gold medalist

April 11, 2018 - 159 views

Want a high-performance team? ask an olympic gold medalist

Kate Richardson-Walsh spoke at a recent Women Empowered dinner about what makes a high-performance team: vision, leadership and diversity.

For those in the business world, it’s not exactly intuitive to find much in common with an Olympic gold medalist. But after hearing Kate Richardson-Walsh describe what it takes to develop a high-performance team, I clearly saw how we can all come closer to achieving our goals if we approached them with the same spirit as her team in the 2016 Olympic games.

Kate Richardson-Walsh – captain of the Great Britain field hockey team that won Olympic gold in 2016 – was the keynote speaker at Cognizant’s Women Empowered Executive Dinner recently in London. And it became quickly apparent that her experience was quite relatable, even for those of us who aren’t into field hockey. Rather than hours of training or a rigorous diet, she attributed the team’s success to its culture, which embodies three elements we can all adopt in our organizations: vision, leadership and diversity.

  • Vision: As corporate leaders, we talk a lot about vision as a way of unifying the organization around a common goal, and we’ve also seen how easy it can be for these statements to devolve into mere taglines.

For me, the vital takeaways from Richardson-Walsh’s experience are the importance of articulating the values and behaviors necessary for achieving the vision and establishing processes that enable these.  It is also important to create buy-in, to both the letter and spirit of the values, behaviors and processes.  This will ensure that everyone in the company embodies the spirit of the vision in everyday actions, turning an otherwise amorphous concept into the engine that pulls the organization through tough times.

In Richardson-Walsh’s case, the team’s vision was to “be the difference,” “create history” and “inspire the future.” They identified the values and behaviors that would help the team focus, as one, on achieving that vision. They then made sure there were plenty of opportunities for team members to raise issues and resolve them as a group rather than letting them fester.

At one point, for example, the team had made a collective decision to stay off social media during the Rio Olympics to avoid tweets or posts that would either be destructive or put too much focus on any one player.  When the BBC asked one teammate to write a blog during the event, it caused some dissension.  However, despite the thorniness of the issue, it was resolved quickly, Richardson-Walsh said, because the values and behaviors for doing so were already in place. Ultimately, it was decided that the blog would be written by the team.

  • Leadership: Senior leaders, of course, have a particular role in setting the tone for the organization by exemplifying the corporate culture in their everyday actions and decisions. However, every employee in the company must also have a sense of ownership in terms of their own behaviors and how they can bring the corporate culture to life. The best way to do this, according to Richardson-Walsh, is to encourage employees to develop a deeper understanding of their strengths and weaknesses, and strive to understand how their negative behaviors impact others.

As employees become more self-aware, and more conscious of how others in the group are working on their own areas of development, Richardson-Walsh says, they naturally become more enthusiastic about helping each other reach their highest potential – something that all good leaders are charged with doing.

  • Diversity: Organizations today are well aware of the positive impact of diversity on performance. Senior leaders need to help their organizations channel diversity into a collective strength. This can only happen when employees realize that no particular individual can possess all the characteristics, knowledge, experience and personality traits to “do it all,” and that real strength is found by pooling all of these elements from the group.

This, says Richardson-Walsh, was key to the team’s success: By working to reveal the differences among the players, it made it easier to tap into these differences as strengths that could be leveraged as a team.

Lots of people talk about the importance of corporate culture today, but from listening to Richardson-Walsh, culture is not just “something that happens.” It takes discipline, planning and processes to ensure values and behaviors are embraced and executed to bring culture to life. The result – whether you’re an Olympic athlete or a senior leader – is a winning team.


Vivek Daga

Vivek Daga is Vice-President and Head of UK & Ireland for Cognizant Technology Solutions. He is a seasoned strategist and...


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