I’m sure you can quick­ly come up with a few par­al­lels even if you nev­er fol­lowed or par­tic­i­pat­ed in the sport. For exam­ple, just like cross coun­try run­ners, busi­ness own­ers and employ­ees have to adapt to dif­fer­ent ter­rain, set a com­pet­i­tive pace, endure through hard times and of course, go for the win.  Although it may not imme­di­ate­ly come to mind, my biggest take away from 30 years of cross coun­try run­ning and coach­ing is the impact and sweet suc­cess of team­work.   

One thing that is unique about cross coun­try is that you can par­tic­i­pate at both an indi­vid­ual and a team lev­el in the same race.  It takes five run­ners to place as a team and be eli­gi­ble for team awards, but if a team has less than five run­ners they can still com­pete in a meet for indi­vid­ual awards.  Anoth­er aspect is that every run­ner on a team knows exact­ly what they need to do to help the team suc­ceed and when the race is over he or she knows how much of a con­tri­bu­tion they have made.  If you are the num­ber five run­ner for a team you know what run­ners you need to beat in order for the team to achieve its goal.  Even if you are not a top five run­ner for your team, if you fin­ish ahead of a run­ner in the top five of anoth­er team,  it helps your team by adding points to your oppo­nents score (low score wins in cross coun­try.)

As an eighth grad­er, I com­pet­ed in my first meet.  From that point on, I watched great run­ners con­sis­tent­ly win indi­vid­ual awards but nev­er get to be part of a win­ning team because their teams were either poor or incom­plete. One thing I noticed is that while they would be hap­py to accept a rib­bon, medal or tro­phy for their per­for­mance there was a look of envy on their faces when they saw the top teams cel­e­brate togeth­er as they received team recog­ni­tion.   It taught me that shar­ing suc­cess with a win­ning team out­shines indi­vid­ual accom­plish­ments every time.

Although I was nev­er a top run­ner, I was usu­al­ly a top five run­ner and always knew what I need­ed to do for the team.  My col­lege team­mate, John, won almost every race in his run­ning career includ­ing invi­ta­tion­als, con­fer­ences, state titles and three nation­al titles in four years. But, he had nev­er been part of a cham­pi­onship team. 

In my fresh­men year, I knew going in that our con­fer­ence race would be very close.  I also knew that for us to win I would have to beat a run­ner from the favored team who had beat­en me three times already that year.  With a half mile to go I was right behind him and I could hear our coach scream­ing at me that the race was lit­er­al­ly going to come down to which one of us fin­ished ahead of the oth­er (and of course, I could hear his coach scream­ing the same thing to him.)  As I approached the fin­ish line I could see John in the chute yelling for me. When I crossed the line just ahead of my oppo­nent, John had a look of sheer jubi­la­tion like I have nev­er seen before.  It was great to see him expe­ri­ence being part of a cham­pi­onship team and it was incred­i­bly reward­ing to have played a part in that.

Through the years, I have had the plea­sure of see­ing many teams cel­e­brate togeth­er as they accom­plished their goals.  The desire to achieve things with our peers does not dimin­ish as we get old­er and begin our careers. In fact, most employ­ees want to be a part of a suc­cess­ful com­pa­ny and they want to know how they can con­tribute to that suc­cess.  Sim­i­lar to cross coun­try run­ners, indi­vid­ual employ­ees are will­ing to push them­selves a lit­tle bit hard­er to win as a team. This is espe­cial­ly true when they know what is expect­ed of them and what they have to do to suc­ceed.

Lead­ing com­pa­nies know that employ­ees aren’t just in it for the pay­check — they are look­ing for a job where they make a dif­fer­ence and receive recog­ni­tion for their indi­vid­ual and team efforts. While there are many team build­ing exer­cis­es and rewards pro­grams out there to facil­i­tate a team cul­ture, com­pa­nies that tru­ly func­tion as a team have the fol­low­ing attrib­ut­es:

  1. Stat­ed mea­sur­able goals
  2. Com­mu­ni­ca­tion of those goals through­out the orga­ni­za­tion to make sure each depart­ment and indi­vid­ual employ­ees under­stand what they need to do
  3. Con­sis­tent and clear meth­ods of report­ing progress towards those goals through­out the orga­ni­za­tion.
  4. Recog­ni­tion and cel­e­bra­tion of their vic­to­ries through employ­ee incen­tive pro­grams (Ex. Mon­e­tary rewards, pre­ferred park­ing pro­grams, and team out­ings.)

Com­pa­nies that imple­ment these ele­ments into their busi­ness mod­els will cross the fin­ish line as a team.  They will improve their bot­tom lines by pre­vent­ing turnover, max­i­miz­ing effi­cien­cy and fos­ter­ing a cul­ture of pro­duc­tive and con­tex­tu­al behav­ior. 

 As it turns out, we have a lot to learn from our local cross coun­try teams!