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!