What I Learned About Business from the Greatest Swimmer Ever

As business leaders, we often get obsessed with what our competition is doing. We watch every move they make and plan strategies around them to give ourselves a leg up. But we’ve got it all wrong. Take it from Michael Phelps. A few months ago, I was fortunate enough to sit down with the greatest swimmer ever. And what I learned from him is that success — whether in business or the pool — doesn’t come from knowing what your competition is up to. It’s actually driven by ignoring them and focusing instead on what you need to do to be your best.


Everything starts with a dream. And if you’re going to dream, dream big. At an early age, Michael’s coaches saw the potential for him to become not just a good swimmer, but one of the best in the world. Inspired by their confidence, he dreamed of making the Olympic team. At 15, his dream came true when he competed at the 2000 Summer Olympics at Sydney. He made four more Olympic appearances after that and racked up 28 medals — more than any other athlete in history. As business leaders, the most important thing we can do is paint a clear and compelling vision for our teams and give them the coaching and support they need to make it a reality.


The beginning of any year is all about planning. At the outset, we map out priorities for our business and set goals for our teams to advance them. And while it’s tempting to chart your course around the competition, don’t. Do you need to be aware of who you’re up against and understand their strengths and weaknesses? Absolutely. But as I learned from Michael, when it comes to besting them, it really comes down to three things: staying in your lanes, blocking out the noise and doing what you do best. When Michael stepped onto the blocks, he saw nothing but the water in front of him. When outlining your strategies, focus on the things that matter most for your business and what you and your team can uniquely do to deliver them.


Dreams don’t just materialize. First, you need to believe they are within reach. Then you need to dedicate yourself to them and the work required to making them a reality. Michael admits there were days he’d rather have been anywhere but the pool. Yet he showed up because in his mind, one day off would put him three behind. He knew his competition was working hard. And he wanted to work harder. Business is no different. If you want to win, you need bring your A game every day and tap into innovations that will help you and your teams push the envelope. Work today is far more complicated than it needs to be. We can order a pizza or Uber with two clicks. Yet it takes three times as many to submit expenses or request time off. It’s frustrating and unproductive. There’s technology out there that can simplify things. That can actually guide, automate and optimize work and empower us to do our best. Tap into it to help you and your people outsmart — and outwork — the competition.

Sports today is big business. And big business can learn a lot from sports. Success is success. And whether wearing suits or swimsuits, leaders must dream, plan and reach to achieve it.

Tim Minahan is the executive vice president, business strategy and chief marketing officer at Citrix, a leading provider of digital workspace solutions.

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