Olympian Jim Craig on ‘Preparing to Win’

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Jim Craig’s reputation as a winner was cemented back in 1980 when, as goaltender for the U.S. Olympic hockey team, he blocked 36 out of 39 shots to help bring an end to a six-year winning streak for the Soviets. The team went on to take the gold medal, and newscasters dubbed the upset a “miracle on ice.”

But for Craig, author of We Win! Lessons on Life, Business & Building Your Own Miracle Team, the victory was something far more practical—a testament to the power of instilling team members with the right motivation and preparing them to win. “In life, there are underdogs and winning underdogs,” he says. “And a winning underdog just figures out a way to win.”

It’s a lesson he applied to win awards and accolades in a successful post-hockey career in sales and marketing, and then to launch Gold Medal Strategies, a corporate coaching and marketing consultancy business—and a lesson that’s particularly useful in today’s difficult times. Craig, who will present a keynote presentation at our upcoming CEO Talent Summit in September, recently shared a few strategies leaders can use to help their teams win bigger and more consistently—regardless of the odds—with Chief Executive.

• There’s always, always a way to win. No matter how dire things look, how huge the obstacles ahead, never accept defeat. Take it from a gold medal Olympian who suffered a career-ending injury just before signing a lucrative NHL contract. “I went from being viewed as the best in the world to spending four hours a day for the next 40 days getting back to where I could walk again,” says Craig. “But instead of feeling sorry for myself, I decided I wasn’t going to let myself be the victim.” Instead, he brought his zeal for winning to a new career and was soon racking up awards in sales and marketing.

• Hope is not a strategy. While there’s no denying that the pandemic has ushered in an era of uncertainty, leaders can make a plan and work that plan, even as they continue to reevaluate and adapt it. Craig cites a client who was struggling with decision paralysis, not knowing whether or not spectators would be able to attend an event he was planning. “I said, you’re saying you don’t know what to plan for; but you do. It’s just more work. You have to plan for both having spectators and for not having them. So just do it.”

• Be continually coachable. Even the most talented professional athletes should constantly focus on upping their game—and the same is true for leaders. “The biggest thing sports taught me is that you have to be coachable,” says Craig, author of We Win! Lessons on Life, Business & Building Your Own Miracle Team. “You have to learn how to compete, and you have to make your weaknesses into strengths and make your strengths even stronger.”

Often that means being open to outside advice and expertise, he adds. “You can learn from anybody. So, if somebody takes the time to offer opinion or advice, then you need to listen and be open to the idea that there might be something in there.”

• Drive change, don’t follow it. The most effective leaders understand the need to redefine winning over and over rather than count on strategies and tactics that worked in the past. “Either you’re creating the future, or you’re living in the past,” says Craig, who warns against complacency. “Success can be your biggest enemy in getting your team to earn its position every year. It falls to leaders to know how to adapt and then develop their people and inspire them to follow them to pursue a shared goal.”

• Own your team-building process. “As a leader, making sure you hire the right people is one of the most important things that you do—HR should be helping, but not driving that process,” says Craig, who sees the pandemic as a prime recruiting opportunity. “There are people you probably know you should be recruiting for three years from now right now, and you need to stay in contact with them and nurture that relationship. That’s your responsibility and something you should be doing every day.”

• Prepare your team to win, not compete. What’s the difference? Golfers who head to the course a little early, practice putting, then meet up at the first tee and play every hole their hardest are playing to compete. “If you’re preparing to win, you analyze your opponent, you analyze the course and then you practice the things you’re most worried about failing,” says Craig. “So, if you had a 200-yard shot over water, you’d practice that until you had conquered it. And once you’re comfortable that in any situation you would be able to succeed you would have prepared to win. That doesn’t mean you’re going win—but you’ve gotten to that different level where you’re prepared to win.”

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