This year’s Wimbledon was notable – Roger Federer won his eighth singles championship and, at age 36, is the oldest man to do so. Venus Williams was the oldest woman since Martina Navratilova to reach a Wimbledon singles final at age 37. In sports and work we often focus on our up and comers – which to be sure are a critical part of our talent pipeline. But what is our strategy to keep our most experienced talent engaged and winning? These employees hold our tribal knowledge and legacy resources, but instead of drawing them into our inner circle, we often assume they are on their way out to pasture. To get the most out of our most experienced employees we should take some lessons from our Wimbledon stars – go big and go home, draw on and redraw experience, and grow your grit.
Go big and go home. Federer is featured in an ESPN article, titled Once More with Feeling. The critics have been questioning his ability to stay competitive and overcome his injuries, suggesting it may be time for him to retire. It is true that he has been nagged by injuries – including tearing his meniscus in 2016 while bathing his children in Melbourne, which required surgery. Federer could have seen this as a sign it was time to hang it up. Instead, he changed his approach to training. He focuses on how he can save energy, picking and choosing key tournaments. He also embraces his time off, realizing that time off the court is a key part of allowing him to succeed. “I can just play the tournaments I want to play and enjoy the process,” he says. “If I do show up and play, I love it. When I’m in training, I enjoy being in training. When I’m not in training, if I’m on vacation, I can enjoy that. I’m not in a rush. So I can take a step back and just actually enjoy.” As leaders it is important for us to encourage and celebrate this kind of balance for our experienced talent. Imagine that instead of lamenting “Mary”s” inability to travel as much anymore, we sent her to our most critical engagements, and had her spend more time in the office training and mentoring the team? What if we partnered with “Dave” on a phased retirement plan, allowing him to work for us part time so we can preserve his knowledge? Expecting results and respecting personal time are not ideas in conflict – in fact they are both essential ingredients in retaining our most experienced employees.
Draw on and redraw experience. Federer’s reputation is that it all comes easy. He is seen as the standard of perfect tennis by many, and it is this perfection that draws in many of his fans. But even Roger Federer experiences doubts and negative self talk. In the 2017 Australian Open he was down and getting down on himself. But then he said he reset his mindset, “not thinking too much about the what-ifs … the pressure, the moment. I know it’s huge, we all know it’s huge, but just try to shake it off. Don’t freeze up. Fight, but don’t try too hard and want it too much.” He went on to win the game, and in his opinion, have one of the best matches of his life. In moments of great stress, our most experienced talent has the frame of reference to draw on what has worked before and the confidence to redraw the final chapter. As leaders we need to learn how to tap into this combination to fuel the team. Is your Lean project team feeling stuck? Invite your most senior salesperson to share her customer knowledge and help shape the final design. Struggling with your new marketing campaign? Ask some of your tenured technical experts what feels authentic to your brand, and where you are coming off wanting it too much. Encouraging our experts to share their experience and thoughts with us can drive both engagement and innovation.
Grow your grit. Venus Williams is one of the greatest tennis players of all time. Williams holds fourteen Grand Slam doubles titles and two mixed doubles titles, five Wimbledon singles titles, and at this year’s Wimbledon, extended her record as the all-time leader, male or female, in Grand Slams played, with at total of 75. She has won four Olympic gold medals, and has 49 singles titles, second among active players on the WTA Tour. She is second to sister Serena Williams, who has been her most challenging rival. Williams has demonstrated incredible grit on the court – including several comebacks after injuries and being diagnosed with Sjögrens Syndrome. She has also shown grit off the court, facing criticism for her physical looks and play and for her outspoken style. She fought for – and won – equal pay for female athletes at Wimbledon, and she was cited as “the single factor” that “changed the minds of the boys” and a leader whose “willingness to take a public stand separates her not only from most of her female peers, but also from our most celebrated male athletes.” Honoring the grit of our experienced talent is key to showing our employees what we really value. Consider creating a Grit Award in your organization, highlighting the finance leader who helped you successfully navigate multiple mergers and have him share his lessons learned. Expand – or start – Lean In Circles in your organization and have experienced women share their war scars and wisdom with other women – and men – in your company.
“Champions keep playing until they get it right.”- Billie Jean King.
On the court and in your building are champions who have been working hard to perfect their game over the years. They have a tremendous amount of knowledge, connections, and resources that can help you serve up an ace if you tap into them to help you go big and go home, draw on and redraw experience, and grow your grit.