Communication and teamwork are critical to success in the workplace. No team knows that better than Lex Gillette, a blind Paralympic long jumper, and his guide, Wesley Williams. For the past 11 years, Williams and Gillette have trained together at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, CA. And their partnership has led Gillette to four Paralympic medals, three long jump world championships, and a long jump world record.
Williams, who worked with other Paralympians before Gillette, always felt that life was preparing him for something amazing. But, he wasn’t quite sure what it was until he met Gillette. At that moment, his own experience as a track and field star, his close relationship with his blind great-grandmother, and his strong communications abilities (it was his college major after all) came together in the perfect role for him. The pair continue to train together, now to qualify for the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo.
Below are 5 approaches Williams used to help him to strengthen his bond with his teammate and led to clear communication and teamwork between the men. These practices apply to work on the track or in the office and will help lead to success in the workplace.
Understand that trust is a key to communication
Gillette has to completely rely on Williams to know where to step, run, and jump. For Gillette to feel confident in his actions, he needs to have 100% confidence in his guide. Williams cultivated that deep trust through countless practice sessions before the two competed together. They used their practice time when the stakes were lower to build that relationship.
A deep honesty and vulnerability from both of them enabled them men to work at that level. “Gaining the trust of a sight-impaired person is huge. He knows I always have his best interests in mind and that I would never want him to get hurt. He believes in me,” says Williams.
As a leader of your team or even as a trusted peer, consider what steps you can take today when the stakes are lower to build, rebuild or strengthen trust with your team.
Get to know colleagues outside of work
One way that Williams cultivated that trust was by building a strong relationship with Gillette off the field. “We talk about training, but also relationships, business, and religion. We’ve become true friends, and I know that we’ll be a part of each other’s lives forever now,” he says.
Williams invested in the relationship and saw Gillette for who he was as a person, nor just an athlete and colleague. That connection led to a friendship outside of training, but it strengthened their ability to communicate during training and competitions too.
Many companies now have amazing common areas to help facilitate relationships between colleagues. But it doesn’t have to be reserved to the common lunch table or Thursday night happy hour. Take time to think about your team, what you know about their life outside of work and think of some questions to ask next time you have a chance to shoot the breeze. Communication and teamwork are just a few things that will
Fully invest in your team
When Gillette suffers an injury during training, it profoundly impacts Williams. “It hurts as if I hurt myself,” he says. Because Williams knows and understands Gillette’s goals and desires, it impacts him when he falls short of them or gets injured. But that understanding also allows Williams to know how to support him in the best way possible. And when you wholeheartedly want your team to succeed, you’ll do everything in your power. “It’s one thing for an athlete to have a bad day, but as a guide, you can’t have a bad day,” says Williams.
This may seem like an easy win for many leaders as your goals would be closely tied to your team’s goals. However, think beyond the office. If you know more about your colleagues’ personal interests it’s likely they have goals in their personal life where they celebrate successes and mourn losses. Your team members will feel that much more valued and trusted when their personal goals are celebrated along with corporate objectives.
Learn what motivates your colleagues
Every person has different values and goals that drive them. And people are all inspired in different ways. Knowing others on a deep level allows you to know how to make an impact on them. For instance, Williams says that a “tough love” approach doesn’t work for Gillette. “I never use something disrespectful as motivation for him. I pick him up by pulling at his heartstrings. Instead, I tell him that his family is counting on him. Or I start to sing one of his favorite songs to fire him up.”
In fact, on a world championship jump Gillette won, Williams had changed Gillette’s starting point, unbeknownst to him. Williams knew that Gillette would worry about the change and wanted him to feel confident in what he was doing. “I learned early on in our relationship that sharing too much information with him would fluster him at the line,” says Williams. Because he knew Gillette so well, Williams was able to make that decision.
In seasons of change and disruption (which most of us face frequently in today’s economy), this is particularly critical. Instead of waiting until you and your team face a disruption, begin by reflecting on your team’s motivators. If you’ve done personality assessments this is a great tool to use as a starting point to help you evaluate their motivators. And if you don’t know, simply ask.
Celebrate your team’s wins—even if you don’t get credit
Occasionally Williams will be in the news or profiled in the paper for his athletic achievements or his work with Gillette. Williams has won some medals as Gillette’s guide in track and field competitions (guides don’t win medals in the long jump). But he says that’s not what it’s about for him. His deep commitment and emotional attachment to Gillette let him enjoy the victory even when he doesn’t receive the recognition. “Witnessing Lex get a medal is so satisfying. It’s a feeling I’ll never get used to. I feel it so deep within my heart.”
Communication and Trust lay the foundation for culture change
As a leader, can you implement any of Williams’ communication and trust-building into your relationship with your team? Use them to foster teamwork in the workplace and to build an effective communication strategy. If you’re struggling with how to do this, you can benefit from our Gold Medal Experience. In the on-site program at an Olympic Training Center you’ll learn how to cultivate trust, understand the secrets behind high-performing teams, and learn strategies for staying focused under pressure.