The United States Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs is teeming with leaders — coaches, sports psychologists and highly driven athletes. But there’s one person at the complex who’s particular style of leadership greatly enhances the culture. She is guiding and leading with her listening, nurturing, and empathetic demeanor.
Meet Sherry Von Riesen. Known as the Olympic and Paralympic team “mom,” this 73-year-old is the rock behind many of today’s toughest competitors. She has carved out this very distinct role from the other on-site leaders. Without a parent to be there to support them day-to-day, Von Riesen serves that role by caring for the athletes with her warmhearted leadership style.
Perhaps a “team mom” is not what your team or corporation needs. But there’s an essence to her style of leadership that could greatly enhance your company culture and peer support system. Leaders everywhere can learn a few things from Sherry.
Examine the traits here to see if your leaders need to deepen their EQ and other “soft skills” to be better positioned to support their people through the ups and downs of life on the job. These skills will create an environment that will impact corporate culture. These are some of the qualities you want to look for and develop to further enhance your culture:
Be Open to Opportunities
When Von Riesen was in her fifties, an age when most people are beginning to contemplate retiring, she accepted a fundraising volunteer position working for a coach. Once she arrived at the Olympic Training Center, members of the USOC team asked her to stay for good. “I showed up and never left! I told [my grown up children], ‘I’m giving you the house, and I am running away.’ And I did!” recalls Von Riesen.
Since then, she’s spent the past 20 years living at the USOC complex. Had she not been open to new experiences, she may have missed out on one of the most fulfilling roles of her career – and life.
Lead through Listening
Von Riesen’s official title is “coordinator,” but her main job is to be there for the athletes. She plays a key role in their support system. In addition to making sure they’re cared for and setting them up with donors and sponsors, she’s a haven where athletes can talk about their issues.
“My role is to be a listener. And when athletes are going through things during the Olympics or training, I’ll say, ‘Come in and talk to me. Get things off your chest. Yell, scream, stomp if you need to, and leave [your problems] with me,’” she says.
She acknowledges that she can’t always take concrete actions to make something better for the competitors. “There are national governing bodies that are in charge of each of the athletes and the sports. They determine so much. But, what I can do is listen and give them the facts on what we know is going on, and what we can or can’t do.”
Advise with Empathy, But Don’t Let Everyone Else’s Problems Bring You Down
Von Riesen uses her empathetic nature to help the athletes, but she also has to protect herself from getting too invested. She recognizes that it would be unhealthy for her to take on everyone’s problems. “You have to know when to leave [those feelings] at the door, and not take it with you, or it will wear you down. There’s a balance between sympathy and empathy,” she explains.
She serves as the connector between the athletes and the right people, often referring them to sports psychologists, their coaches, parents, or even other athletes that have been in similar circumstances.
Always Be Learning
“We all learn from each other,” she explains. Not only does she offer perspective to the athletes, but she hears their stories and sees how hard they work and the outcomes. All of those experiences give her perspectives she uses in her own life or to help other athletes.
Von Riesen says she’s constantly learning from the athletes. “One thing I admire is the athletes’ ability to get along with each other. Two athletes might share the same apartment while they’re vying for the same podium. But they still respect and support each other. I think we need to do that more in the world,” she says.
Recognize that Sport (and Work) Are Just a Part of Life
Because these Olympic athletes work so hard to get to that level of competition, they often think that the sport and being in the Olympics is their life. Von Riesen shows them that they have a life that was there before they began competing and will be there afterward. “Sport is part of life and it helps you deal with things and get through them,” she says.
Von Riesen understands the importance of colleagues and teammates being open and honest with one another. She insists that honesty creates a better environment for all at the USOC. That’s why she holds roundtable discussions with the athletes that she calls “The Table of Truth.” “Whatever’s said at that table stays at that table,” she says. And she loves when the table erupts into laughter. She insists that laughter is part of the healing process.
Leaders Adjust When Needed
Though we look at it as a leadership qualities, the athletes and Von Riesen are truly like family. She uses her intuitive nature to know what they need, even when they don’t know it themselves. “What one athlete needs, may not be what’s right for another. Sometimes it’s the words they’re saying, and sometimes it’s the words they’re not saying that are the most powerful and help direct you to what you need to do for them.”
Build Trust through Action
Trust is a hallmark of a strong corporate culture. One of the reasons Von Riesen is so good at her job is because she deliberately builds trust with the athletes – if she says she’ll do something for them, she does. “Any time an athlete comes to me with a need, I promise them that I will get back to them – and I do. To me, the worst thing in the world is when someone comes and asks you something, and you never get back to them. It makes them feel like they have no voice,” she says.
See the Humanity in Everyone
Another reason Von Riesen makes an impact on people at the USOC is that she recognizes the good in everyone. “There’s a single thread that connects everybody. Here at USOC, what connects us all is the belief in our dreams,” she says. She believes it’s important to understand where people are coming from instead of judging them.
“Find out who your people are, but also find out what you can do for them. What can you do to make them better people?”
Don’t Take Everything Personally
Olympic hopefuls are so invested in their future and competition, but when it comes to their lives aside from training Von Riesen often reminds them not to take things personally. “Sometimes it’s not about you; it’s about another person and what they’re going through,” she explains.
At 73, Von Riesen doesn’t have plans to retire any time soon. And she’s living in the moment,. “The unknown is exciting and can make us better people. I never think, ‘What if.’ If you feel like you need to make a change, you almost always have to make it. If not, you’re going to doubt it,” she says.
She says a part of her role is to help athletes believe in the decisions they make. “There’s a purpose for the change, and I help them see it,” she says. She suggests leaders in the corporate world help their employees make changes to move them forward personally. “[Leaders] should be excited about their employee’s next step. Here, at the training center, we’re always working with our employees to make them better. Because this is one step onto the next area of their lives.”
Sherry Von Riesen helps athletes to understand themselves deeply – and strive to be better – through her style of leadership: her empathy, compassion, and ability to listen. Whether or not your organization has a leader with a “mom-like” role, you can still adopt some of Von Riesen’s strategies to create culture change in the workplace. Some ideas to consider:
- Host a monthly discussion, similar to Von Riesen’s “table of truth” where colleagues can honestly share their thoughts on company processes or practices.
- Foster accountability between managers and staff. Von Riesen credits the trust athletes have in her from always acknowledging their requests and needs – even when she can’t solve them all.
- Help your people succeed on an individual level. Instead of always thinking about the growth of the company, consider how your leaders can help individuals grow within the company.
Learn how you can develop the skills of agility, resilience, and high performance and how you can apply that to your team in our Gold Medal Experience.