This is a story about the relationship between involvement and commitment. It is story of how to truly involve people and obtain an ironclad commitment from those you work with. The story contains lessons for any organization.
A Little Background
A few years ago our family bought a house near Lake Placid, New York and began spending much of the summer there. Desiring to become a greater part of our seasonal community, we found ourselves attracted to the numerous volunteer efforts surrounding the annual Ironman Tri-athlon.
This extraordinary daylong competition consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike, and a 26.2-mile run. Almost two thousand athletes compete. The revenue the race brings to the area over five to six days makes it the most economically significant event held all year. (In an area that has hosted two Winter Olympics and is considered a skier’s paradise, this is no small feat.)
To successfully pull off an event of this magnitude requires the services of over 3,000 volunteers. To say the Ironman is a logistical challenge is an understatement. It is a massive undertaking re-quiring commitment and involvement on a grand scale. The army of athletes must be fed and cared for as they traverse the 140-mile course. Competitors are given up to seventeen hours to complete the event, so this is more than an all-day affair.
For a group of diverse small towns to come together for an event of this magnitude is truly im-pressive. Given the sometimes “challenging” relationships between the North Country communi-ties the success of Ironman is that much more noteworthy.
The “Haves” and the “Have-Nots”
While the High Peaks region of New York is visually stunning, it is not economically blessed. Over the years the tourist and service economy have replaced the mining and timber industries that fueled many of the small towns. The privileged bring their wealth to the area giving those employed by the hotels, restaurants and shops an opportunity to make a living. It is clearly a case of the have-nots serving the haves.
Interestingly, there is a second layer of haves and have-nots. Some of the have-nots, it seems, have a little more. Case in point is the village of Lake Placid. It is the economic haven in the midst of financial struggle. Having hosted the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics, Lake Placid has the greatest name recognition. It has been a tourist retreat for well over a century and is almost a year-round destination. It gets infinitely more attention and brings in infinitely more revenue than its small-town neighbors. Throughout the year Lake Placid has its share of “sibling” resentments from surrounding towns.
Once a year, however, these rivalries take a back seat. The haves and have-nots come together.
Ironman has returned.
The Great Equalizer
Year after year, the Ironman competition is a tremendous success because it does such a great job making each volunteer and each community feel important. It all comes down to what I call The Great Equalizer. The Great Equalizer is a set of problems or circumstances that can only be solved with everyone’s input and participation. There is no “busy work.” People working on the problem are really vital to its success and they know it. Their contribution is valuable regardless of the amount of influence or status they typically have.
In the Ironman, The Great Equalizer is the bike portion of the race. While the swim and the run take place in Lake Placid and certainly require an enormous number of volunteers, the bike seg-ment is another matter. The course consists of two 56-mile laps. It runs through any number of small villages and hamlets with names like Keene, Jay, Wilmington, and Black Brook. They are towns you pass through if you are going someplace else. On most days these are the forgotten towns. On most days. But not on this day. Not on Ironman Sunday. On Ironman Sunday these are important places. These are destinations. These towns play a critical role in the success of the day.
And the inhabitants know it.
The small communities are spread miles apart. The athletes know where the towns are and an-ticipate the food and drink they get at the aid stations. These towns are also places for receiving psychic nourishment. While the crowds are greatest in number in Lake Placid and there are spec-tators scattered throughout the course, the small rural communities along the way serve as gather-ing places for physical and emotional attention. Both forms of sustenance are necessary for the average triathlete to successfully traverse the day. The volunteers are acutely aware of the impact they have based on the responses from the athletes.
Another reason volunteers know their commitment matters is the amount of additional positive reinforcement they receive. The town leaders, the media, and the organizers of Ironman all sing their praises. On Tuesday the Ironman organization honors the volunteers with a Thank You din-ner. The banquet is an opportunity to reflect and relax. For the volunteers, it is simply the recog-nition icing on an already full cake.
Ironman it seems is successful because it taps into some core human need–the need to feel sig-nificant, the need to belong to something larger than oneself, and the need to contribute and be recognized for that contribution.
By Wednesday preparations for the next Ironman are already well underway, but for the typical volunteer its back to business as usual. Its back to the their small towns and the routines of their life. For a few days, though, they felt part of something larger than themselves.
Ironclad commitment and involvement occur when people have an answer to one central question: “Why does my participation really matter?”
If you’re having a hard time answering that question perhaps you should ask yourself these questions:
* Is yours a culture of haves and have-nots?
* When was the last time your organization experienced a great equalizer?
* When was the last time everyone in your organization felt their contribution was crucial to the success of your enterprise?
* What would it take for them to feel truly committed, to feel involved in a meaningful way?
Asking those questions and learning from the answers could very well have a transforming effect on those you work with and the way you conduct your business.