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Building a Winning Team: 5 Lessons From an Olympic Volleyball Champion

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Katarina Antanasković

Content Marketing Manager

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02 Feb 2021

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What can members of a fintech company learn from an Olympic champion? 

Apparently, a lot. 

A company that sustains rapid growth like Centili needs all the help it can get when it comes to team-building. That’s why we invited Olympic champion[1] Vladimir Vanja Grbic, a member of the Volleyball Hall of Fame,[2] to share his experiences and insights in a webinar as part of the Centili 10th Anniversary celebration. Grbic has achieved notable success - always as a member of a smoothly functioning team. We found his ideas relevant, inspirational, and consistent with our company culture and values.

For many of us, Vladimir Grbic is a household name. I remember the awe a seventh-grade version of me felt at the fierce energy he exuded on the volleyball court. Grbic was busy winning the World Volleyball Championship in Japan that year. It was the hottest game on TV, in any sport. 

Twenty years later, retired from his career as a player, Grbic is a devoted sports ambassador who runs Camp Vanje Grbica, a volleyball camp for children. He says his work there is not to raise a generation of Olympic champions, but to teach children the work ethic and prepare them for adult life. His approach is sometimes closer to life coaching than sports coaching.

Here are some of the takeaways from Grbic’s informative, inspirational webinar.

1. A modest background is not always an obstacle to success

Grbic comes from a village in rural Serbia. The son of a volleyball player and brother to the extraordinary Nikola Grbic, he was born as a member of what would become the most successful sports family in volleyball history. But his early years in the village were marked by a lack of resources and options.

Grbic’s ability to rise from humble beginnings is a lesson about overcoming obstacles: Never mind the limitations; focus on success.

Grbic says attitude is the most important element of success. If you believe that the lack of a solid starting point will prevent you from doing your best, it will. You can’t change your background, but you can and must change that self-limiting belief.

As a company with ambitions of its own, Centili is an example of how determination to become a competitive industry player can fuel growth. Despite joining the game after others had already established presence in the global market, Centili has managed to develop quality products that win over clients and customers.

Grbic’s family story follows the tracks of post-World War II migrations from the hilly Herzegovina to the plains of Vojvodina. An entire village migrated: Relatives and neighbours crossed the border and settled in a small northern town called Klek.

Grbic describes his origins by sharing a story from his home village. Two national champion teams, both a women’s and a men’s team, came from that village. All the odds were against the village kids and their playground teams, but their determination was fierce. In 1964, the female team won the national cup. In 1974, the men’s team won. These victories came when Yugoslavia was a country of six states. The victories were substantial. 

The achievement was unprecedented. No one expected players from a small village without modern sports facilities and years of expert training to amount to anything. They trained on concrete courts with faded sidelines, in plain cotton trainers without knee protection. And they won. 

Years later, another unlikely underdog rose to prominence when Jamaica’s national bobsleigh team competed well in the Olympics and won the world championship at 2000’s World Push competition in Monaco. The team captured the world’s imagination, especially after Disney made a movie about its unexpected victories[3]. The mere appearance of a tropical country team at the Winter Olympics was a fascinating disruption. Their mastery of the sport was an inspiration to millions.

2. You fight with what you have

“You fight with what you have without thinking of what you don’t have,” Grbic Told us.

In a global business environment, companies compete for market share. Not all startups are lucky enough to start with bulging bank accounts courtesy of Silicon Valley venture capitalists. Most follow a different growth curve, devoting years of hard work to prove their worth to investors and customers.

Grbic’s story shows that being an underdog can spark resilience as you struggle to prove yourself. Underdog companies often bring disruptive business models to the market, reshaping their industries, precisely because they are not distracted by headlines and media fanfare. Their modest beginnings give them space to experiment and innovate.

Consider Netflix, which entered the video market by trying to chip away at Blockbuster for a small share of the DVD rental market. Today, Netflix is a dominating presence in more than 190 countries. It serves more than 204 million subscribers[4]. Blockbuster’s dominant market position made it complacent. It didn’t move from DVD rental to streaming when Netflix did, and eventually closed 6,000 stores when it entered bankruptcy.

Disruption follows the brave. Being the underdog can work in your favor if you commit hard and apply consistency to your work. In the end, hunger for success is what drives every winning team. “The winners are not the ones that are the best, but the ones that want to win the most,” as Grbic says.

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3. Commitment and consistency: Crossing the sideline

“Consistency is giving 100% of your power every single day,” Grbic says. A guiding principle of winning sports men and women throughout history, consistency is a key value in business as well.

“You have to free your mind. There are no preconditions that you must have to become successful”, says Grbic. “Once you have committed, never give up.”

Grbic teaches commitment to kids at his volleyball camp with a notion called Crossing the Sideline.

The concept is simple. The volleyball court’s outer line separates two states of mind. While you are outside, you are one of the people who look for excuses. You don’t commit because you are afraid of exposing your true worth. Once you cross the sideline and enter the court, you agree to give 100 per cent to the game. 

Some people dare to cross the sideline, and others don’t. “Which group do you belong to?” he asks. He assures us that Olympic champions are the competitors who have faced down their doubts and crossed the line into a state of commitment.

In the business world, commitment and consistency mean that you don’t obsess over the competition, but your customers. The approach seems straightforward, but many companies find it tricky. They stray from their mission and business goals under industry pressure. Instead of looking for ways to meet customer needs by committing to innovation, they focus on the competition’s portfolio and settle for replicating another company’s ideas.

4. Teamwork is a core company value

“When an athlete on your team becomes focused on scoring and working on their stats, they are not great team players,” Grbic says. “Like bad apples, they should be removed from the team.” 

Ambition and self-interest don’t serve the team in the long run. They corrode the culture and jeopardise team unity.

Shared goals and interests - values - unify teams and instantiate the company’s business values. Even the best performers find their contributions multiplied when they work within the context of a larger goal shared by the entire team.

5. Defining your value statement starts with the mission

The mission is pretty straightforward in sports: Win the gold medal or trophy. 

In business, success is harder to define. There are no championships. The corporate mission is less tangible and often masked by a maze of unspoken company rules and hierarchies. That’s why it’s essential to articulate a unifying mission that is upheld by the pillars of shared values. 

Once the mission and goals are set and aligned throughout the company, management wisdom comes into play. The value statement needs to be consistently applied, even when the choices seem odd. 

Grbic shares an anecdote about an Italian player who was rated three on a one-to-10 scale - barely qualified as a backup player in professional volleyball. He was, to the Italian public’s shock, invited to join the national team at the 1994 World Championship in Athens[5]. For three-and-a-half months of championship games, he sat on the sidelines and endured boos from the crowd.

The experience helped him develop resilience, a skill that would prove crucial for what happened next. 

In the final game of the championship, Italy played against the Netherlands, and Italy was close to losing. The coach summoned the player to play defence. He denied the Netherlands two crucial spikes and Italy won the championship. 

This story has an obvious parallel in business. You don’t need a handful of top performers to achieve corporate goals. It’s better to establish conditions for everyone’s talents to emerge. Then your whole team will be top performers.

Check out the highlights of Vanja Grbic’s webinar, transformed into corporate culture inspirational video!

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[1] Olympic Games website, https://www.olympic.org/vladimir-grbic

[2] Volleyball Hall of Fame, https://www.volleyhall.org/inductees.htm

[3] Cool Runnings film, IMDB, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0106611/

[4] Netflix, https://ir.netflix.net/ir-overview/profile/default.aspx. Accessed January 20, 2021. [5] International Volleyball Federation site, http://www.fivb.org/TheGame/TheGame_WorldChampionships.htm

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