A Powerful Vision Story: Dan O’Brien, US Olympian

dan-obrien-javelinAs a brand consultant, the biggest area where I see brands struggling is on the crafting a Vision Statement.  Most don’t have one, and those that do have these long convoluted statements that don’t really say anything.  Everyone adds their own two cents and it’s no longer a vision.  Pretty soon, your attempt at a vision looks more like a local bi-law explaining where you can fish, land your airplane and display real estate signs all in one statement.  

Let’s look at the story of Dan O’Brien:  He was a U.S. track and field super star back in the 1990s.  He competed in the Decathlon and won pretty much everything: World Champion, Olympic Champion, US Champion and World Record Holder that would stand for 10 years–a life time in the track and field world.  

Dan O’Brien

Even though he met tremendous success in his track career, it didn’t really get off to a great start.  O’Brien went to the University of Idaho on a track scholarship. He struggled with classes, excelled at partying, lost the scholarship and flunked out.  “I was just not prepared for what it took academically,” he recalls. “I’d get so far behind, I’d just give up.”  O’Brien went to work as a cabinetmaker in Moscow, Idaho. He fell into debt, kited checks and wound up in jail wearing a blue jumpsuit and flip-flops. Later, there was a DUI arrest.  He was clearly at rock bottom, and needed some inspiration to get himself out.  

At his lowest point, O’Brien  attended a decathlon clinic run by MILT CAMPBELL, the 1956 Olympic gold medalist, who asked each decathlete whether he had written his goals on a piece of paper and placed it his wallets. O’Brien said he immediately went to his room and wrote “9,000 points” on one side of a small piece of paper and “world’s greatest athlete” on the other.  “I wouldn’t have achieved what I have if I hadn’t set those goals,” he said. “I was a floater and as soon as I set solid goals, I could achieve what I wanted.”  With 9,000 points that would be the clear world record holder for decades to come.  World’s Greatest Athlete was always given to the reigning world champion of the Decathlon.  He kept that paper with him as inspiration and direction.  He didn’t know, but he had written a Vision Statement.  As he climbed out of his struggles, he went to a Junior College, starting to compete again.  He then started to compete on the world stage, keeping that note in his pocket.  By 1991, he won the World Championships Decathlon completing half of his Vision Statement.  His career was moving full steam ahead.  

In 1992, he was now at the US Qualifying event to get into the Barcelona Olympics.  As the current reigning world champion, it was natural that the US Olympic team was relying on O’Brien to make the team and bring home Gold for the Americans.  Same with TV networks, sponsors and event organizers.  Everyone had created all this hype of Dan vs Dave, in reference to the growing rivalry with Dave Johnson who was also a world-class Decathlete.  

eVCXAt the Qualifying meet for the US Team, O’Brien was in first place after 7 of the 10 events, looking as a shoe-in for the team.  But then came the high jump.  O’Brien made what seemed like an odd choice of going for a higher height than he needed to and he never cleared the bar after the required number of attempts.  He went from 1st place to 15th and missed qualifying for the Games.  People were stunned and confused.  Why would he go for the higher height, instead of settling for something that would keep him in contention to qualify.   Well, it comes back to the second part of his vision statement: 9,000 points.    Based on where he stood after 7 events, Dan’s calculations showed that he could only get to 9,000 points if he made the higher jump.  Yes, high risk, high reward but it was in line with his Vision.  Dan didn’t have “Olympic Champion” on his little piece of paper.  

Not qualifying for the games was a bit of a disaster for Reebok who had put all their money into O’Brien.  The US Olympic team was mad, fans were upset and NBC was furious.  But Dan kept pushing towards that dream of 9,000 points.  Only 3 months after the Barcelona Olympics, O’Brien set a world record of 8,860 points, a record that would stand for a decade.  And in 1996, he would go on and win Olympic Gold for his country.  

Why I love this story so much?   First, if you put everything in your vision statement it gets so watered down.  He could have put a laundry list, including Olympic Champion, Millions in endorsements, make tons of money and win every event.  But then it would just be he achieved 3 out of 5 things on his list.  But he decided to focus on what motivated him.  While you might wish he won the 1992 Olympic Gold, it wasn’t on his piece of paper.  He left off what wasn’t important and stuck to it.  You should do the same and you’ll find your vision statement offers you both focus and inspiration.  

A good vision should scare you a little bit and it should excite you a lot.  

A vision should open your mind up.  It should challenge your thinking.  Stretch you to think of things not immediately within reach.  

When Dan O’Brien looks back on his career, we can see how that little piece of paper drove him.  The fact that he’ll never reach his dream score of 9,000 points in decathlon rubs like a blister: “I came up short because I set the goal too low,” O’Brien says, grinning. “If I had tried to make 9,200, I might have got the 9,000.”

So how can you use this story to challenge yourself and your team to ask:  what’s would be on your piece of paper?

Does a Vision Statement Pay Out?

Companies that have Vision Statements have a better sense of where they are going.  And the proof is there that it pays off for companies with a Vision.

  • Harvard Study across 20 industries looking at businesses showed that companies with Vision Statements saw their revenue grew more than four times faster; job creation was seven times higher; their stock price grew 12 times faster; and profit performance was 750% higher.
  • Newsweek looked at 1000 companies with Vision Statements had an average return on stockholder equity of 16.1%, while firms without them had only a 7.9% average return.
  • “Built to Last” showed that for companies with Vision Statements, that a $1 investment in 1926 would have returned $6,350 compared to only a return of $950 for comparable companies without a Vision.
The Vision and Mission help to Frame the Overall Brand Plan

Think of the Vision as the End in Mind Achievement towards your purpose.  What do you want the brand to become?  Think 10 years out: if you became this one thing, you would know that you are successful.  Ideally it is Qualitative (yet grounded in something) and quantitative (measurable)  It should be motivating and enticing to get people focused.   It should be personal and speak to why you get up in the morning—why you got into this business.

When I’m consulting, I pick a day 10 years from now and “so you wake up that morning and tell me what your brand is like for you to be happy”.  I normally ask this 5-10 times so that we start to get really rich answers.  This stretches the mind a bit.  The first 5 answers tend to be corporate BS that people thing they should say.  The problem with the corporate line is it won’t inspire you, it won’t challenge you and it won’t push you to exceeding it.  Case in point, my son was in grade 9, and his teacher asked everyone to write down what they hoped to get in the class.  He put 55%.  I asked why and he said “because I like to over-achieve”.  All laughing aside, you need goals that will push you just a little harder.   

Things that Make a Good vision: 
  1. Easy for employees and partners to understand and rally around
  2. Think about something that can last 5-10 years or more
  3. Balance between aspiration (stretch) and reality (achievement)
  4. It’s ok to embed a financial ($x) or share position (#1) element into it as long as it’s important for framing the vision.
The watch outs for vision statements:
  1. It’s not a positioning statement.  Almost positioning neutral  Let the positioning come out in the strategy.
  2. Make sure we haven’t achieved it already.  If you are #1, then don’t put “be #1”.
  3. Don’t put strategic statements.  Vision answers “where could we be” rather than “how can we get there”
  4. Try to be single-minded:  Tighten it up and don’t include everything!!   Can you say it in an elevator.  Can you actually remember it?  Can you yell it at a Sales meeting?
Ask yourself “Where Do you Want to be in 10 Years?” over and over until you see an inspiration.  


Follow me on Twitter at @grayrobertson1


To read more on How to Write a Brand Plan, read the presentation below:

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  2. How to Write a Brand Positioning Statement.  Before you even get into the creative brief, you should be looking at target, benefits and reason to believe.   To read how to write a Brand Positioning Statement, click on this hyperlink:  How to Write an Effective Brand Positioning Statement
  3. Turning Brand Love into Power and Profits:  The positioning statement sets up the promise that kick starts the connection between the brand and consumer.  There are four other factors that connect:  brand strategy, communication, innovation and experience.   The connectivity is a source of power that can be leveraged into deeper profitability.  To read more click on the hyper link:  Love = Power = Profits 

Brand LeadershipI run the Brand Leader Learning Center,  with programs on a variety of topics that are all designed to make better Brand Leaders.  To read more on how the Learning Center can help you as a Brand Leader click here:   Brand Leadership Learning Center

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To reach out directly, email me at graham.robertson@beloved-brands.com

About Graham Robertson: The reason why I started Beloved Brands Inc. is to help brands realize their full potential value by generating more love for the brand.   I only do two things:  1) Make Brands Better or 2) Make Brand Leaders Better.  I have a reputation as someone who can find growth where others can’t, whether that’s on a turnaround, re-positioning, new launch or a sustaining high growth.  And I love to make Brand Leaders better by sharing my knowledge.  Im a marketer at heart, who loves everything about brands.  My background includes 20 years of CPG marketing at companies such as Johnson and Johnson, Pfizer Consumer, General Mills and Coke.  My promise to you is that I will get your brand and your team in a better position for future growth. Add me on LinkedIn at http://www.linkedin.com/in/grahamrobertson1 so we can stay connected.

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