SHRM 2021 Las Vegas Goes for the Gold with Michael Phelps

SHRM 2021 Las Vegas Goes for the Gold with Michael Phelps

By Tricia O'Connor

Mental health is more than a buzzword. It’s the main topic at SHRM 2021.  

And the Society for Human Resource Management annual conference and expo is going for the gold with its keynote speaker this year: five-time Olympian Michael Phelps.  

Winning a record 28 medals (23 of them gold), Phelps is America’s most-decorated Olympic athlete. But Phelps also has something in common with millions of Americans – he’s battled mental health issues. With research showing the pandemic continues to severely affect employee mental wellbeing, Phelps’s opportunity to share his story at SHRM couldn’t come at a better time.  

So, we thought we’d take a look at some of Phelps’s best advice through the years and find out how it applies to the corporate world.  

The Olympic Dream 

At the Tokyo Games, Phelps will be seen poolside as an analyst; the first time he won’t be competing in swimming in five Olympics. His focus these days is on mental health and the outreach he does through the Michael Phelps Foundation.  

Phelps has been honest and vulnerable about his own mental health struggles which have played out very publicly, through media coverage and his own admissions. He recently supported tennis superstar Naomi Osaka’s decision to open up about her mental health struggles and is working on a book about his journey.  

It’s through Phelps’s raw honesty, we find some of his greatest pieces of advice. Although Phelps’s workplace was a pool and not an office, many things he’s said relate to the pressure, anxiety, and stress millions of American workers face every day as they continue to juggle jobs with pandemic life. 

Phelps’s Words of Wisdom 

“I think when you find your lowest point in your life, I think you’re kind of open to a lot of things.” (1:43 mark) 

What Phelps Says: Following a highly publicized arrest, Phelps says he had reached one of the lowest points of his life. He was depressed and suicidal. This was also the point he admitted he needed help. Imagine that… an Olympic hero, virtually invincible in the water, reaching out because he finally met an opponent he couldn’t beat in the pool. The humility and grace he showed (“I was just surrendering,” he says), is a lesson in emotional intelligence, something Phelps didn’t even know he had at that time.  

How to Make it Work at Work: Emotional intelligence is one of the most important, and misunderstood, skills a person can possess. The unpredictable and unforgiving working environment we’ve all been thrust into has highlighted a real need for showing, or being shown, emotional intelligence at work. This can be put into practice by discussing your needs, both psychologically and physically, at work, and what support you may need to be your best self. The best leaders are not mind readers, but they should be empathetic to your struggles and want to help you succeed. 

“I look forward to having the chance to teach [my children] the importance of understanding their own emotions and why they’re there.” (6:02 mark) 

What Phelps Says: Phelps is now a father, and he says that has impacted how he wants to teach his own children about their emotions. For a long time as an Olympic athlete, Phelps says he and other Olympians almost felt like they weren’t allowed to have problems. They needed to always be seen as pillars of strength, especially male athletes. But this façade just pushed negative feelings deeper until they erupted in difficult circumstances. 

How to Make it Work at Work: Operational metrics like profitability, sales goals, productivity, and efficiency will always be important, and they are critical to an organization’s success in this post-pandemic environment. But it’s important to remember the employees working to meet these metrics are human. People have problems, whether you’re an Olympic great or a customer support specialist. Maintaining or building a workplace culture where employees feel safe to discuss their truths builds loyalty and retention. Read our five-step guide on how to reestablish company culture after a pandemic. 

“The Greats Do Things When They Don’t Always Want To.” (3:17 mark) 

What Phelps Says: In this clip, Phelps discusses how big goals are achieved by thinking small. He didn’t just decide one day to win an Olympic gold medal (never mind 23!). He and his team broke down that major accomplishment into a series of small steps Phelps could focus on, train for, and then tackle. The idea is that you’ll gain momentum from these small wins which help build your confidence as you move toward a larger goal. 

How to Make it Work at Work: This approach transfers easily into the business world, whether it’s something pragmatic like migrating to a new software integration or, something more emotional intelligence-based, like checking in more regularly with co-workers to see how they’re doing. You may not have time to connect with everyone in one day but touching base with one colleague a day may be doable. This concept helps to prevent feeling overwhelmed by a massive undertaking, the last thing you need when you’re still balancing remote work with duties at home.  

“[My coach] was somebody who trusted me and really thought that I could do something I put my mind to.” (5:06 mark) 

What Phelps Says: Phelps attributes some of his success to the relationship he developed with his coach. From a young age, Phelps says he recognized his coach trusted his ability, his work ethic, and his drive, and that in turn helped Phelps trust his coach’s process. It wasn’t always easy, and it certainly wasn’t a relationship without its challenges, especially as Phelps struggled to balance his independence with his burgeoning mental health struggles. But Phelps says it was the trust he and his coach had in each other that helped them overcome some of their darkest times.  

How to Make it Work at Work: In times of turbulence, it’s natural for some businesses to want to rein in control over things within their reach. But it could have the opposite effect among your employees. If they don’t feel trusted to perform their best, they may actually perform worse because they’re preoccupied with how supervisors may react.  

To employees, micromanaging can feel like you are focused on power and control – not helping to optimize the employee experience in a safe, healthy, and effective way. Studies show company culture is the most important factor among employees and job hunters, and trust is one of the biggest components of a healthy company culture. If trust helped Phelps and his coach become one of the winningest duos of all time, it must work! 

Visit EBI at SHRM 2021! 

After the Olympics wrap, we head to Las Vegas Sept. 9 – 12 where we are thrilled to once again join HR industry leaders at SHRM 2021. EBI is a long-standing SHRM participant (check out our behind-the-scenes video) and not even a lingering pandemic can keep us away from this year’s event, especially since last year’s event was canceled. Our team loves the energy and camaraderie on the convention floor – and we are excited to hear what Phelps will share there! 

Please stop by SHRM 2021 and visit the EBI Team. We’ll be on hand to answer all your questions about background screening, drug testing, and anything else related to modern workforce recruiting. Together, we’ll identify the right mix of solutions that best integrate with your culture and processes.

In the meantime, you can learn more about EBI here. See you at SHRM 2021!  

About the Author

Tricia O'Connor

Tricia O'Connor

Writer. Digital marketer. Storyteller. An award-winning writer and editor, Tricia O'Connor is the Marketing Content Manager at EBI. Tricia worked as a broadcast and print journalist for nearly two decades writing and producing programming for high-profile networks like ESPN Radio, History Channel, and Hallmark Channel, as well as contributing editorial work to publications nationwide. Tricia joined the EBI marketing team in 2019 and is responsible for content strategy, development, and engagement. Tricia earned a master's degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and is a proud undergraduate alumna of Wheaton College in Massachusetts.

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