The 'Impact Guy'

This article accompanies Great Reports.

With a background in finance and consulting, James Sayno has been able to build his own HR skills while enhancing others' to bring some needed changes to the USOC.

Monday, June 9, 2014
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When James Sayno was a senior in high school in Colorado Springs, he took a course in economics that, in essence, helped guide the rest of his life.

Already equipped with a keen intellect, based on the "superior education" he says he received living in the Philippines for most of his youth, "that one economics class really tilted my way of viewing human behavior," says the 38-year-old director of talent development and rewards for the United States Olympic Committee.

"In economics, there are models of human behaviors," says Sayno, who began his career in the financial-services and insurance industry at age 17, working after school. "I learned in that course how people don't conform to models, yet there is still interplay between people's behaviors and the systems we set up. So financial incentives, for instance, do actually work, but maybe not in the way we thought they would."

Those lessons sparked an interest in change-management projects -- an interest he took with him in 2006 to Deloitte Consulting's San Francisco office, where he would work for the next four years as a human capital consultant before returning to Colorado to be closer to his wife, Danielle, and then-1-year-old son, Randkai (who, now 5, is a big brother to Royce, 1) and become what he describes as "an impact guy" for the USOC.

And impact he's certainly had.

Answering a long-time need at the USOC to help Olympic and Paralympic athletes past their primes find a gateway to a different successful career, he worked with sponsor DeVry University to create and lead a scholarship program -- the Academic Performance Program -- that has awarded more than $1 million to deserving recipients (the program now has 140 participants) to help them get the education they need to start a new career.

Also after coming to the USOC, Sayno quickly recognized its internal training function was sorely lacking, particularly in bolstering managers' basic business skills such as developing business cases, documenting return-on-investment or leading change during complex new-project-or-process implementations. He was a critical player in building USOC's internal and external training program, Team USA Academy of Learning and Leadership, which has not only transformed internal business acumen, but also serves big-name-company clients as part of a partnership with The Conference Board.

 "Five years before I got here, I can safely say our managers had not had any training in five years to gain in executive disciplines," Sayno says. Yet now, training at the USOC is so successful, "we've rebranded the corporate university ... and we're sending that Olympic spirit back to the business world.

"But what's even more exciting and satisfying to me," he says, "are the internal successes, seeing managers gain confidence and expertise in the types of things that make them effective at their jobs. Those daily gains, being able to articulate their gains and goals and accomplishments better ... those are what I'm truly proud of."

In each of his endeavors, Sayno never once was slowed by his lack of experience in HR or a particular discipline within the profession. The project guy from Deloitte simply formed the right teams, through careful scrutiny and selection, to address subject-matter needs, he says, but also bring in additional skills and expertise in keeping with the needs of a professional team.

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The learning curve as he shifted to HR was challenging, though. "I needed to create a compelling narrative about parallel and complementary experiences that made me suited for my [new] role," Sayno says. "For example, my training and development experiences [had to feed into my] organizational-development role [and] my change-management experience [would have to be called on to] help me build and implement successful HR programs."

Personally, he often seeks learning opportunities outside the organization that can help him enhance his skills. Early in his career, in 2005, while working at the California Casualty Management Co. in Colorado Spring, he recognized he needed more advanced business schooling to be able to guide others through the training-and-development trajectory he envisioned himself on. So he enrolled at the Thunderbird School of Global Management and earned an M.B.A. in global business. He's also a fourth-degree black belt in Kempo Karate, which enhances his focus and discipline, and strengthens his "ability to influence others," he says.

Members of the HR's Rising Stars judging panel as well as Sayno's own supervisor, Pam Sawyer, managing director of human resources, point out that achieving anything in the intense USOC environment is to be commended.

"The sports industry is very relationship- and performance-oriented, and a high percentage of our staff are active athletes or sports aficionados outside of the office," says Sawyer. "James [has been able to] apply this cultural knowledge, strong interpersonal skills, desire to see others succeed ... and daily inspiration from elite athletes ... to perform, himself, at a high level on a daily basis."

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