The New Year offers business leaders the opportunity to scope out the future, assess opportunities and risks, commit to new objectives, and roll out plans to achieve your vision for your business. What skills will you need in order to successfully take tight corners, avoid obstacles, maintain your stamina and accelerate through the finish line?
Please pardon the “running a race” analogy, but I have been a triathlete since 1995. Between my athletic efforts and my work as an executive coach I find many parallels between the physical skills and endurance needed to compete in a multi-sport competition, and the emotional and behavioral competence required to succeed as a business leader.
Neither business nor athletic success comes overnight. Neither can be rushed or accomplished just by reading a book or attending a seminar. Business and racing both require dealing with unpredictability—a blown tire or a change in interest rates—while remaining attentive to what’s in front of you. Both take remarkable focus and a variety of skills: I was a swimmer who learned to become a better biker and runner. Many business leaders I know are naturally adept at finance or technology, yet need to learn about sales, managing others, or working as a team.
What started for me as an agreement to do a short race has since turned into a focused and intentional training process to successfully compete in multiple races each season. What starts for many entrepreneurs as an idea or core competency becomes a committed, ongoing effort that requires vision, risk management, motivation and strong relationships.
Here are some of the specific areas where I have learned business lessons through training for triathlons:
After a few seasons of relatively haphazard training and racing, I decided to become more focused and intentional in my training and racing and began setting goals for each season. These goals varied, focusing on number of races, types of races, competition times and, more recently, recovering from injuries.
But my goals were always specific in nature, a strategy I often recommend to clients who want to become more successful leaders. Goals have the power to mobilize and focus efforts. Instead of a general goal to communicate more successfully with co-workers, you are more likely to achieve the desired outcome if you set out “to build more effective working relationships with John and Mary by the end of the third quarter.”
I could never achieve my triathlon goals without planning. My work with a triathlon coach involves setting detailed training plans that outline each workout in terms of discipline, duration, and intensity. They are goal-focused as well: when I was working on improving my running time, I spent more time running sprints and hills; when I was getting back into racing after having my son, I did more long, slow distance work to rebuild my endurance.
Planning your development as a leader means determining where you will focus your energy, how you will prioritize time, and what activities you will engage in. Planning shows you’re serious about achieving goals, such as resolving to “schedule regular Monday meetings with John and Mary to discuss both professional and personal topics.”
Making a commitment involves maintaining a big picture perspective. I am willing to make everyday compromises—getting into a cold pool at 5:00 a.m., or biking before my kids wake up—in order to achieve my goals and participate in a sport I love. My big picture commitment helps me say no to other things, like sleep!
Leadership development requires sticking to important planned activities, sometimes at the expense of other things. If you recognize that visiting 1:1 with an important customer is a high priority, then you won’t let phone calls interrupt that time. If a meeting gets in the way of important planned work, it might require rescheduling or having someone attend on your behalf.
Sometimes there’s no way to replace experience. When biking through the Flatiron Mountains in Colorado, I experienced for the first time the challenge of DESCENDING a mountain. Taking hairpin turns at 45-50 m.p.h. was one scary experience, where error would have resulted in serious injury. Simply put, there was no way to plan for how my body would experience the constant braking, fear of failure, and chilling wind in my face. I simply had to do it.
In many work scenarios, there is no sufficient training for the experience itself, such as finding a new investor or presenting to a new customer. Experience can teach more than classrooms or books. The coach in me recognizes that the key to maximizing these experiences is to take time to reflect after they happen: what went well; what would you change next time? In my biking experience, I realized that my ascent of Flatiron was successful, but that a more stable bike would better equip me for the descending stage of my next mountain ride.
Although triathlon is an individual sport, I could not be successful without the support of many people: my husband who takes care of our kids while I’m training and racing, my best friend and training partner who keeps me motivated and accountable, and my coach who keeps me on track. I recall completing one particularly rigorous mountain ascent (again in the Flatirons) only because my coach and his brother literally pushed me up the mountain so that I could regain momentum.
Leaders don’t develop in a vacuum. They share their goals and plans with others who can help them stay focused and motivated. Having a support system helps you maintain perspective while keeping sight of your goals, providing encouragement during difficult times and helping to celebrate successes as well.
As an executive coach, I help professionals refine their approach to goal setting, planning, commitment, experience and support, just as my triathlon coach encourages me to focus on the same. The rewards are similar as well: a gradual yet measurable improvement, and the ongoing development of new skills and areas of excellence.