4 business lessons from an out-of-shape triathlete

4 business lessons from an out-of-shape triathlete

After a long lay-off over the last two months, mainly due to a lot of travelling and client work, I finally decided I needed to bite the bullet and get back into training. I’ve set myself a goal of completing the Outlaw Half triathlon next year, which gives me a little over 5 months to get in shape for the 1.2m swim, 56m bike and 13.1m run. Yet, as I wheezed my way along my local 3 mile loop at a shuffling 9 min/mile pace, I was sharply reminded of the old adage – “use it or lose it”. It made me think about the reality of fitness and the parallels with business performance. The more I thought about it, the more I made connections which are useful lessons for both businesses and athletes alike. Given than the New Year beckons and it’s a natural time to reflect on past performance as well as look to the future, I thought this was a good time to share these lessons:

1) Standing still is going backwards

It’s tempting in business and well as fitness to just maintain what we’re doing. Whether that’s not having a plan for growth, or just running the same old loop or familiar cycle route, it’s all about keeping things “ticking along”. The reason for this is because it’s easy. It doesn’t take any serious thinking or brain power. You can just do it. The trouble is that you’re not actually standing still, you’re actually going backwards. Through the inevitable march of time, we’re all getting older every day, performance steadily erodes. Your body is a perfect machine and if you let it settle it’ll cut back on what’s no longer needed (we’re back to use it or lose it). Likewise in business, if you’re standing still your competitors and the market certainly won’t be. Customers and profit pools are constantly changing and they will impact your business, sooner or later, if you don’t keep your eye on what’s happening. Change is inevitable, as they say. It’s just whether you want to let it happen or make it happen.

2) Create a stretching goal and a sustainable plan

When most people say they’re training, often, they’re just exercising. Sounds pedantic? Not really, as there’s a real difference. Training requires a goal. And it requires a plan that will move you closer to that goal. To do that, both in fitness terms and in business, you need to create change. You need to take steps that will build on top of past performance. Physiologically, you cannot improve performance unless you disrupt the status quo with enough stress to create a fitness adaption. Which in simple terms, means that when you do something that you haven’t done before your body adapts. You let it recover then apply a little more stress to promote another fitness adaption. That’s the basis of all good training plans and it has two key parallels with business. Firstly, as we looked at above in lesson 1) you need to disrupt the status quo in order to grow. That means doing something different. And, more often than not, that means something that is difficult and uncomfortable. To me, a stretching goal always needs to be a little bit scary. You shouldn’t look at it and say “sure, I can do that”. There should always be an element of doubt. Plus, of course, it needs to be exciting. Another parallel with fitness is that your plan needs to be sustainable. I mentioned earlier that good training plans allow for sufficient recovery between periods of stress to allow for adaption. Otherwise you will quickly fall into a cycle of over-training which will derail any plan. Likewise, your business plan to achieve your stretching goal needs to be something you can stay the course with. With fitness training you stress your body and that has an impact on your muscles, ligaments and bones. Too much training will cause injury. In business you’ll see the impact of change through your resources, which means people and cash. Having a stretch goal of 100% growth in 12 months sounds great but what does that mean in terms of your cash-flow and people? Do you have enough funding to sustain that level of growth? What about your talent? Do you need to hire more people, or develop a different set of skills to deliver your plan? Excellent businesses with great potential can crash and burn through too fast growth. And in the field of professional athletes, there are countless examples of rising stars that succumb to injury and never quite get back on track.

3) Measure where you are to stay on track

This next lesson maps perfectly across from fitness to business. So, you’ve got a goal that’s going to stretch you and you’ve created a plan to get you there (without blowing up). Now you just need to make sure you stay on track. How do you do this? Simple, you measure your progress. Creating milestones and tracking your progress against them works whether you are preparing for a marathon or market dominance. Of course, you need to know what to measure and that’s always specific to your goal. Also, you will want to measure things that provide a counter-balance to track that you’re not creating problems which will de-rail your progress. In fitness terms, back to the marathon analogy for a first-time runner, this would include measuring time training and/or miles, with a view to gradually increasing distance over time. A counter-balance measure would possibly include resting heart-rate to check you’re recovering enough. It could also include keeping a journal and observing aches and pains to check that you’re not overtraining or heading towards an injury. From a business standpoint, you would want to measure KPIs that are related to the performance goal, as well as ones that provide a counter-check. If you have a revenue focused goal then measuring the sales pipeline growth and sales conversion metrics will be necessary. Equally, you may want to measure financial metrics such as cash-flow to ensure that the business is keeping up with growth. Or customer satisfaction to check that quality isn’t dropping with the increase in new business. In both scenarios, it’s about measuring where you are against the plan both to keep on track but also to check where you need to course-correct and make changes to ensure that you actually reach your goal.

4) Establish a rhythm… and stick to it.

This is something that Verne Harnish talks a lot about with growth companies, and it’s something that’s always resonated with me as a triathlete. With businesses, rhythm means setting up an effective pattern of well organised daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly and annual meetings to maintain alignment and drive accountability. I know many outstanding amateur endurance athletes that achieve the most remarkable things and they all have this quality of rhythm. They plan their time effectively and maintain momentum by a simple discipline and routine. Equally, companies that are truly on a mission for growth do the same. They put in place a discipline around meetings at all levels in the organisation, from a daily huddle on the shop-floor through to quarterly strategy sessions with the senior team. When I’m working with clients on coaching assignments, establishing an effective rhythm is often the most important part of the process. Having a set time when all parties come together, review what’s happened and agree on next steps is an essential element to success. Nothing derails forward momentum more than inconsistency, in fitness and business. Which really brings me back to my opening confession. I’ve let things slip, I know. And, believe me… it shows. But, the good news is that I have a goal that really will stretch me. At double the distance of any triathlon I’ve competed in before, the Outlaw Half will be a stretch, for sure. And I have a plan which I know I can stick to. I just need to get through Christmas first! Published Originally by David Regler on LinkedIn in 2014
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