Free yourself, success will follow

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I believe in a holistic approach to athleticism and management. For me, the power of the mind-body connection has been as undeniable as the effectiveness of a diverse training regimen.

Too often athletes and managers embrace a known comfort zone. They run and ride the same route, hold the same meetings with agendas updated from last week, go through the same gym routine with the same weights, handle the same disciplinary issues again and again until a policy is developed to formalize their now mundane response.

If this is you, you’re losing fitness, effectiveness, and your mind is becoming stale.

Now wait George, I work hard and my mind’s engaged. That workout I do after work keeps me in shape and helps me unwind. I’m on the go all day long and hardly have enough hours to get everything done.

I’d be more impressed if I didn’t have higher expectations for you. Others can be mediocre or good, you can be great.

Never mistake activity for productivity.

So, here’s the secret; it’s the difference between a To Do list and measuring your progress. A To Do list is a treadmill that keeps turning…forever; items on the list, off the list, on, off…Measurements graph our progress on our journey from good to great, motivating us to keep going, change our course, and respond to challenges.

A few great measures are:

  • Use your favorite ride or run course as a test once a month. Perhaps you want to see if you can go faster within the same distance, or maybe you want to go a mile more. Document your progress so you can see how you’re doing and make plans to keep improving.
  • Invest in an employee satisfaction survey, or enter your workplace in a Best Places to Work competition, find the sample questionnaire and make sure you’re hitting all the bases. Measuring employee satisfaction makes it a business priority.
  • Explore new approaches to your athletic and professional life. Take risks and get outside of your comfort zone by venturing into the weight room, volunteering to chair a task force, or hiring a coach to take a look at your form. Commit to one outside-the-box effort a month, then make it a way of life.

Our minds and bodies adapt to routines, which is why we must change things up regularly. Remember, stale is stale, whether it feels like hard work or not. You’re capable of so much more.

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Own your path

own-it

As a manager and athlete there is no shortage of advice out there.

Magazines, books, podcasts, TED Talks, websites, seminars, consultants; counsel comes fast and furious. Our challenge is to keep the white noise in perspective and remember our personal style defines us.

A few months after my first triathlon I returned to Harriman State Park for another crack at the course. I had my new bike, wetsuit, triathlon shorts and shirt, the works. At the race a guy was selling cushioned socks. I picked up a pair and felt softness like never before. I knew these were the most comfortable socks in the world, so I bought them and put them away for another day.

Never try anything new on race day…never!

A few days later I took my new socks for a test drive and my feet were in heaven. My blind allegiance to the ‘never new on race day’ advice read in one of my biblical magazines postponed what would have been a joyful race day run.

‘Nothing new on race day’ remains great advice. I ran alongside a poor soul during the 2011 Ironman Lake Placid who had taken salt pills for the first time that morning because someone told her she needed the sodium replenishment. She was hoping to qualify for the World Triathlon Championship in Kona but was reduced to a slow walk/jog because the pills made her sick. Her dreams dashed, she ate from a bag of potato chips.

First time salt pills on race day = bad idea.

At best, this is advice and must be treated as such. When we blindly internalize suggestions and guidelines we become defined by something other than our instincts. This is never good. The most amazing managers and leaders regularly look at the status quo and ask why, bring common sense and personality to the table, break rules, and push boundaries.

When was the last time you heard someone say, “They followed the rules to greatness”?

Our relationship with personnel policies conjures similar questions. Too often I’ve seen people’s common sense and intuition take a back seat to a written policy. Policies are like any other guidelines or advice; some are necessary and helpful while others are outdated and divisive. You must engage your judgment – who you are at your core – to know the difference. When you reach a conclusion that things must change, as a leader and advocate for your team you must speak up and act.

Ask yourself:

  • Do your policies support or thwart your people?
  • Are vacations regularly denied?
  • Is there a general feeling of haves and have nots?
  • Are there policies that when brought up cause managers to groan, i.e. dress code and cell phone guidelines?

If so, instead of living with the mediocrity, put your stamp on some overdue change.

While you’re at it, conduct a judgment audit on yourself. For one week write down moments when your actions or those around you clash with your instincts. Review your list and ask yourself why. Are your actions – athletic and professional – rooted in your own mind and heart, or someone else’s?

You can learn from, collaborate with, and teach others, but at the end of the day you own your greatness.

The Swim

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The ultimate goal in a triathlon swim is efficiency.

Speed and power take a back seat to a well-positioned body slicing through the water. In fact, inefficient form turns power into a disadvantage. Poor body position creates too much drag and you end up swimming uphill, sapping your precious strength. Eventually you’ll finish, but you’ll face the rest of your race exhausted.

The best swimmers create little disruption in the water, aerodynamically working with the flow, not against.

When a challenging situation arises at work and you’re placed in a position to have a difficult conversation with someone, are you fighting the water or slicing through it?

Too often we fight the water by creating win/lose situations with employees. Face it, win/lose is lose/lose for a manager, because if we win, of course we did, we’re ‘The Boss.’

The key is efficiency.

There are many tools that help us swim more efficiently. Wetsuits make us buoyant, training makes us stronger, coaching points out our challenges and gives us a plan for improvement. Our most effective tools for efficiency in dealing with a challenging employee is the question, and of course, training and coaching.

You hear from someone that Dan called Fred a dumbass, so you ask Dan why he called Fred a dumbass. Putting Dan on the defensive creates the win/lose. It’s now you and Fred vs. Dan.

Instead, “Dan, why am I hearing you called Fred a dumbass?” kicks off a very different conversation.

By asking questions, you give your employee the benefit of the doubt while controlling the conversation. Control is key; once you lose it, you lose.

When you meet with your management training team, set up scenarios like the one above and do your best to have a complete question-based conversation with your challenging employee. Role play with your team to see how far you can go with your questioning on an issue.

Questions like:

  • Why am I hearing this?
  • How could this have happened?
  • Why would she say that?
  • How does this help our department?
  • How does this get us closer to our goal?
  • What do you propose we do about this?

Channel your inner Columbo to become a proficient questioner and you will become a stronger manager.

Word!

the goose

At the base of the Harriman State Park Alps I prepared to attack my first real climb at my first triathlon…

I was still dripping from the half-mile swim in Lake Sebago, the final three quarters in an all-out breaststroke which I’d pay dearly for later. After hopping on my Mongoose Hill Topper, affectionately known as The Goose (pictured above), I became increasingly frustrated every time I was passed…which was a lot. I banged The Goose into the highest gear possible and wrecked my legs on the rolling hills leading to the climb. Once I reached the Alps, I gazed up at the task ahead, down at my stalwart cycle, and charged forward on my fateful ascent.

It took everything I had to find a rhythm. After several crunching downshifts I ran out of easier gears. This cadence would kill me, but I had to finish my quest, even if it would be an inglorious ending to a brief triathlon career.

Then Mr. Triathlon appeared.

He pulled up beside me, his sleek, steely stallion slowing alongside The Goose.

“Not easy on those fat tires.”

I shook my head, managing a grimaced smile.

“First time?”

Nodding, breathing hard, still unable to speak…

“Well, there’s nothing like buying a new bike.”

Grimace.

“Stay with this and you’ll go places you never thought possible. Have a great race.”

Then, like my dreams of a podium finish, he was gone.

Perhaps it was a blip on his radar, but that brief one-sided conversation changed my life. My mindset shifted. I began thinking about buying the right bike, pursuing this sport, and more importantly staying with this climb.

I reached the top and after a hard fought series of shorter hills transitioned to the run. By then I realized why triathletes don’t do breaststroke; my legs were screaming. Immediately after crossing the finish line I began strategizing, laying out plans for total tri-immersion. I was hooked.

The business lingo for my moment with Mr. Triathlon is ‘touchpoint,” or basic human interaction. The thing about interacting is you just can’t predict what sticks. Sometimes it’s not what we expect, hope, or intend.

After almost a year interning in Albany I mapped out my career in politics. I was enamored with the process, power, and prestige. My change-the-world idealism peaked when I managed an interview with an influential member of the Senate, a graduate of my college.

When he asked about my political party, I told him I had not yet chosen. He scoffed at my indecision.

“Come back and see me when you’ve made up your mind.”

Right or wrong, I was done, my political career ended instantly. I can’t imagine he intended to extinguish my fire, but he did.

As managers and leaders, we must be aware of what we’re saying, who we’re saying it too, and how our words will echo second and third hand. Mindfulness of how our words will ripple through our team and business community is essential. I’m not advocating carefully choosing our words, since that can become artificial. I’m talking about genuine awareness.

We’re in a fish bowl as leaders, so remember:

  • Imagine how your words will sound when a comment or conversation is retold.
  • Develop an ability to be in a conversation and also looking at it from all angles.
  • Be definitive; your opinions are your reputation.
  • Your words can change someone’s life, and there are times you should set up touchpoints to do just that.
  • If your words are twisted or misunderstood, address this immediately.
  • Our touchpoints are powerful; they can build or break, inspire or deflate, create or destroy.

I regularly pull up to newbies on the race course to offer words of encouragement and hope I’ve helped influence someone to pursue an active lifestyle.

As a leader, words are your currency, spend them wisely.

Sometimes the bike finds you…

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At the onset of my athletic career I flew solo. Keeping to myself, I learned from magazines, the internet, occasional race advice, and experience. As a result I reinvented many wheels in pursuit of the perfect ride, run, or race. 

I took a fateful step by moving from the back of the peloton to the front as an indoor cycling instructor. I began leading indoor and outdoor rides, introducing people to cycling, triathlon, and running. I was giving advice, motivating, and getting a ton of inspiration in return. 

I joined Teambikeway.com, getting to know my teammates and the pros at Bikeway. I became a conduit for people’s passions while exploring my own. Instead of pursuer I was the pursued, gaining inside info, tips, and unique opportunities amidst a world of give and take. 

I authentically put myself out there and began reaping the benefits. 

During this time I found myself a few weeks into my first human resources job feeling very isolated. ‘Human’ was in my department’s title and I hadn’t seen one in a while. So I took a walk, coincidentally as first and second shift were changing. I was in the midst of fascinating conversations about what had transpired that day, where people were going after work, and what others had done prior to their shift. 

I was there again the next day and the next. Soon my tour became habit. Before I knew it, people began making appointments with me to talk about concerns, ideas, and ask questions. I learned fast that that sitting on my ass at my desk would ultimately get me nowhere…and nothing in return. 

Some tips for making this work:

  • Make certain you visit everyone. Our tendency is to gravitate to the easier visits. If you give in, you’re showing favoritism plain and simple.
  • If you’re getting out to staff in other departments, don’t neglect your own. Beware of becoming the parent who every kid in the neighborhood has a piece of, except your own.
  • Take a colleague with you from time to time; perhaps you can jumpstart their effectiveness.
  • Be genuine. This isn’t merely an exercise; it’s a meaningful encounter that will reap great benefits.
  • Be consistent. Make these tours part of your week.

As I write this, I gaze on this beautiful piece of art commonly known as a Cervelo P5-6. This newest member of my fleet has the distinction of having found me as part of the karmic balance in my world. 

Sometimes you find the bike; sometimes the bike finds you…

People vs. Pods

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Let’s talk about headphones…

Training alone? Put em on! Crank up that sweaty soundtrack. I’m a fan who acutely understands music’s powerful influence on exercise.

Add people to the equation and you lose me.

When training with others or racing, headphones are great dividers. Your ‘leave me alone’ statement resonates, even though it may be unintentional.

The advent of ‘get off your butt and train for something’ apps has been awesome. Thousands have downloaded training plans and begun a healthier journey without the intimidation of joining a group. I get that. Comes a time, though, when the crutch must be hung up, when pods bow to people.

There’s a moment in every group training session or race when a comment is appropriate, even helpful. I’m not advocating a 10K long conversation, but there’s something comforting about briefly commiserating about that upcoming hill or encouraging someone to keep going strong.

Now, let’s talk about telephones…

My first suit and tie position was in marketing with United Way of Dutchess County. Our President and CEO was Jack Durkin, a master in schmoozing the powers-that-were to benefit a slew of local non-profits. My first day produced my first meeting with Jack. He’s about to make a point when we’re interrupted by a buzz on his phone.

“Mr. Durkin, Mr. Mack is on the phone.”

“Thanks, please tell him I’ll call him back, I’m in here with George. Also, no more interruptions please.”

I was more important to Jack Durkin than the President and CEO of Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corp.

The message was loud and clear; I mattered. I was pumped, honored, and engaged.

When you’re with an employee:

  • Don’t answer the phone – don’t even look at it if it rings.
  • If you have room set up a place to sit and talk separate from your desk.
  • Eye contact, eye contact, eye contact…

When you’re with an employee there is nothing more important than that person, right there, in front of you. If anything less than a fire distracts you, you’re simply being disrespectful, even if it is unintentional.

Like headphones in a race…

Let love rule

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If you were to ask me what traits the top athletes I’ve ever known have shared, I’d say humility, warmth of spirit, and an innate ability to connect.

These people show up at races expecting to win, and if you didn’t know that you simply wouldn’t. Not until you see them cheering you across the finish line…in street clothes.

Technically, they are at the top of their games. They have competency, knowledge, and experience. However, you meet a warm, wonderful person with no pretense interested in you and your goals.

Look a little deeper and you’ll find an insatiable desire to improve, to gather knowledge, hone technique, and shave off seconds, all fueled by confidence and a burning competitive desire. At the end of the day, they have our respect, friendship, and admiration.

Now, what do we lead with as managers?

Competency, knowledge, and experience.

Warmth and personal connection too often takes a back seat, after we’ve marked our territory with corporate legitimacy.

We’ve got it backwards.

An article in the Harvard Business Review cites research illustrating the critical importance of connecting first, then leading.

We don’t connect when we establish ourselves as the experts and dominate conversation with what we know. We connect when we genuinely ask our people to talk about their favorite subject – themselves. Then, we listen, remember, and check in regularly.

A few signs you care:

  • You take the time to get to know your employees and what’s generally going on in their lives. You’re not the last to know that Jennifer is pregnant or Dan is engaged.
  • You stop by their workspace unannounced, sit down, and see how they’re doing. Hospital patients will rate their experiences more favorable when their physician pulls up a chair during their visit, regardless how much time they actually remain in the room. It makes a statement – I’m here for you.
  • Know your employee’s professional dreams and do everything you can to help them achieve these goals.

Bottom line, you can be loved and respected. Make it easy on yourself – lead with love.