Finish strong

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It all makes sense at the finish line.

The quest to cross a finish line has a life of its own. These are journeys of self-discovery, pain, joy, inspiration, defeat, and victory. When I cross a finish line everything falls into place. Exuberance, relief, pain and glory describe pieces of the feeling, but the emotional totality of crossing that line has yet to be accurately put into words.

I had slowed to a painful walk with three miles to go at my first Ironman Lake Placid, each excruciating step a reminder of the hours I hadn’t spent training. Mustering the energy to speed up to a half run took a courage and resolve I never knew I possessed.

With three miles to glory I summoned everything and jogged. The louder Mike Reilly’s voice got telling finishers they were Ironmen, the faster my legs were willing to carry me. I was drawn to the finish line like a strengthening magnet.

When I hit the Olympic Skating Oval, jam packed with hundreds of enthusiastic supporters cheering their faces off, I achieved a full stride run and finished with a flourish of high fives and a burst of energy I hadn’t felt all day.

It was miraculous, and over time I’ve come to realize that finish line is mine to tap into, forever.

How do you cross the finish line as a manager?

You may say every day ends at a finish line, or every challenge or deadline, but that’s too simplistic. Finish lines are special, never mundane. Their power lies in in a unique, deliberate struggle, one of your choosing.

As a leader, the most worthwhile finish lines are those you create. They should be limited to a doable number at any given time, written down, and mapped. Some should be personal, some involving a few people, and others involving your entire team or organization.

For example:

  • I’m getting my Master’s Degree.
  • My recruitment team and I are revamping the hiring process to make it faster and more efficient.
  • The entire management team is going for a top 10 finish in a Best Places to Work survey one year from now.

Each goal is doable, timetabled, measurable, and has a clear finish line at the end.

If you continue to raise the bar as you begin successfully crossing the finish lines you set for yourself and your team, success will become a way of life. And, make sure you always celebrate at the end, telling war stories and recounting lessons learned.

We’ll always have projects thrust upon us with deadlines and goals, but nothing is more valuable and satisfying than setting your own finish line, reaching it, then looking for another. You’ll find strength along the way you never knew you had.

Just do it

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Our obsession to dissect and understand leadership and elite fitness has gradually elevated both out of the reach to mere mortals.

Fact is, you can become a leader and attain a level of elite fitness, it just depends on how hard you’re willing to work.

Leading a group ride is a perfect example. As the point person, you must assemble a team of riders, map out your destination and route (cue sheet), set a meeting time, distribute the cue sheet, review it with everyone, answer questions, begin the ride, deal with faster and slower riders, mechanical issues, flats, and other unplanned challenges, and make sure everyone gets back in one piece. Then there’s the post-ride celebration, everything from muffins in the parking lot to microbrews in the pub.

It’s a Leadership 101 lesson.

For that glorious ride you are a leader. If you think you need to adopt someone else’s seven habits, go for it, otherwise tap in to what you’re already doing.

Finding your inner elite athlete is as easy as setting and attaining goals. Reaching your goals may never be simple, but the blueprint to get you there ain’t brain surgery.

Navigating the road to excellence takes risk, sweat, pain, and a plan. Are you willing to leave your comfort zone and take the next step?

This could mean:

  • Making unpopular decisions that are best for the overall strategic direction of your organization.
  • Pushing yourself physically in ways you never have.
  • Collecting and analyzing data on your professional and athletic progress.
  • Rearranging your time to selfishly spend some of it developing you.
  • Consistently upgrading the quality of how you’re spending your time exercising, learning, and developing your skills.

How often do we hold ourselves back? From negative self-talk to low self-esteem, fear of failure to time constraints, we have enough shackling us without imagining our goals already out of reach.

I have a friend, Liz (pictured above) who recently won first place in her age group at a 5K. Her athletic journey has been one of balancing family, friends, obligations, work, and exercising. Like all of us, she’s had successes and setbacks, and through it all she’s made time for her athletic passion and continued to push herself beyond her limits.

I imagine it wasn’t so long ago the idea that she would be wearing a first place 5K medal seemed unthinkable to her. Today, that medal motivates my amazing friend to take her fitness to even higher levels because she is driven to improve.

Drive can be misread as obsessiveness when in fact it’s healthy and necessary for progress. It can be developed over time and incorporated into everything you do with hard work and commitment.

When you make the decision to be a leader and take your athletic life to the next level look inside yourself; you’ll find all the tools you need.

The Bike

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A bike, like your team, relies on vastly different moving parts to get you to your destination.

There’s always the unknown in cycling; flats, crashes, mechanical issues, aggressive drivers, dogs, squirrels, you name it, it’s out there waiting to ruin your ride.

Consider the bike itself; so many intricate and different components relying on each other and proper maintenance to perform like an orchestra. One wrong note and you’re sidelined.

Then, there’s the infamous squeak. How many times have you heard that odd sound coming from your bike and thought it might go away. Once you get used to it, your chain has eaten your derailleur.

It’s the same with teams.

Illness, performance issues, attitudes, divorce, personality clashes, you name it, it’s out there waiting to tear your team apart. And, there’s always that squeak, a nagging issue that goes from ripple to tsunami in an instant. Like rust on steroids, ignoring the small stuff eats away at your team.

Some things to consider:

  • Learn how your bike and team works. Ask your local bike shop mechanic if you can get a hands-on rundown of the major issues you might face on the road and how you would fix them. There are also plenty of videos and articles on the subject. As for your team, dissect it the same way. List your team members along with their strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies. Assign your team members to a part of your bike and see where you’re loaded and lacking. Who is steady and strong but needs to be steered, like your wheels? Who can you lean on to help you lead, like your handlebars? Who drives the team from within and can adapt to changing inclines, like your chain ring? Who keeps you on track like your Garmin? Take a picture of your bike and place your team members appropriately alongside their part. You’ll see where you need help and where you’re strong.
  • Take care of your bike and team and you’ll be rewarded. Nothing works better than preventative maintenance. Check in with your people on a regular basis, reward their successes in meaningful, sincere ways and listen to their ideas and concerns. Take your bike in for regular check-ups, wash it regularly, and keep your chain clean.
  • Address the squeak immediately. Don’t let an issue grow out of control. Learn to recognize the early warning signals and respond immediately.
  • Replace parts and team members when necessary. A bad fit or defective part will throw everything and everyone out of whack. Spend your time leading, not fixing.
  • Let your team know how much you enjoy the ride. Your approval should be seen before it’s spoken.
  • Make certain you and everyone involved knows where you’re going and how you’re getting there. If you need to recalculate your direction, communicate.

If you’ve ever experienced that amazing ride or been part of an outstanding team, you know the unlimited potential of both; they will change your life and the world.

Who are you?

running-alone

You are what you do when no one’s watching.

On the Ironman Lake Placid run course, there are ample opportunities to slow down, walk, rest, even drop out of the race. At mile 13.1 there’s a fork in the road. To the right, the finish line and Mike Reilly’s comforting voice audibly excited as he gloriously anoints faster finishers ‘Ironmen.’ To the left, a second, painful 13.1-mile loop.

In each of my seven trips to Lake Placid, this moment falsely presents itself as a choice. My inner voice always suggests ending the insanity. It tells me my family and friends would understand, that this was crazy to try again anyway. Stop, turn right, give it up…

Of course stopping is never a real consideration. I always have and always will turn left at the halfway point and finish the race.

Then there are those moments alone in the trenches on Riverside Drive fighting the temptation to back off, slow down, take it easy; moments that define your Ironman journey.

In the office there are as many opportunities to cut corners and take the easy path.

Perhaps you’ve heard trouble brewing but decided to let it go. That phone call you don’t want to return, that paperwork you half-read then signed, the article you didn’t read, the performance appraisal you threw together at the last minute, the snap decision made in the midst of a crises.

Self awareness is key to overcoming this disease. Once we admit we’re corner cutters we can focus on a concerted effort to do the distances and tasks necessary to fulfill our destinies. Strengthening our ability to be honest and encouraging to ourselves is worth the effort.

Knowing yourself is key to success, allowing you to be your biggest critic and fan.

Opportunities to train look like this:

  • The next time you exercise, commit to surprising yourself with something extra, whether it be during or after your workout. Push yourself harder, go further, dig deeper than ever before. Make the commitment, then follow through.
  • At work, commit to resolving the next issue that arises by the end of the day. Let it happen randomly, consider it, reconsider it, then make a decision you’re ready to defend.
  • Sign up for a race that will push you harder than ever before. Put it on your calendar, then raise the bar on your training even if it’s just a little. Set yourself up for success.
  • The next time you come across a snap decision opportunity, put the brakes on. Tell those involved you really would like to sleep on it. Quickly write down your gut decision, then consider the alternatives later on. Give it the night, then see if you’re decision was altered in any way over time.
  • Recognize those moments when you’re faced with a choice that shouldn’t be a choice. This is when your self awareness needs to kick in big time.

When you begin doing the little things right, when no one’s watching, the larger issues will fall in line.

Remember, whether training, racing, or leading, someone is always watching…you.

Don’t stop

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I set out Sunday, July 28th on my seventh Ironman Lake Placid journey, to challenges known and unknown.

One goal was to find inspiration for a blog post, and in perfect form Ironman came through for me.

I was on mile eight of the marathon when I looked up and saw one of many inspirational posters. These stirring signs dot the landscape, evidence that loved ones were here the day before ensuring we would have reason to smile another mile.

This poster in particular had not survived a passing rain shower well, its upper corners folded toward the middle. Being a classic rock aficionado, I knew all too well the simple words placed on the placard. However, the sagging corners blocked several letters, sending an adjusted message:

on

to

Believin’

I vowed not to disappoint Journey, but was struck by exactly what I was believin’ in. It brought up two questions: How does what we do as athletes and managers reflect what we believe in and how do we communicate these beliefs to others?

I believe in myself, that I can overcome anything. I believe there is truth in endurance, that these journeys to push the boundaries of my physical, mental, and spiritual limits enrich and teach me, making me a wiser, better person.

I’ve spread this message in many ways throughout my athletic career, and am proud to say in doing so have shared and learned so much.

I believe in inspiring people to follow their path, whatever their direction may be. I believe in the power of listening and guiding people along their way as opposed to forcing and pushing.

This has always been evidenced in my approach to colleagues. If someone truly does not want to be on the team, it’s my job to make their transition easy. If someone wants to move up the ranks, ditto.

I communicate this by action and in my management training sessions. It’s a style that brings the best out in people, including myself.

On occasion when my belief system and expected actions collide, it’s time to pause and take a look at what the problem may be. Does the system need to be tweaked, or have I failed to see another angle?

Take a moment to write down your core beliefs. Then, take a look at your athletic and professional life and see how everything intersects, parallels, or diverges. Are you moving in the right direction?

Ultimately, we’re more fulfilled and happy when we live one life and don’t need to be the personal us, professional us, social us, parental us, etc.

Thanks for the bent sign, Ironman – I’m on to believin’!

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.

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…