Get board

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When facing a defining moment you’re either playing checkers or chess. It’s up to you to know which one before making your next move.

Checkers, chess, management, and athleticism are built on the same foundation; success belongs to the visionary strategist who knows their game inside and out, plays regularly, and isn’t afraid to sacrifice along the road to victory.

Our ability to see the future, play out all possible moves, and control the game is rewarded.

Everything we do has consequences, from the food we eat to the friends we make, our decisions at work, and the choices we make during training. I’ve heard too often, “no good deed goes unpunished,” and over time I’ve come to realize that’s not an indictment of being nice, but of not considering potential outcomes.

Sometimes accommodating in the short term comes back to bite you. Think of the employee who legitimately needs the exception to a rule. In the moment there is no reason why not to bend. Later you realize you’ve just done it for one, which puts you in a lose-lose if you ever need to enforce the bent rule. The precedent is set, you must abide or be seen as unfair.

When making decisions like this you must become the chess master who looks the novice in the eye and asks, “are you sure?” Is that the precedent you want to set? What might you give up later? Do you really want to make that move?

My decision in the 2012 Ironman Lake Placid to swim with the pack in the midst of the churning fray of violence had its consequences. When swimming Mirror Lake, there are ropes under the water defining the horizontal swim course. Buoys are connected to the rope, and if you position yourself on either side you do not have to raise your head ever to site the buoys – just follow the rope beneath you.

The price paid for this choice is that hundreds of athletes have made the same one, making your swim violent and combative. Although you’ve chosen the shortest distance, the energy you’ll spend defending yourself is the price you’ll pay.

Check.

Others choose a wider berth from the rope, opting for a smoother swim with frequent sighting of the buoys and longer distance over the exertion of battle.

These choices mirror your moves on the checker and chess boards; strategic decision making with the best information you can gather to ensure success down the road. Perhaps giving up that rook, knight, or even a calm swim will be worth it in the end. Perhaps not.

I recall a checkers moment when every one of my opponent’s pieces was aligned for a quadruple jump. It was the Pat Griskus Olympic Triathlon in 2012 on the run when I saw the move. There were four people ahead of me spread out evenly along the beautiful, shaded Connecticut road, their pace just a bit faster than mine. My path was clear as I sped up and picked off the runners one at a time. At the finish they had helped me achieve a personal best run on the course.

King me.

While both demand forethought and strategy, checkers can be a faster, more impulsive game than chess, which can be a cerebral test of wills. My advice to you is to play these games on a regular basis. Find a partner or even a computer willing to test your skills and put your brain through the paces of some epic checkers and chess battles. Pay attention to how you’re challenged to think, then bring that same thinking into the workplace and your training.

There are times when you can clear the checkerboard in one move, and times when you must ponder unseen outcomes. Train your mind with checkers and chess. When the time comes to choose, you’ll know the difference and exactly what to do.

Check mate.

Acceptance

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Acceptance can propel you to greatness or slowly sink you.

Sometimes acceptance deserves a bad rap. We can accept in a way that reduces options, lowers standards, and crushes dreams.

Perhaps you’ve heard or said this at work:

  • Oh, that’s just his way, he’ll never change.
  • We’ve done it that way forever.
  • No, we’ve already tried that and it didn’t work.
  • No one else does it that way.
  • Everyone does it this way.

Each statement another nail in the coffin of true potential.

Ask what you’ve accepted in your life. Has it resulted from your experience or have you inherited someone else’s low expectations? How has acceptance lowered your bar, placing you and your organization farther than ever from being exceptional?

Getting to the truth of these important questions will take real thought and soul searching because most of what you’re looking for is ingrained and invisible.

To begin, ask yourself when was the last time you gave the green light to an innovative idea. Or, perhaps you voted down a proposal or talked yourself out of a new direction. Or, even worse, maybe you haven’t considered a new way of approaching something in a long time. If you do a great job extinguishing, after a while you and others around you will stop creating.

Start small as you survey your workplace for ways to shake things up. Begin with a few easy wins to get others on board, perhaps the design of a lobby or set up of your office. Then move to bigger issues. Don’t be afraid to attack those historic and immovable issues; the process of raging against the machine is worth the effort.

When does acceptance work for you?

When you must shed the weight of stubbornness and fear to lighten your load as you open yourself up to new pathways.

After reading Born to Run, I was convinced I had to become a forefoot runner. I got some super thin, minimal running shoes and began a painful journey to realization that in fact I was not a forefoot runner. I’m at best a mid-foot striker, and a heavy one at that. I’m an old guy that needs a cushioned shoe – cue acceptance music.

Accepting ‘defeet’ has done several things – saved me great pain and potential injury and helped me plan my training. For example, I’ve chosen to train in a heavier version of my racing shoes, so when I get to the race I’m pulling a little less weight.

Perhaps those long distance races aren’t for you, and you’d rather get faster at shorter distances. Or, vice versa. Maybe, like me, you should accept you’re not someone who will exercise at home, so stop buying all that damn equipment. Do a personal athletic audit to determine who you are and what you truly want from your efforts. Then, break a few rules and stop at nothing to get it.

Everyday we’re surrounded by the consequences of what we’ve accepted. Look around and figure out which of those acceptances are holding you back and which have opened your door to greatness.

Bilocation

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Great managers and athletes must be in two places at one time.

As athletes and leaders we must simultaneously do what we do while gauging how we’re doing and what’s happening around us.

As a manager you must always be in and above a conversation, aware of its direction and purpose.

I’ve seen managers miss the entire point of an encounter with an employee because they merely dealt with a conversation’s face value. Is a question about who’s on the schedule really a request for time off? What does dissatisfaction sound like? How about outright rage masked as contentment? As leaders we’re challenged with deciphering sophisticated human communication codes all the time.

One key to success is to slow down when speaking with people. Let conversations be tiny oases in your day. Give them time and focus. If you’re not present during a conversation, especially a quick one, you risk sending the wrong message.

I once spoke with a person who had asked her manager how difficult it might be for anyone to get time off during a particularly busy period. Instead of asking if there was something specific behind her question, the manager went on and on about how it’s got to be all hands on deck with everyone pitching in during this critical time. The manager had no idea the woman was dealing with an issue that would have given her protected time off through FMLA to care for her sick husband. The woman left the conversation fearing she’d have to choose between her husband and her job.

As athletes we too must see the big and small picture. We need to see the road under us while gauging our body’s fuel reserves, maintain great form while rationing precious energy. I’ve completed seven Ironman Lake Placid events and each time I’ve gone out too hard on the first 56-mile bike loop. The check I write for that ride depletes my account for what ends up being a much-harder-than-necessary run.

I’m totally in the moment, but failing to plan for the big picture.

Some tips for training these abilities include:

  • Map a definitive race plan for your next training or racing day. If you traditionally go out of the box fast, ease up a little and consciously save some for a stronger finish. Change your tendencies regularly, don’t be predictable.
  • Role play with a colleague. Have them approach you with a hidden agenda, and ask three questions before you guess their goal. Keep going in sets of three until you get it right. Each time you do this, try and dissect the agenda in fewer questions. Measure your success.
  • For a week recognize when you’re in the moment and when you’re above it. Make note of this consciously and these places will become more comfortable for you.
  • Always think about digging deeper, especially during that quick conversation with someone or a seemingly mundane Wednesday evening run. These opportunities rarely advertise themselves’ it’s up to us to recognize and capitalize on them.

Being present in and above the moment are different skills, both essential to your success.

The 24-hour Rule

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Sometimes you flat-out lose.

Losing is becoming a lost art as our culture bends to meet the needs of the masses. But, every now and then in our trophies-for-everyone society, losing busts out big time.

We must be prepared.

As a manager, finding ourselves in a win\lose situation can be dangerously frequent. We tend to want to work with our employees and coworkers rather than against them, seeking common ground and shared outcomes. We can’t always collaborate, though, and that produces winners and losers.

As managers we often lose when we win because we have the power and are expected to get our way. Even in winning we lose something.

So when we find ourselves on the losing end, what then?

Enter the 24-hour rule.

For almost our entire 10-year marriage, my wife lived life with metastatic breast cancer. For that decade we faced a roller coaster life. Early on, bad news came fast and furious, flooding us with desperate moments of disbelief. Our emotions swirled like a tornado on steroids, but decisions and plans needed to be made. Life had to be lived.

Lisa first put it out there for consideration; when bad news presented itself, we were allowed 24 hours to live in the blackness of despair. We had permission to dive deep, wring our hands, get pissed off, drink, and carry on in hopelessness. In fact, there was an expectation that we would do just that.

Twenty-four hours later, it was over. Cue life.

The next phase of the process is called Living in the New Normal. It was time to get on with things and proceed down our path.

We got very good at this. The 24 hours became more brief as time went on, but there was always time spent venting before coming to grips with the New Normal.

This process has served me well since my wife’s death. Whenever I’ve been faced with a loss and rekindled the 24-hour rule I’ve found it much easier to learn from what just happened and put things into perspective for the inevitable New Normal.

When we lose we learn. We must always acknowledge the sadness behind a loss, embrace it and make it our own. Then, with new perspective and knowledge, it’s time to move on to the New Normal where we can live to fight again.

Cross training? Have a ball

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As athletes and managers we are bombarded with advice.

Runners should lift and lifters should run. Learn to deal better with difficult employees, hire the right team members every single time, and deal with a challenging boss. You must choose your cross training focus to match your primary goals to receive maximum benefits.

Enough! How about cross training as a journey of discovery and joy? What if you chose to do something different for…wait for it…fun?

The best exercise is the one you love to do, because it’s the one you’ll happily do time after time. Frankly, it might not be the one four out of five dentists prefer but if you love it you’ll live it.

Recently I’ve rediscovered the joy of tennis. After 20+ years off the court, it reentered my life like a comfort food from my youth. Everything about getting back on the court has been fun, from hitting the sweet spot on my cool new racquet to realizing that jumping for an overhead lob at the net ain’t as easy as it was when I was 15.

I’ve never seen the Tennis Training Plan for Triathletes or the “Get better at Crossfit on the Tennis Court” article, so am I wasting my time?

You tell me.

Triathlon challenges us to move forward while tennis introduces a world as vertical as it is horizontal. Yes, my ankles were killing me after the first day. Short bursts of energy vs. longer steady bouts. Precision, power, finesse, change of direction, anticipation, reaction, exhaustion.

It’s all good. The entire experience feeds my fitness, reignites my passion, and challenges me in new ways.

As leaders we have the ability to ignite fun for no particular reason. I remember a few years ago announcing a wear your favorite brown outfit day at work. Then, early that morning I went for a walk and encountered a lot of people decked out in brown. Each had a story behind their outfits.

One woman had last worn her outfit at a family member’s funeral and was happy to have an excuse to wear it for a happier occasion. We began speaking about the family member’s amazing life and through our brief discussion I learned so much about her. Some time later as I was challenged to put a small team together for a wellness initiative, I asked her to join the effort, and she flourished with the project.

In the case of a ‘brown day’ every single person who joins in is dying to tell a story. You’ve brought that to the surface by scheduling the event, so get out there and listen to the stories and connecting in a way you might not learn about tied to your computer during that next webinar.

When time is limited we must measure how we’re using it, and fun too often takes a back seat. Find those things you just flat out enjoy, or even think you might like, and cross train in a way that makes you smile.

One good thing

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Burnout is a destination none of us plugs into our GPS. Sometimes we feel it coming, sometimes we don’t.

Time and again we drive ourselves to depletion, recharge our batteries, rinse and repeat.

Training and managing demand physical and mental currency. If we’re writing personal checks from a limited account, how are we making deposits?

I schedule mine.

Prior to entering the world of human resources the best advice I received was from a long-time HR professional who told me to schedule something good every week because the challenges of the position will take their toll. Of course I didn’t follow her advice and sure enough after a while I was toast; fried by a steady stream of seemingly impossible issues.

It was then I decided to set up a small leadership team to review and retool some policies and procedures. The handpicked group clicked and our meetings were productive, interesting, and hilarious, becoming a coveted oasis for each of us.

Together we addressed the real issues of our organization and put thought into action. We were recharging our batteries while creating positive change. It became our ‘one good thing.’

In addition to my passion for triathlon, I also share a love for each of its three components. A few years ago I had heard of a cycling stage race called the Tour of the Catskills, which included a stage called the Assault on Devil’s Kitchen, promising a shot at one of the Hudson Valley’s steepest climbs. I was so in, who cared if it was only two weeks after Ironman Lake Placid.

I completed this race three times, each year postponing my post-Ironman recovery and risking serious injury in the process. Last year I collapsed on the grass behind my car after the race, body, mind, and spirit completely empty.

Afterwards, I came to my senses and reminded myself why I do this – because it’s my passion and supposed to be fun.

This year, instead of the grueling climb up Devil’s Kitchen, I scheduled an olympic triathlon one month after Ironman Lake Placid, approaching it with the exuberance of a rookie. I had a blast, enjoying Old Orchard Beach, Maine and a million laughs with my girlfriend, Kathy, and our friend Mario.

The olympic triathlon reignited everything I love about triathlon and living an active lifestyle.

Now, I’m not advocating scheduling dinner with the family to recharge your batteries. I know it seems to work, but only in a roundabout way. Avoiding true burnout involves a process of regularly being reminded what you love about what you do, not escaping what you do for what you love.

You must find your peace inside the craziness. If you have to escape to recharge your batteries outside your work environment, you’re in the wrong place.

Make a habit of reminding yourself why you do what you do and celebrate your passions by scheduling your one good thing right now.

Make fear work for you

Fear

When you last felt fear did you use the opportunity to put it to work for you?

Fear is universal and touches each of us. At least it should, because if you’re not feeling fear on a regular basis you’re not taking any chances. Real progress happens outside our comfort zone and it’s natural, even expected, to ride that wave alongside fear.

My work environment is full of change at all levels and in every crevice of my organization. This has resulted in huge doses of fear and hope, which will battle each other if not handled properly.

Times like these expose true leaders who know fear means that something is about to happen and if you don’t turn into the wave, you’ll capsize.

Leaders use fear as a motivator to fuel a mission, describing a vision and that it will take every ounce of everyone’s effort to realize the dream.

Two years ago I entered an Xterra off road triathlon. Once on my mountain bike I knew I was in unfamiliar territory, having never done as difficult a course. There were huge rock gardens (long stretches of sharp-edged rocks) to ride over at blistering speeds. Giving into fear at that moment would have tensed my body and distracted my mind, resulting for sure in a crash.

Instead, I used the opportunity to concentrate on my breathing and melted into my bike, trusting it would work with me to conquer this challenging course.

I went with it, not against it.

Early on the course, I felt a tremendous rush of adrenaline, waking the butterflies in my stomach to an excited, anticipatory state. I began to look forward to the next rock garden.

I confronted fear, tamed it, and put it to better use.

It’s a proud moment when we realize the inevitable change we’re experiencing can be directed by us with hard work and focus.

I worked at United Way during its fundraising heyday, then in an instant the bottom fell out. The top UW exec, leader of our national organization, went down for embezzling money. In an instant, our team’s instinct was to fall back, retreat, clam up, no comment, oh no!

Then we met and talked it out, eventually coming to the conclusion we needed to be overly proactive, transparent, and honest.

  • We were outraged just like everyone else.
  • We held back our own UW’s dues to the national organization until they cleaned house.
  • We opened our books for all to see that our fundraised dollars were in fact going exactly where we said they were going.
  • And, we leaned on the organizations and individuals we had helped over the years to continue to tell our story.

The fallout was bad, but not as bad as it might have been had we cowered in fear and attempted to hide under the radar. It took vision, courage, and the conversion of fear to action. Instead of waiting for the phone calls, we made them. We wrote the letters, scheduled the meetings, and put ourselves out there. Attack versus retreat.

Decide to seek out situations that instill a healthy dose of fear in you. Train yourself to recognize fear, embrace the uncertainty it brings, and convert it to a type of energy and emotion that takes you to a new place.

Consciously work with fear, and not against it, so when it surprises you you’ll be prepared to cross the rock garden fast and unscathed.

Food for thought

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You can’t hide from bad fuel.

Flashback to the Pawling triathlon, halfway through the swim and I need breakfast…badly. I’m starving. The louder my stomach growls, the more depleted my energy reserves become.

Coming into transition to the bike I search for what I know isn’t there – a morsel. Gatorade doesn’t cut it. Needless to say, not my finest moment.

I’ve experienced the side effects of inadequate and incorrect eating, like going for an afternoon run after packing in some chili or calling half a dry bagel breakfast for a half Ironman. Bad decisions lead to bad outcomes.

Triathlon has been described as ‘swim, bike, run, eat,’ the fourth discipline equal in stature. So too in life. You can’t achieve peak performance unless you fuel your engine properly.

Poor nutrition has the same effect on people whether they’re running a marathon or pulling a marathon day at the office. Irritability, distraction, and fatigue don’t discriminate. If you’re on the starting line or in a meeting room, bad eating habits limit your effectiveness.

Just watch the coffee machine between 2 and 3 pm and see the parade of wannabe nappers going in for their afternoon jolt.

I am a vegan, which means I eat a plant-based diet. I’ve tried to limit carbs, mostly because if left to my own devices I’d probably eat pasta every day. Lucky for me my girlfriend, Kathy, is also a vegan and a fantastic cook who hungrily researches nutritional information and experiments with new meals. Every time she blazes culinary trails there’s an underlying method to her madness resulting in great tasting, nutritionally rich food.

These days nutrition stands alongside religion and politics as a topic sure to spur heated debate. Diets like Paleo and veganism are achieving cult status as they lash out at the genetically modified organism (GMO) world of processed food.

My message in this post is simple – if you’re not seriously considering what you’re eating and why you’re eating it, you are selling yourself short and limiting your ability to achieve your goals. Good nutrition is a choice and there is plenty of information out there to help you decide what’s right for you.

Start slow by investigating different dishes and simple recipes. Consider how much processed food you eat and how it makes you feel and experiment with new recipes. Healthy food does not need to be boring.

In order to embark on this journey you must be able to answer the question “how do I feel?” after eating a meal. This is where your athleticism can help.

When I went vegan, my biggest concern was breakfast and how I would replace scrambled eggs and a bagel for fueling my hard training days. This took patience and experimentation until I began to find alternatives, which include pancakes, oatmeal, loaded bagels, and tofu scramble, each completely vegan and able to fuel me for peak performance.

When you try something new, assess how you feel when you exercise. Write it down, the good, the bad, and the ugly. You’ll see patterns and begin developing the right diet for you.

Here’s an idea. Take the Engine 2 Diet 28-day challenge. Use this as a jumping off point for a nutritional exploration to find which foods prepare and propel you to greatness.

Your nutrition is way too important to leave in someone else’s hands. Make the right choices by doing the research and caring enough about yourself and your performance to do what’s right for your body and brain.

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.