You can’t teach nice

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If you haven’t surrounded yourself with people who inspire you, don’t be surprised if you’re not inspired.

Over the years job requirements have gotten laser specific. Gone are the days of the good natured utility player; someone who can do a little of everything and be reassigned to your organization’s greatest need. In our review of resumes we’ve created a cold science of matching skills to skills. When those rare hits are found, we too often end our search based more on qualifications than anything else.

I fear we’ve made it easier to create teams of uninspiring, humorless people, resulting in uninspiring, humorless teams.

How then do we screen for humor and inspiration?

The other night I showed up at Crossfit Mid Hudson a little early and watched the class before mine finish their workout of the day (WOD.) A WOD is a workout measured in time, repetitions, or rounds that you complete with other people who are also competing for the best time or most reps against their own best times and everyone else in the room, which is affectionately referred to as the Box.

A friend was struggling through the paces of the day’s tough WOD when the magic took over. At every struggled step on her journey someone encouraged her to ‘stay tough,’ ‘keep going,’ ‘be strong.’ She completed the WOD and collapsed to the floor, only to be congratulated by the same people she was competing against seconds earlier.

Under the right circumstances the Crossfit model works wonders. Although each person’s time is recorded as a solo exercise, there is a strong sense of teamwork, encouragement, and inspiration. Everything in the WOD is designed to make you give up, but the fire inside you fanned by everyone around you makes you finish.

In the case of Crossfit, you don’t always get a chance to choose who’s surrounding you. However, at work and most other training opportunities you do.

How have you surrounded yourself with the right people?

In the case of your team you absolutely must have a legal way of screening for inspiration and humor. Have you ever asked these questions?

  • Tell me what inspires you.
  • How have you inspired others, specifically?
  • Tell me about a time when you were inspired to exceed a goal.
  • If Hollywood made a movie about your life, who would you want to play you? Why?
  • If you were a car, what would you be? Why?
  • If you had one year with no financial obligations what would you do with the time?

Curve balls in an interview are necessary just to see this prospective team member’s reaction. And, you can learn so much about someone as they reveal the answers to these questions. Remember, you’re hiring for your team, a coveted membership to an elite group. Not just anyone deserves to be a member, and you can’t teach nice.

This is true for our training partners. There should be a give and take that inspires and challenges everyone involved, whether it’s a large group or one other person. Your training can be serious, but never too serious.

Your time and effort are worth more than you could ever quantify. Since we’re surrounded by people in so much of what we do, make sure the criteria for joining Team You is as high as it can be, and that you are screening for the right qualities.

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.

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.