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’!

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.

The Start

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I’ve never known anyone who exclusively races.

It’s been my pleasure to cross paths with so many wonderful people along my athletic path. We share a love of our sport and desire to do it whenever possible. Whether we’re following a training plan or letting the wind dictate the day’s direction, our active moments are cherished. 

I race to train, embracing the lifestyle, not merely a series of competitions. 

What’s the parallel in management?

Ask yourself…

  • When and how do I practice management?
  • What form does my management ‘training’ take?
  • When I do train, is it one-way communication, with me the one receiving?
  • How does my management style reflect my lifestyle?

The basic principle of improvement by practice fueled by passion applies to athlete and manager alike. 

In order to be the best manager you must practice, out loud, with others, frequently.

Athletes and managers who train with stronger colleagues progress quicker. When we surround ourselves with people whose strengths are complementary to ours, we raise the bar for everyone. 

Let’s get started:

  1. Identify a team of managers who are willing to train together. Find them at work, online, or in your circle of friends. Reach out and make this happen – people will appreciate it.
  2. Set a meeting time and discuss your idea. Get your training partners onboard.
  3. Bring to the table your own strengths and challenges. Self-reflection is key to success. Only when we know ourselves can we make a real contribution.
  4. Set personal and group goals. There should be time set aside for discussion, role playing, webinars, book discussion, etc. The possibilities are endless, which is why you need a plan for yourself and the group.

Begin at the beginning, get the group together, and you’re on your way.