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.

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.

People vs. Pods

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Let’s talk about headphones…

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

Add people to the equation and you lose me.

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

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

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

Now, let’s talk about telephones…

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

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

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

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

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

When you’re with an employee:

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

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

Like headphones in a race…

Let love rule

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

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

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

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

Now, what do we lead with as managers?

Competency, knowledge, and experience.

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

We’ve got it backwards.

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

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

A few signs you care:

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

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