This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab.
Ultra-marathon running is a sport that is equal parts challenging and rewarding. Runners are given the opportunity to travel to remote destinations around the world, where, over a series of days, they contend with the forces of nature and rigorous tests of physical and mental endurance. In my short history with the sport, I have trekked through the rugged terrain of Iceland, withstood the heat of the Sahara and battled injury in the Peruvian Amazon, all with one goal in mind – getting to the finish line.
Due to the extreme nature of the sport, many have wondered about how these experiences have shaped my outlook on life, and even business. Completing a 250-kilometre footrace through the Eastern Sahara and excelling in business are two different pursuits on the exterior. But if you consider what drives a successful outcome in the context of either goal, they actually share a great deal in common. The skills that help get you to the finish line of a race are equally as vital to succeeding in business.
Forty regular and three ultra-marathons later, I have come across three key learnings that have informed my approach to both running and business.
Breaking large tasks down into smaller parts
Whether you are running a marathon or implementing meaningful business change, breaking large tasks down into smaller elements can help create a set of achievable steps that move you toward the end result faster. If, at the outset of every race, I pictured the full 250 kilometres separating me from the finish line, I would effectively be setting myself up for failure. By dividing the race into a series of 25 10-kilometre runs, I am breaking off pieces I can confidently manage, one at a time.
Every professional goal, regardless of scope or scale, can be similarly reduced into a series of smaller, actionable items. In business, where our focus is on the achievement of overall outcomes rather than incremental progress, it's important not to get caught up by the degree to which each item impacts the larger goal. When fatigue or discomfort sets in during a race, my tasks become as small and seemingly insignificant as making it to the next rock. These few steps, however slight, are still moving me forward in the right direction. Adopting this attitude in business can make all the difference between seeing a goal through to the end, or abandoning it.
The power of perseverance
Experience has taught me that when faced with a challenge, most of us will give up long before we have achieved our goal. At the earliest signs of struggle, we question the probability of success rather than take stock in our ability to overcome adversity, whatever the challenge may be.
In business, you might be asked to create a process where one doesn't exist. You might need to execute a contingency plan in the wake of a crisis, or devise a strategy in response to a business need. Unease, doubt and discomfort are all necessary parts of the process. Experiences with difficulty are what ultimately separate a rudimentary task from a larger goal worthy of time and investment.
During my last race, I had the misfortune of spraining my ankle, which may have been seen as cause to give up on the remaining stretch. Instead, I chose to adapt my strategy to accommodate this newest hurdle. I taped my ankle, slowed my speed, and at times, relied on a walking stick for support. Perseverance is not about pushing yourself to the bitter end regardless of consequence, but how skilled you are at carving out a detour or taking a different approach.
Deciphering your needs from your wants
The most rewarding and beneficial decisions are often borne out of the ability to decipher a need from a want. In business, this task is made inherently more difficult by our tendency to make decisions based on the resources we believe we lack versus the resources we actually have. As a result, we make business decisions rooted in wants over needs, which are not always the things that lead us more effectively toward our goal.
Ultra-marathons, by contrast, force you to think more carefully about your needs from the start. Race organizers allow you to carry as many supplies as you deem manageable, so you must make an important decision early on about what these items will be. It is a valuable reminder that each decision carries with it a consequence, which in the case of racing, could be the addition of five or ten pounds to your back. When considering what is truly going to help you achieve a goal in the long run, thinking of needs and wants in the context of added weight helps to lessen the ambiguity of the decision-making process.
Someone once told me that ultra-marathoners must be born with a natural drive to succeed or they would never attempt a sport with such a high probability of failure. And while it's true that most people don't wake up in the morning and decide to run 100 kilometres, a propensity to take on extreme challenges is not the sole determinant of success in other areas of your life.
Achieving success can be boiled down to one thing – the ability to articulate a goal and commit to it. In racing, you have a clear start and a clear finish; progress is linear. It's much easier to take ownership of a goal when you have a definitive end point. Business goals, by contrast, are not packaged into such neatly defined timeframes, and so, committing to them can be all the more difficult.
The key to achieving any goal is to envision your own finish line and identify the smaller steps and tools that will move you toward that line. Embrace struggle as an essential component of the journey, and then commit to persevere. Humans are full of possibility. Once the proverbial finish line becomes a fixture in your mind, you will do everything in your power to cross it.
Jeff Guthrie is chief sales officer at Moneris Solutions.