Leadership: It’s a Marathon Not a Sprint!

GT

Here’s first chapter of my book, I just wanted to give you a taster, let me know what you think. I have included the Introduction as well, explaining my motivation and a little bit of background to the book.

Enjoy!

Introduction

It’s been an old dream of mine, to write a book. Of course, I didn’t know where to start. And the challenge was, to say the least, a daunting one.

To write an entire book?

But do you know how to eat an elephant? Bite by bite. So, in August 2012, I decided to start with a blog. I’d write a few things, each and every day, and get a feel for it. Would I enjoy writing? Did I have something to say? And, perhaps most importantly, would anyone else actually be interested? I named my blog Leadership Principles and dedicated myself to short blurbs about leadership, writing 300-400 words on whatever subject caught my fancy.

Shortly after I started the blog, a good friend of mine began chemotherapy. Something ignited within me. This was the seventh person I knew who had recently undergone cancer treatment. One of my friends, Tanya, contacted me to let me know that her treatment was unsuccessful and that she was dismissing any further medical procedures.

I was so shocked and saddened by all of this news. I wanted to do something. But what? I’m no doctor. I’m not involved in any medical research. But could I support it? I could. I decided I’d try and raise money for a cancer charity. Then there was the question of… how?

Then it hit me; I could run a marathon.

I’d never wanted to run a marathon. In fact, one of the things I was most staunchly opposed to in my lifetime was competing in a marathon! Perhaps for that very reason, then, it occurred to me that it was probably the best thing that I could do. My friends had been plunged into circumstances they’d never wished for, and they were fighting and prevailing. The least I could do was show some solidarity.

I made my decision in early October 2012, and then I announced to my family and friends that I would be running a marathon within twelve months. Meanwhile, I’d been keeping up with my blog on leadership. As I began my marathon training, I noticed how much my two recent new endeavors—running and writing—correlated.

Much of the leadership values, tactics, and strategies which I shared with others were things which I could apply to myself during my training. Why not taste my own medicine, then? Why not practice what I preached—and prove its application beyond the business world?  The question contorted: no longer did I wonder if I could ever run a marathon; now, could I lead myself and manage myself as a runner?

I have structured the book into 26 chapters, each chapter representing one mile of the marathon. Each chapter covers a leadership principle and applies it to my marathon training and professional experience. I’ve included my progress, tracking how I constantly pushed myself to meet my expectations and the goals of my leadership strategies.

My approach to leadership is founded upon three elements: simplicity, transparency, and focus. That is exactly how I wanted to approach the marathon. That is exactly how I would struggle to prevail.

I hope you enjoy my journey!

Mile 1 – Big, Bold, Beautiful Goals

 

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” –Lao Tzu

What makes a leader? Are true leaders born or made? Are their attributes cultivated over the years, or are they innate? Regardless of how or why people become leaders, the mantle that they then take up is threaded with very specific obligations and responsibilities. One of these responsibilities is to set big, bold goals for their organizations.

But leaders must first know how to lead and challenge themselves—only then can they effectively lead and challenge others in turn. Constantly challenging ourselves is what forces us to continuously improve. As leaders, we need to challenge ourselves and our teams to strive to reach our fullest potential, and to drive the organization to meet and exceed its limits.

People are as great as you make them out to be. We need to inspire our teams to greatness; this is a major stepping-stone in the strategy to success. In particular, big, bold, beautiful goals. Small, easily-achieved goals—without the vision of big, bold goals—are by themselves neither inspiring nor rewarding, when achieved.

When I talk about big, bold goals, I’m talking about quantum leap changes in performance, such as increasing on-time delivery from 30% to over 70%, or reducing operating costs by 30-40% per year without impacting performance, or driving profitability up by 40-50%. The goals could also revolve around something new: launching a new product line, for example, or starting business in a new market. Your goals could be aspirations, such as becoming the absolute best in your field of expertise. As leaders, our job is to ignite the passion within the organization: to awaken it from its slumber.

Big, bold goals can be as intimidating as they are spectacular, but they don’t have to be scary. They may seem unachievable, but don’t let that daunt you for a second. With careful planning, focus, diligence, and commitment, even the most immense of goals can be achieved. That’s not to say that we have to aim for the impossible. What I’m implying here is that, contrary to popular belief, the improbable is absolutely possible.

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.” –John Quincy Adams.

Such goals can inspire a single person or an entire nation; the beauty of it all is in the inspiration itself. It’s also in the glory of the ensuing implementation and achievement of the goal. One of my personal favorites—big and bold on a national scale—is a goal which President John F. Kennedy announced on May 25th, 1961. In front of a special joint session of Congress, he presented a dramatic and ambitious goal: to send an American safely to the moon and back, before the end of the decade. This goal was so inspiring, in fact, that it took on a life of its own: it lived on even after JFK’s death, and the big, bold, beautiful goal was achieved in July 1969… before the end of the decade.

The symbolism attached to this incredible goal plays on a very innate and powerful desire of mankind: to keep believing, to keep achieving, and to keep trying despite all odds. Neil Armstrong’s “one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind” is not just a play on words. It is an intense and proud declaration. Even the greatest goals are achievable. Even the longest journeys have a beginning and an end.

In light of such examples, isn’t anything possible? At one company where I worked, our CEO set a goal that we would work to increase our profitability from 10% to 14% within a four-year period. This was a very big goal indeed, as it meant an increase of 40% in profitability. Most people scoffed at the idea; not everyone believed that this was possible, especially the markets. Our performance had consistently been around the 10% mark for many, many years.

Yet the average profit for companies in our sector was 14%. In fact, some companies were achieving over 20% profit. Therefore, although this was a big, bold goal for us, it wasn’t too alarming because it was clear that it was not impossible. There were others who were not only achieving it but who were exceeding it.

This is exactly what the team needed. A big, bold, inspiring goal. Having the vision and a sense of direction, we strategized towards the goal. Ultimately, yes, we did increase our profitability by 40%.

Know this: the formula for achieving any goal—no matter how difficult or seemingly inconceivable—is more or less the same. First, you must conceive the dream. With a vision in mind, you know your direction and can map out a path. And thus, it becomes a surmountable goal. The journey towards any goal is called a plan. Simplified plans allow us to make progress toward our goals on a daily basis.

Begin the journey.

Monitor/report the progress.

Make changes/adjustments as necessary in order to improve.

Don’t give up until attaining the goal.

If you can strategize the journey to the end result, then you will inspire your team so that they can believe that these big goals are achievable. That belief is the most critical cornerstone. Once you’ve succeed in inspiring your people, your team will become motivated and the goal will evolve into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re usually right.” –Henry Ford.

One of the biggest and boldest goals that I have been involved with in my career was at a UK telecoms company. Our instructions were to implement a new solution—one which would normally take 18 months— but do it in a period of just three months. It was big, bold, and pretty scary. But whatever the case, it was our goal.

The solution would require the procurement and installation of new hardware, the installation and configuration of several major software applications (such as SAP), and finally the set-up and test trial of the products which the company wanted to launch. This type of encompassing goal really requires you to challenge the way that you normally do things. You’re pushed out of your comfort zone… which is the only way you grow. The whole approach requires a fundamental change within the company; it’s not possible to simply speed up and expect to reduce the crunch time of a project from eighteen months down to three.

So in order to succeed in something like this—to overhaul and revamp your entire system of performance—you need to reevaluate everything that you do. Think about each task, each element. Is it really necessary? Is there smarter or faster way? To improve, you must challenge your old methods.

That’s exactly what we had to do.

To be honest, at the start of this project, there were many doubters. Many team members had been involved in similar projects, all of which had taken a minimum of 18 months (some of them even longer!). They’d never before conceived of tackling them in merely three months. Yet one of the most interesting aspects of this project was that once we had set this bold goal, and people had overcome the shock of what we were asked to do, the team transitioned into “solution mode”. As a matter of fact, the very thought of gloriously delivering something at record speed fired us up and forced us to consider what new ways and methods we could implement.

In order to deliver the project, we came up with a simple plan—simple in terms of understanding, that is, since this was a major undertaking. Simplification keeps us sane.

Month 1 – Install and Configure Hardware.

Month 2 – Install and Configure Software.

Month 3 – Define and Test Products.

We then split the overall project team into three teams. Each would focus on one of the key tasks above. All teams had their respective task clear with a concrete deadline. The teams evaluated the processes, judging which procedures were necessary or not. By doing this, many superfluous tasks were eliminated.

Simplification keeps us sane.

This alone, however, would not be enough to trim fifteen months from a project schedule. There were more challenges to overcome in completing the work within a shorter timeframe. Normally, we’d plan projects around our typical weekly shifts: five days of working eight hours per day. This clearly wouldn’t allow for enough time to achieve this goal. We therefore came up with aggressive plans in order to meet each deadline: organizing the teams so that they worked in non-stop shifts and including long weekend hours.

As the plan began to come together, and as we made more progress, the team could more clearly discern the possibility of success in the horizon. At the start, we monitored progress on a daily basis. We did this to ensure that we were making progress as planned, but also to provide feedback to the other teams that we were on track. It was also a great method to build everyone’s momentum. Envisioning success is an amazing motivation.

The project was very intense, there was plenty of pressure, and the team worked at an accelerated level. In the end, however, it was worth it: the project was successfully completed and delivered on schedule. As a result, the entire team enjoyed an immense sense of achievement. We had been able to deliver something that usually took 18 months within just three months!

And, in the end? Not only had the company set and succeeded at a big, bold, beautiful goal, but we’d also changed the entire company culture, honing our strategy for success. This amazing shift in mentality and focus is possible… not just for an individual… not just for an organization… but even for an entire nation.

Anything is possible.

“The pessimist complains about the wind. The optimist expects it to change. The leader adjusts the sails.” – John Maxwell.

 

Marathon Diary

Big, bold, beautiful goals don’t have to be limited to our professional lives. As a matter of fact, they aren’t meant to be. They should apply to and appear in all aspects of life. With that in mind, I’m setting a big goal for myself, personally: I’ve decided that I will run a marathon.

Nope, I’ve never done this before. My motive? To raise money for charity. My timeframe? The next 12 months. As a 52-year-old who has never run more than five miles at a time—and that was 30 years ago, mind you—this is an improbable goal for me.

But not impossible.

Not impossible because I realize that are many people older than myself—and in worse physical condition, to begin with—who had never run a marathon until the point when they took up running and then completed one! If they could do it, why can’t I? Why not anyone?

With this possibility brightening my horizon, I still have to brace myself for reality. Running a marathon is a very big challenge and it requires commitment, planning, and determination—lots of it. Of course, lots of people don’t see it that way. They mistake a difficult challenge for an insurmountable obstacle. Thus, many people have told me that my goal is foolish, that it is impossible, and that I am crazy to consider it (much less attempt it).

But I know that all big, bold, beautiful goals start the same way: create a simple plan. Then start the journey. Monitor the progress. Report and revise. And keep going till you get it straightened out. First things first, then: I need to create myself a plan! Last week, I researched on the internet and found the Virgin Beginners Marathon Training Plan, which seems reasonable… and doable. Those two characteristics are important. Trust me; seeing the potential in something is quite encouraging.

This is a 144-day training plan, which starts people off from the basics. The first week, all I have to do is run just 15 minutes per day. Even I can try and do that! Having helped me achieve those little milestones, the training plan then builds up slowly and gradually towards the ultimate aim: to successfully run a marathon on Day 144.

Coincidently, the local marathon, the Dusseldorf Marathon, held in April, is exactly 180 days away from my starting point.

So now I have my plan: 144 days of training to prepare; then, compete in the Dusseldorf Marathon in April 2013. My first run this week was a 15-minute jog. I completed 1.76 kilometers. A small step, granted.

Yet I already see the significance of this small step, because it is the first one. My goal now seems achievable, if I can just stick to the plan. With my plan in place and my progress underway, the next key element in my strategy is to monitor myself. To do so, I’ve downloaded an application called Nike plus, which runs on the iPhone. Nike plus allows me to record daily data (running distances, times, average speeds, etc.) so I can consider and compare.

Even though the goal was improbable before I started, now the goal becomes more probable by the day. Hopefully, it’ll become more tangible as the weeks go by. To be successful, I know that I need to focus on what’s important, and block out anything which detracts me from the goal. For me, it’s neither about ground-breaking speed nor record-breaking time. It’s simply about completing the distance, running 26 miles (42 km).

Most importantly, what seemed improbable, now feels possible.

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