Three years ago, while working full-time, Anna left the corporate world to pursue her dream of becoming a professional athlete, competing around the world in Ironman triathlons. Anna now writes about her experience as a professional athlete and how her learnings can be applied to drive high performance in both individuals and teams. For further information visit: www.annarusselltriathlete.co.nz/anna-russell/
Read also: • Anna Russell: The difference between winning and succeeding • Anna Russell: What makes someone a high performer?
This is what I heard recently in the pool when we were given a particularly hard set to finish off the training session. It’s the first time I have heard someone bet against themselves. Perhaps we don’t all do it so overtly, but so many of us put limitations on ourselves in both our work and personal lives. Compare this to Frederick Van Lierde in his winner’s speech at the 2013 IRONMAN World Championships, he stated that he won because he had such a strong belief that he could do it. In sport there is very little physically that differentiates the athletes at the top level, it comes down to self-belief. As a manager, you have a responsibility to build self-belief of those in your team. Identify potential in people and develop them beyond current levels of performance. This is not always an easy task to undertake, but the following factors can support the development of a high performing environment.
• The failure is not in setting a high target and falling short, it is in not trying at all due to a fear of failure. The swim coach’s response to the athlete betting against himself was to say that he didn’t care if the times weren’t reached today, it is about pushing yourself beyond where you think you can go, becoming a better athlete. When it comes to setting team objectives it can be easy to set low objectives to ensure performance bonuses are reached, this is self-limiting and does nothing for developing high performance. Set objectives that make you feel uncomfortable, that if the team reaches it is truly an accomplishment to be proud of.
• Push beyond your limitations but realise that this takes patience. Van Lierde started triathlon in 1997 and did not win the World Championships until 2013. That is 16 years of dedication to a goal. It’s not to say that reaching your stretch objectives will take 16 years, however, commitment to the process and patience is required to ensure you achieve beyond your perceived limitations. Have milestones along the way that build confidence and keep you on track, share these visibly in the team and with key customers and stakeholders.
• Take the word ‘Can’t’ out of team vernacular and replace it with ‘Try’. With the athletes I coach, I call it ‘getting comfortable being uncomfortable’. Trying to achieve beyond your limitations is uncomfortable, but it is the only way to succeed and reach performances you never thought possible. When I raced professionally as an Ironman triathlete I read the following quote, from Theodore Roosevelt, before races: “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena … who at the best knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
So as you head back into work to start 2016, review your objectives and your team’s – are they making you uncomfortable? Or are you self-limiting your performance?
Two years ago, while working full-time, Anna left the corporate world to pursue her dream of becoming a professional athlete, competing around the world in Ironman triathlons. Anna now writes about her experience as a professional athlete and how her learnings can be applied to drive high performance in both individuals and teams. For further information visit: www.annarusselltriathlete.co.nz/anna-russell/
Read also: • Anna Russell: The difference between winning and succeeding • Anna Russell: What makes someone a high performer?
In this series of articles I will share what I learn from being a Professional Athlete and how this can be applied in the corporate world. Recently I spent two weeks in a very high-performing environment at an Ironman Triathlon training camp in Hawaii. My experience on this camp enabled me to see up close and personal what it takes to be a professional athlete, and what factors lead to high performance. This aligns closely with the work I currently do, which is focusing on people capability and developing potential into high performance. From presenting at businesses across Australia and New Zealand, I have distilled the many factors to performance into the following key four:
1. Immediate and Relevant FeedbackThe importance of feedback is prevalent in professional sport. Whether it be split times in the pool, a coach on a scooter next to you giving immediate feedback on bike technique, or looking at your pace during the run. This feedback enables you to adjust your effort, technique and approach during training so that performance can be maximised in a race situation. In a corporate environment feedback is often given too late, for example at a quarterly performs review, or is not relevant. I work with managers on providing feedback as close to the event as possible, and in a constructive way, thus giving their team the best chance of improving.
2. Do not FEAR failureFor constructive feedback to work it must take place in an environment where failure is seen as a learning opportunity, not something to be feared. A great example of this is the CEO of HCL, Vineet Nayar, who shared his 360 feedback results with the entire company, and urged his management team to as well. By sharing his vulnerabilities and shattering the belief that the CEO was perfect, he gained a huge amount of trust and respect from those in the company. In sport you cannot hide from failure because it is so black and white, you either win the race or you don’t. If you don’t, then it drives you to improve.
3. Control the ControllableI have learnt, through my experience of being a professional athlete that you cannot waste energy on those things you can’t control. A great example is the weather. Instead of putting energy into worrying about how windy it is going to be on race day, I focus on what I can control, such as wheel selection, clothing, etc. I have been working extensively with a large Dairy company on developing high performing teams. They are constantly hit by crisis driven by things they can’t control. We have worked on reducing the amount of stress related to trying to control these things and instead put that energy into such activities as scenario and risk analysis – controlling what they can control, being prepared for every eventuality.
4. Purpose and PassionI believe that this is the most important factor that drives high performance, whether it is in the sport or corporate environment. It is very hard, near impossible, to make it through the tough periods when you don’t have a purpose you are driving toward, or if you aren’t passionate about it. Ask any professional sport person what their goal or purpose is, and they will be able to tell you exactly what it is, probably in a great level of detail. It is something you visualise during those hard training sessions. The first step to this in a corporate team is coming up with a solid Vision Statement that the team can be motivated by. I make sure that this statement is on every desk, visible every day.
Garth’s view of the Mont Tremblant 70.3 World Championship. “Because it would look great in the finish line photo” I knew as soon as I had said it that I had said the wrong thing. I felt like a rash young man rather than a mature senior citizen competing in his tenth World Championship event. It was an understandable reaction. I had spent the evening before laying out my kit for the morrow. Pride of place went to the tri top that had been made for the New Zealand team. Naturally it was in the Ironman colours of black and white with red trim. Alongside that I lay my own tri shorts which were black with white and red trim. I could not do quite as well with my running shoes, black with red laces, but by wearing white socks colour coordination was achieved. The Velcro that secured the chip around my ankle was black, my hair was white, the identifying numbers on my arms were black with red outline so the only thing that clashed was my identifying wrist band. Could not do anything about its colour. As I looked into an imaginary mirror I thought Adonis, the mythical Greek god, would have been proud of me. “We cannot let you continue the race until you warm up, and it is that wet tri top that is keeping your body temperature down (34 instead of 38), why don’t you want to change it?” I was in the medical tent in the swim bike transition having been escorted there by a concerned official who no doubt thought I looked like a very old man. The external aids were there, preheated blankets and a row of heat lamps, but results were slow, time was ticking by. Despite cramp in the coolish water I had beaten the swim cut off by 10 minutes but the bike mount cut off was getting closer. They helped me take off my sodden tri top. [Fortunately I had packed a long sleeved polyprop. My wife had remonstrated with me “you can’t take that dear; it must be 15 years old and has a hole in the shoulder that needs darning”. I explained to her it was just emergency clothing so would probably never be seen.] Someone produced a cup of hot soup and I held it rather clumsily to my lips. The effect was instantaneous; it could just as well have been the elixir of the gods. The medics, seeing a bit of colour in my cheeks, took my temperature again. “You are cleared to go but you have just 3 minutes before cut off, the transition director will show you the way.” I ran with him like a puppy let off its leash. A transition area built to hold 2500 bikes means there is a lot of distance to cover but at least I had no trouble finding my bike, it was the only one still there. I went over the bike mount line with 24 seconds to spare, The race winner Javier Gomez of Spain had spent 2 mins 43 secs in transition some nine times better than my time. I think I am a pretty good cyclist or at least I have spent enough money on my bike to make me think I am a pretty good cyclist but on the day it just came down to a battle to keep on the right side of the various cut off times. At one stage the official car pulled up alongside me and said the French Canadian equivalent of “get off your arse”. I did as I was told, it was a long uphill at the time so it near exhausted me, but at least I made the next timing mat, albeit with just 12 seconds to spare. After the race they told me that even they were surprised by my reaction, they were preparing to make room in the vehicle for me and my bike. What they did not know was that there is a secret weapon inside me, fear. I had participated in the first ever ironman on that Mont Tremblant course two years earlier and had missed the bike cut off by 3 minutes. I feared that if I missed that bike cut off again I would be receiving a reality check that I did not want to receive. It worked, I might have been the last cyclist home but I made it. The race is structured so that every athlete has at least 3 hours for the half marathon run, 3 hrs is a fairly slow time. I had done 4 half marathons in preparation for this race but my times had only got down to 3 hours 7 mins. But just as when our kiwi athletes go to a world championship we expect them to pull something out of the bag on the day so I expected my body, or more accurately that part of my body that belongs to the North Shore Hospital Board, to pull something out of the bag too. The tail end charlie shared my optimism. “You can make it, you have the time but you must keep at it” The run course director however was more realistic. At the half way point she came up alongside me, introduced herself and said “you realise you are not going to make it, you can pull out now if you like”. I nodded in response but added “I would like to keep going if you don’t mind, I want to see how far I can get. I owe it to my friends at the office, it is 9 o’clock in New Zealand now and many of them will be checking my progress on their computers. And I will try to run faster.” But no one has a faster second lap at the end of an ironman and I was not about the break the rule. Looking at my watch was a depressing experience. My tail end charlie noticed this and chided “don’t look at your watch Garth, keep moving forward, you ARE going to finish”. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted the official vehicle, no doubt coming to get me. Just 50 metres short from me it stopped alongside a police car. I saw the two drivers talking so I tried to slip past as unobtrusively as I could. The police officer however saw me and gave me the biggest smile that a police officer is allowed to give whilst on duty. As I gathered later this was the conversation the two drivers had had. Police Officer “I am sorry Ma’m but the times of your road closures are well past, we will have to re open the roads ” Run Course Director “Yes I know that Officer, but that man out there really wants to finish, he is 78 years old and has come all the way from New Zealand” Police Officer “Get him to run on the footpath” Run Course Director “He can’t run on the footpaths, they are already overflowing with people supporting him, he will have to run on the road” Police Officer “You are right, I can see them. I will use my discretion and leave the road closed until he is safely home” Run Course Director “Merci Beaucoup Officer” The finish line photo above completes my story, I may not have had that black silver fern emblazoned across the outside of my chest but I was going to wear inside my head a high that would take a long time to disburse.