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You might have heard that achieving great leadership or reaching success is a marathon instead of a sprint. But triathlons — which require you to swim, bike and run consecutively — are perhaps a more realistic analogy for the office, as teams frequently have to pivot to something new without quitting. When I participated in one of these events, I came away stronger, not only in this belief, but also in having learned three powerful new lessons to apply in any company environment.
Just keep swimming
Triathlons can be different distances, depending on your level. In the event I did, the swim was roughly a mile in total — a quarter-mile out, half of a mile across and a quarter-mile back to shore. I was fortunate to do the event with my younger brother, although we were in different age brackets. But huge waves slammed the shore. As my brother’s group left, I could see the water tumbling people back. By the time my brother and his heat had navigated out, he and the other swimmers had used most of their energy.
I struggled out against the waves. I needed to recover and regroup, so I tried floating for a bit. But the shore seemed to get further away, not closer. I got more anxious and panicked instead of calming down. I managed to navigate around the first buoy and swim the half-mile across thanks to the fact I wasn’t fighting the currents as much. But I constantly looked back to check my progress, and as I approached the last quarter-mile of the swim, I was exhausted. I knew I couldn’t swim anymore.
It was a terrifying realization. Yet, in that chaotic moment, there was also an almost ridiculous resignation. Was I going to drown? Probably. Had I lived a good life? Yeah. I was okay with sinking to the bottom and making new aquatic friends on my way to a watery grave.
But just as I started to let myself fall into the water, my foot hit something. The bottom. Beautiful, glorious Earth. And if that was the bottom, I resolved, I couldn’t just quit moving and drown. I gave the last of my strength to push myself up and give one gigantic reach. That took me about 5 feet, and then a wave pushed me another 30 feet toward shore. At that point, I was waist-deep and I could stand up and walk. I made it to shore thanks to that one stroke, composed myself, managed to move on to the bike portion of the race and ultimately finished.
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Lesson #1: Perseverance overcomes adversity
Just at the moment I was ready to give up on the swim, I discovered I was much closer to shore than I had thought. We often don’t see how close we are to security and resolution in business, either. Years after my triathlon, when I was just starting my first company, we ran into a situation where, despite having an investor on the hook, we weren’t going to make payroll. We planned a meeting to break the news to everybody. But at the last minute, we remembered that we had been selected to participate in a pitch fest. The pressure was intense because we knew that if we didn’t get the $50,000 prize, we had no other way to pay our people. It felt like we were about to drown.
Thanks to our performance — the last strong stroke we had left — we won the $50,000. But that wasn’t the end of it. As I was driving back from picking up the check in San Francisco, the investor we’d had on the hook called. They were going to give us $3 million, enough to fund us for the next year and a half. The experience reinforced what I’d learned in the water: Keep going beyond adversity, toward what you want, because if you refuse to sink, you’re probably far closer to your goal than you realize.
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Lesson #2: Looking back will only slow you down
Out in the water, looking back didn’t help me. What I should have done was keep my eyes forward to where I needed to go so I could focus and remain at ease. In the same way, leading companies today are forward-thinking. They can’t see the future, but they use a strategic combination of prescriptive analytics, diversification of income streams, development of human capital and scenario planning to prepare for what might come their way. They respond quickly with both grit and humility when something goes wrong, rather than lamenting. They also intentionally create an environment where workers can react authentically, reprioritize and put energy into positive change, which helps keep trust strong.
To consider real companies putting this into practice, first consider General Motors, which is investing heavily in electric vehicles in anticipation of the shift away from fossil fuels. Due to the pandemic, dozens of businesses, including Twitter, also are pivoting to work-from-home setups in response to worker preferences rather than insisting on a return to traditional on-site work.
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Lesson #3: Stopping to rest steals your momentum and invites panic
When I floated in the water, I initially thought it would let me catch my breath. Instead, it only amplified my tension because it gave me time to overthink and worry. Companies such as Uber have run into this same problem. By waiting to go public, Uber and many other tech businesses can appear riskier. Because they’re already larger by the time they IPO, the companies struggle to convince investors that significant growth and gain are still on the way. And when you’re not sure if investors are going to get on board with you, your team and customers both don’t know what to do.
With one more strong stroke, you might get everything you want
If you’re in a business, the question isn’t whether you’ll encounter adversity, but when. Waves of it might threaten to push you backward, where you don’t want to be, and take your breath away. You might think to yourself, in your worst exhaustion and stress, that there’s no way you can give even one more ounce of effort and that you’ll watch everything you’ve worked for die.
But in moments of discouragement, I remember that I managed to make it to the point in the water where I could touch the bottom. I found myself more capable and more secure than I had initially realized. In the same way, you can find your footing, too. Never lose the heart you need to give one last push, because the end of the race might be just one stroke away.