Not the first etap makes the winner of the maraton
It is often said that sport can teach you a lot about business. What is usually implied is that sport gives you endurance and discipline in everyday life. Through a personal example, I would now show that it can be much more than that: sport is also very useful in acquiring the right strategic thinking.
I have been pursuing various sports for thirty years, mostly volleyball. When I had to stop it for a while, I took up running and did it a little more seriously than earlier. I liked it so much that I organized a small running club called Running Sushi in the neighborhood where I live. We've even created our own Viber group, which undoubtedly demonstrates the seriousness of the thing in today's digital world…
In the spring of 2018, two of us from the club entered a local amateur competition in Budapest (Óbudai Futófesztivál), just to see how we perform against other runners. We have not set a particular goal, just to cover the 10.5 kilometer distance at a good pace. But I have a competitive attitude: if I find myself in a competition I’ll try to outperform myself. I ran the distance in 54 minutes, which is quite good for an amateur; this time was enough for the 13th place.
This year, however, I couldn't train enough, so my condition was worse. However, not only did I enter the race again, but I decided to top last year's results. Higher expectations, poorer preparations - what could go wrong, right? I thought I'll pull it off with my ego, as I used to try to pass electricity exams at the university with my IQ rather than by learning.
Does the situation look and feel familiar? Like many business executives, I also believed that past successes (or even just one success in the past) make me competitive in the present as well. I’d like to mention, without stirring up generational animosities, that this way of thinking is particularly characteristic of CEOs in their 50s and 60s. They had remarkable successes in the past, but now they are over their prime time; as the saying goes, they have a huge past ahead of them. However, they are still confident that their vast experience will help them to get through all current and future difficulties - they don't have to train very hard to overcome new hurdles.
But back to running. As IQ was not always enough at the university, ego didn’t make wonders in the race. We had to run three laps on Hajógyári Island, and after the second lap I was sure that it wasn't my day. You can show off before the start but when you see how fast the others are running by you, the moment of truth comes right away. What can you do in this situation? You can try to motivate yourself. I tried to motivate myself with various thoughts -- for example, that I had promised my children a good result --, but the little devil in me was constantly whispering in my ears. It's just an amateur race, what does it matter if you make it or not? If you don't enjoy it, why are you running? However, my ego and my dedication was big enough not to give up.
Then I got some help. I came along another runner who ran the same distance, but as a member of a marathon relay. I picked up her pace, and exchanged a few words so I managed to divert my thoughts from my distress. Finally, I achieved my goal: I topped last year’s results by almost five minutes, making it into the sixth place. So, despite the inadequate training and preparations, the prior odds and the temporary setback during the race, I reached my goal -- I managed to overcome myself, not just my competitors.
But I had to face the consequences soon enough. That I could hardly walk all weekend and had to endure a one-week muscle pain and tendonitis was one thing. However, my volleyball team – where I am a key player -- had a game the very next Monday. I felt that something was wrong right during the warm-up and I had to be substituted at half-time into the very first set. And my team – maybe partly because of me – lost the game.
We are constantly competing in business as well. The big question, however, that the CEOs usually fail to ask of themselves is how many competitions they want to enter within a given period and what results they want to achieve? We can put all our energy and resources into the current competition, but this is exactly how we endanger our future - we won’t have enough stamina for the next lap, for the next round. Success is always satisfying, but you should not forget what price you have to pay for it. You will not win the marathon on the first kilometer, the Formula-1 race in the first lap, the boxing match or the championship in the first round. At the end of the day the winner will be the one who was able to deliver a steady performance throughout the competition and has enough endurance even at the end of the race.
Don’t get me wrong, I do not imply that we should get rid of the quarterly or annual KPIs and should focus only on the long-term goals and strategy. There should be a long-term (in today’s business climate, it means 2-3 years) goal – e.g. how much revenue we want to generate in a particular market segment. The intermediate goals must then be set in accordance with the long-term strategy. You will never reach the desired goal if you fix your sight only on the next milestone and go against the long-term goal just to deliver your quarterly numbers. But it will make no good either, if you let slip the present out of your hand just because your eyes are set on the distant future. We have to find out what are going to do differently tomorrow, how we adjust the machinery of the company to deliver the numbers at the end of the next quarter, at the end of the year and in three years’ time.
And you should enter the competition thoroughly prepared, after a lot of training and calculating the entire distance. How will it affect me if I want to win this lap, this round at all costs? Do I have to exceed last year’s results by six minutes? Won’t two minutes be just as good? What is more important? Win this one-time race or stay fit and help the volleyball team to win the series at the end of the year?
The answer is not simple and everyone has to find it for themselves. It helps a lot if the decisions are not made by one person, and he or she has a team to rely on. The team can motivate, encourage the decision maker if they let themselves down; but it can also hold them back if they are carried away in the heat of the race. Rational thinking, a clear mind is extremely important before the race, during the race and even after the race, while relaxing and preparing for the next competition. Set the target, decide what's really important, find out how much you can do in the short and long term - and then you will have a much better chance for a good position or even winning.