up a marketing team and launch a net new product – Watson Data Platform – in a 6 to 8 month timeframe. Our entrepreneurial business unit had two tasks at hand – navigating and influencing our internal org and reaching and influencing our target market. As I worked tirelessly to secure resources, communicate internally and externally, and build demand for our new offering, exhaustion and self-doubt would creep in – leading me to wonder if all the efforts would be worth the fight. I couldn’t help thinking back to Ironman Maryland 2014 – my toughest Ironman race to date – and what I learned about fighting to reach a finish line. September 20, 2014 was a pleasant day on the Eastern Shore of Maryland – warm, sunny, nothing extreme. I had just crushed the 112 mile bike course, cutting 30 minutes off my previous time. With a strong running training season under my belt, this race was quickly shaping up to be my best yet. But, something happened in the first 3 miles of the 26.2 mile, 3 loop course: I didn’t have energy to run. I was nauseous. As many runners say, “the wheels came off.” I could have stepped off the run course at Ironman Maryland to join my friends spectating the race from a local pub patio. But, I stayed. I fought. I pushed through the physical pain and mental exhaustion for myself, for my friends, family, and colleagues who had supported me, for a finish line that I knew existed (albeit a painful 6 hours away), and for a story I would be proud to share. I’m not the first to write about leadership lessons for hard times (McKinsey has a great interview series), but what I put into action over the last 6 hours of my 14 hour Ironman race I’ve found can be applied to similar challenges from startups to enterprises.
Act quickly and keep experimentingDuring an Ironman race, I usually run each mile between the aid stations, then walk through the aid stations to get a little sustenance. In 2014, this method was not helping me. I didn’t have any mental or physical energy. So, I kept trying to find ways to motivate, hydrate, and trick myself into doing what I had spent 5 months training my body to do – run 26.2 miles at a 9:30/mile pace after completing a 2.4 mile swim and 26.2 mile bike ride. Here are a few methods I put into action:
- Used my Garmin watch to do a run/walk (4 min run, 1 min walk)
- When my watch battery died, I broke up the course based on location – run by the water, walk on the cobblestones, etc.
- Drink Gatorade early and often
- Alternate Gatorade + water, then Coca-Cola + water at every station
- For marketers, use Optimizely to systematically run A/B tests on your digital properties.
- Dig into the data – work with a data scientist to merge together sales history, product usage, and churn information to uncover customer insights and micro-target your next sales play or marketing campaign.
- Create an “innovation fund” for your team and give them limited dollars to try new marketing campaigns or product developments with limited strings attached.
Re-adjust your goals and communicate themWhile the goal of my first Ironman race in 2008 was to cross the finish line with a smile on my face, by 2014, I had defined time goals for each segment of the race. Not only had I trained to meet them, but my friends and family knew my intentions. Finish the 112 mile bike ride in 6 hours and 30 minutes or better. Break 5 hours, ideally hitting 4:45 on the run. When my well-paced run quickly became a slow, slogging shuffle, I immediately told my spectators that I wasn’t feeling well – and I didn’t want to give up. I would not meet my run time goal, but I would finish. I’m incredibly proud to have hit at least one of my goals for the race and to have still officially crossed the finish line. How do you communicate changes during tough times at work? Here are a few ideas:
- Communicate regularly and honestly with your team. Set up a cadence (weekly, monthly, etc) and welcome questions.
- Ask your team about their blockers and what one thing would help them get through the tough time.
- Spend time with a mentor.
- Invest in reading and self-reflection. Ben Horowitz’s “The Hard Thing About Hard Things” is a must.
- “Focus on where you are going rather than what you hope to avoid,” advises Ben Horowitz
- Be transparent. State what your goals were, what was happening, and how you altered them.