Each year, I aim to compete in a couple of triathlons. "Compete" maybe overstates it somehow or gives the impression that I run the risk of winning. That is certainly not the case, I would say the social element of the triathlon is as important to me as the competitive element. As I approach my first race of 2022, I am reminded of several key lessons where my sporting hobby helps inform my role as a leader in business. In particular, there are three lessons which are fundamental to building a high performing team.
1. Are you training for consistency?
In order to try and better the personal bests of previous years, I this year invested in working with a professional triathlon coach. She is an incredible individual who has won various races in her age category and specialises in winning "ironman" distance races [the behemoth of triathlon]. During my first session with her, she studied my previous training and race data from Strava. The main takeaway for me was this: My training plan didn't match the events that I was taking part in. I was too focused on thrashing myself in a training session, the knock-on effect being that I would feel the fatigue in the following days, not be able to train as hard and consequently the numbers of hours spent training would overall be reduced. Instead, I was instructed to train for longer but at lower exertion levels. I was told: "You need to be training at a consistent level, week in week out, for the 16 weeks of this plan". Consistency is far more important for endurance events than sudden bursts of training followed by long periods of recovery.
For a team to be a high performing one, they need to be able to consistently perform. Bursts of brilliance are great, but ultimately pointless if they are followed by periods of underperformance later. I once worked with someone who was exactly like that - capable of real brilliance but could also be capable of underperformance. So, they were pulling others down in the post-brilliance slump days later, without even realising it. High performance takes consistent leaders.
2. High performance comes from high self esteem
Last year, my start of season and end of season happened to be the same race, owing to my lack of planning and a race schedule that had moved around several times because of Covid restrictions. I was undertrained for the event, and during the particularly hilly cycle element of my race, I was feeling like I'd rather be anywhere else. However, during this ascent, I was cheered on enthusiastically by a supporter in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. The surge of energy was pulpable. In that moment I went from wanting to throw my bike in a nearby hedge to feeling equipped to tackle the climb in front of me. It seems remarkable that such a small gesture can have such a big impact. This is something that is often overlooked, particularly as we have generally all moved to a more remote way of working. Those small encouragements that we can give each other at work can provide just the boost required to help others climb the hill that is making their legs feel heavy. Only when people feel good about themselves will they perform at their best and as leaders, we have an obligation to foster an atmosphere where that is the case.
3. You don't stop feeling the pain, you just get used to it.
As part of my new training regime, I am trying to focus more on my open-water swimming. I normally swim twice a week with a club, indoors, in a nice clean pool which has clear blue water and is at an optimum 26 degrees Celsius. Swimming in my closest river [the Thames] is an opposite experience as one could imagine. Cold, dark water with contaminants I don't even want to know about.
During my first open water swim of the season, the water temperature was 10 degrees Celsius. To put that into context, a cold plunge pool at your local health club is normally between 10-12 degrees Celsius. But this wasn't a "plunge", it was for a swim which becomes difficult since your body shuts down as you enter the water. If [like me] you aren't acclimatised to open-water swimming in relatively cold conditions, you feel your chest tightening, difficulty breathing, dizziness and extreme fatigue as your body goes into preservation mode when you enter the water. None of that helps you crack out some of your best front crawl. In fact, it makes doing anything other than just surviving seem impossible.
So, what do you do? Well, you repeat the process. Because if you do it again, your body will do the same, but probably to a lesser degree. And again. And again. Until at the point you enter the water you still feel the cold and discomfort, but your body has learned to cope with it. "It's not that you don't feel the pain, it's just that it doesn’t bother you anymore", said one of my experienced open water swimming compatriots, complete in only swimming trucks while I boast a thick wetsuit.
In the current climate with the myriad challenges facing business today, few of us are in a business or leading a business where the water is warm, clear and clean. Sometimes however, we don't do a good job of setting expectations of what life will be really like in our businesses and so we shouldn't be surprised when people go into shock and don't perform at their best. But if we set the expectation that things will be difficult and acclimatisation is the key, we are surely going to be more likely to set everyone up for success.