Why business leaders should teach their employees to think like Olympic marathoners

Valuing the journey as much as the reward.
Valuing the journey as much as the reward.
Image: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha
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People like to watch the most high-profile events of the summer Olympics because they are exciting— the heart-pounding action can change in a fraction of a second. But for business leaders, the most instructive competitions of the Olympic games don’t involve a swim relay or a gymnastics vault.

No, the events that best demonstrate what we, and all those who work for us, need to understand in the workplace are the marathons.

In fact, the Olympics are a fantastic time to reset the thinking in our offices, and to learn from the teamwork, self-discipline, and psychology of long-distance runners.

I started my career at the bottom, in sales. And as I’ve advanced professionally—ultimately co-founding a startup—the lessons I learned going door-to-door remain vital today: When we can channel the mentality of a champion marathoner, we always do better.

Know your ultimate goal

Whether it’s an annual quota, a percentage of sales growth, a revenue figure or a website traffic target, your goal must be clear. Everyone running with you—your entire company—should understand this goal in the simplest terms possible.

Just as a marathoner knows how fast he or she has run in previous competitions, your staff should know what the previous results have been. Looking to beat ourselves first is an important step toward beating competition.

Calculate action metrics

One of the biggest mistakes corporate leaders make is speaking in platitudes and broad terms without breaking the expected performance down to specifics like the key activities and the necessary pace.

This is the equivalent of setting up a bunch of runners at the start of a race and just telling them to go faster than ever. Most will take off at a pace they can’t sustain, slow down dramatically, and quit before the finish line.

On a long list of things marathoners need to know are the profile of a route, current conditions, expected obstacles, and what their time should be at each point along the way. In short, they need metrics they can follow and track as they run.

Executives should make sure every employee has the right set of metrics to go by to do their job properly. It’s the activity-based method we put into action at Pipedrive, and our executive team frequently applies the marathon analogy.

We look at each employee’s long-term goal, previous track record, and pipeline performance to see how many deals, projects or tasks succeeded, and how many fell through at different stages. Based on this, each employee knows how many deals, projects, or tasks to chase. And we boil the figures down to quarterly, monthly, weekly, or daily goals.

This way, our employees know the progress of their pipelines at any point in time. The clearer the metrics, the better job we—like marathoners—do of staying on pace.

Focus on what you can control

With action metrics in place, it’s crucial to take on the right mentality. And that starts with focusing on the one thing you can always control: your process.

Fixating on the far-away annual goal—the finish line—can trigger stress and anxiety. Instead, we suggest people ask themselves: How are their calls going? How many follow-up meetings did they have or schedule that day? How many prospects have they been able to move farther along the pipeline? And we ask similar questions to all our employees.

Consider the psychology that experts at Shape Magazine offer for running a marathon: Focusing on keeping your shoulders relaxed and being light on your feet “will physically improve the way you’re running, and that will translate into a better mindset by keeping your focus on performance factors that you can control.”

Concentrating on your activities at each moment also helps ensure that you keep work quality—and not just quantity—front-of-mind. To succeed, you need to not just be running quickly, but running well. In business, and in life, you need to make sure you’re not just keeping busy, but doing the kinds of actions that are most likely to lead to your long-term goal.

It’s about keeping your heart, not just your mind, in your work. Marathoners who love the experience find the strain more tolerable. They also do better. Similarly, sales representatives who are genuinely “happy to help” do much better than those just going through the motions. And architects who love their work are more likely to come up with great new designs.

Know your “why”

Of course, like a marathon, work can still become grueling, exhausting, and exasperating. There are times you want to give up. To power through, all employees need to know their “why.”

Sure, you want to impress your bosses, hold onto your job, and get a promotion or raise. But there’s also something more personal driving you as well. Something that keeps you going when all external motivators aren’t enough.

Maybe there’s a feeling you get from knowing you’ve become better and stronger at what you do, or a sense of accomplishment you get when you achieve a big goal. Maybe there’s something you plan to do or buy if you hit all your target metrics for the year.

Consider such motivators in detail, and pay attention to what you discover. When things get tough, the most personal “why” matters most. It’s your big prize at the end.

Get Zen

For those rare times, however, when you need to go a step further, try and find your own personal path to a Zen mindset. This means pulling out of your mind, setting aside the metrics, and simply feeling your physical state—a recommendation Shape also makes for marathoners.

Putting in a great performance is always hard. That’s why it’s important to elevate your mind, and find a good angle to help you deal with adversity.

As I’ve written before, as a salesman I developed a mantra to keep myself going—telling myself that “everyone’s buying,” even if that wasn’t true. It helped move me into a calmer, more relaxed, more focused state. With my anxiety under control I was able I to stay focused on my physical self. And that freed me to do my best work.

Why the Olympics?

Marathons take place all the time, but usually as stand-alone events. With the world’s eyes on Rio, now’s the time to highlight this difference between marathons and shorter events.

Businesses shouldn’t run like a constant series of sprints. That often leads to directionless zigzagging and a loss of focus on the big goal. And it leaves employees burned out with a long way to go.

So whether it’s through a series of conversations, a note to employees, or a set of clear, direct orders you give to managers to disseminate throughout the company, make the message clear: You’re not looking for performance bursts that last seconds. In other words, while it may sound counterintuitive, you’re not looking for employees like Michael Phelps, Simone Biles, or Usain Bolt.

Instead, you want your employees to be like Jemima Jelagat Sumgong and Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima; Training to run a marathon, running to win one, and knowing how good they were whether or not they get that gold medal.

If they do their jobs to the best of their ability in each leg of the journey, they’ll make it through that finish line.