Lessons from a Triathlete: Celebrate the Small Stuff

April 6, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the ninth article in a 10 part series on how an elite athlete applies the lessons she’s learned from Triathlon training to her role as a Fortune 100 marketing executive. Read the rest of this series here.

When you’re on drumbeat to reach 1 million active users or acquire $2 billion in revenue, you can become so focused on that one KPI that you might miss significant milestones along the way – and wear out your team.

How can you take a moment to celebrate incremental accomplishments for your business and your team?

I’ve talked before about how to fuel yourself and your team and ways to improve self-motivation, but recognizing and rewarding accomplishments is just one more way to keep yourself and your team on track to hit the finish line.

Set Benchmarks

During Ironman training, I’ll race a fewer shorter distance triathlons and running races to set a benchmark for my fitness. Racing these shorter distances gives me a sense of accomplishment when the final race is still 4 or 6 months away.

When I started my first Ironman training, I added a Half-Ironman race to the calendar. The Black Bear Triathlon in Pennsylvania was one of the most grueling races I’ve ever done – the bike ride was one never ending rolling hill and the run included a slog around a parking lot and out and back on a dam – with the sun beating down on you. It was not pretty. I was not fast. I did not feel well. But, I got it done. I finished my first half-Ironman. And by completing that milestone, I knew that even though it might take me twice the time of the half Ironman to finish the full Ironman a month later, I would reach the finish line of that race too.

What kind of benchmarks could you set for your business to communicate progress?

  • Set up an internal blog to share milestones in product development – especially the “behind the scenes” functional requirements that customers might not usually see.
  • Soft launch a new marketing campaign or the MVP of a product at a smaller industry event before your primary launch event. It’s a great way to get customer feedback too!
  • Create a beta program for your new product and set a goal of the number of customers you want to engage, what that participation should look like, and how many should be willing to be a reference for the product by launch.

Publish your accomplishments

Thanks to fitness apps like Strava and Runkeeper, it’s easy to share my workout results with friends.  In fact, many triathletes, runners, and cyclists now say, “if it’s not on Strava, it didn’t happen.” When I post an update, the kudos come flying in to mark another successful training day completed.

In 2017, we were working to launch several new data science and data management tools at IBM. To keep the drumbeat going across multiple functional areas – from engineering to marketing – we published weekly and monthly recaps. Even better, the General Manager of our business released a regular video and blog that highlighted the team’s accomplishments.

On their own, most of the items on our weekly and monthly lists, just like a log of workouts, are not so noteworthy, but they do mark milestones in our development and the compilation of small items demonstrates the overall direction we’re heading.

Think about whether the accomplishments should be communicated internally, with key user groups or customer communities, or externally.

Recognize and Reward

Did your team pull an all nighter to launch a beta? Did a customer success manager go above and beyond to make one beta user successful? Finding those moments to acknowledge, recognize, and reward your team members along the way will help reach that final goal with a team that’s committed and content.

After my first Ironman, my local triathlon club gave all the first time finishers engraved pint glasses. A friend of mine, who knew how much time I was spending preparing meals during training, bought me a new set of knives for my kitchen. And, at times, I would reward myself with a new set of running shoes or a coveted cycling jersey once I completed a milestone in my training.

How can you celebrate those small, but crucial accomplishments that will lead you to the end goal?

  • Host monthly cross-team meetings (company wide for startups, division-wide for larger orgs) and ask managers to nominate one outstanding team member and his or her accomplishment and its impact on the business
  • As a leader, take a moment to send a personal note (handwritten is the best) to a team member. Try to take a moment to do this at least once a month or quarter.
  • Use channels like Slack to give and individual credit to a wide audience.
  • Consider small awards – a gift card, a conference registration, a bonus, etc. (and survey team members about what they would find meaningful).

Why milestones matter

Celebrating incremental accomplishments helps maintain motivation and focus. It will also help you tweak and improve along the way. Thanks to the Blackbear half-Ironman race, I knew I would need to consume more fluids on the bike ride during Ironman.

Celebrating small things also helps you figure out trend lines. With all the miles I’ve logged running, I can now look back at my fastest 5k, 10k and half marathon to figure out when and how I was most successful – was I logging more miles or putting in more speed work on the treadmill? Doing more strength training? Running in cold weather more? Figuring out the nuances and trends in the small achievements will likely give you insight in how to reach your end goal.

How do you take time to recognize and celebrate your milestones and incremental accomplishments?

Director, Marketing

Sara is an experienced marketing and communications executive with expertise in product marketing and demand generation. She is currently the Director of Marketing for IBM’s Watson Data Platform. Over the past 15 years, Sara has worked with some of the largest technology companies, fastest growing startups, and most influential nonprofits to launch interactive campaigns, introduce new products to market, increase customer retention, and exceed company goals. Prior to IBM, Sara worked with startups like Cloudant, Convio, and Cleantech Group. Sara completed her undergraduate and graduate degrees at Washington University in St. Louis. Outside of work, she is an active triathlete and volunteer with organ donation groups. She also serves on the Massachusetts General Hospital Patient and Family Advisory Council.