lessons from a triathlete 8

Lessons from a Triathlete: Managing through Difficult Times

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

We’ve all been there – those tipping points where you’re not sure your company will survive a significant delay in your product roadmap, losing a top customer, or missing your quarterly revenue target (again). When faced with these challenges, is it time to surrender or lean in? How do you brace yourself for a fight and lead through challenging times?

I’ve faced several challenging moments in my career – from acquisitions (GetActive to Convio (Blackbaud) in 2007), to mergers (Cleantech Group + Green Order in 2012), to bootstrapped startups (ShareICE), but my toughest moment at IBM came last year as I was tasked to build 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 experimenting

During 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

At work, we have to adjust our marketing, product, and sales plans when we’re not hitting our goals. We have to find ways, big and small, programmatic and spontaneous, to experiment and improve our outcomes, ideally getting back on track to meet those ambitious KPIs.

How could you bring a culture of experimentation into your team and company, especially when the trend lines are not going in the desired direction?

  • 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.

Whatever you do, don’t just keep shuffling down the course expecting a miraculous turn-around at mile 18.

Re-adjust your goals and communicate them

While 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.

Draft your story and practice telling it

“Sara Strope, you are an IRONMAN,” the announcer calls out as you cross the finish line of an Ironman race any time before the 17 hour cut-off. If I had walked off the course during the run at Ironman Maryland, I would not have heard that announcement. I would not be an Ironman. I would have “DNF” (Did Not Finish) listed next to my results.

Even during the lowest points on the run course, I knew that if I did not cross the finish line, my Ironman stories would be forever changed. Every time I talked about my Ironman career, I would have to say I raced 5 Ironmans, but only finished 4. I couldn’t do that. I did not want one of the great accomplishments of my life to be marked with even a hint of disappointment.

I could push through to the finish. I could retain the Ironman title – maybe not the fastest race or easiest, but still 100% completed. Earning the title of 5 time Ironman finisher was more of a prize than achieving my goal time for the run. If you take a look back at my article on “Begin with the End in Mind,” you’ll see how having a clear understanding of your direction will get you through these tough decisions. And, as Ben Horowitz says, “it’s the ability to focus and make the best move when there are no good moves.”

When you’re thinking about if you can still push through a series of tough quarters, if it’s worth continuing negotiations on an acquisition, or if you’re considering leaving what you’ve built for a new opportunity make sure you can tell your story and its outcome with confidence and pride every time. If not, don’t accept leaving. Keep pushing down the course to the finish line you want.

Be honest with yourself. If you walk away, will you ever come back? What are you leaving on the table?

If I walked away from Ironman Maryland on the run course, I would have been completely done with Ironman races and would not have ended on positive note. Can you push through the challenging times to tell a story you’re proud to share?

Sara Strope
Sara Strope
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.
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