Think Like An Athlete to Grow Your Business

Robin Wessel, Director, New Business Development
Xerox Indirect Channel Business Group

Working for a high tech corporation in the IT industry is one of the most competitive markets on the planet. Technology changes rapidly, competition is fierce and often unpredictable, and especially in this era, resources and time are always at a premium. This is probably not unlike what you are faced with whether you work for a multi-national corporation, a small business, or from your home. 

In the spare time I have split between family and work, I’m an avid competitive cyclist. I like to brag that I raced against Lance Armstrong. What I fail to mention is that it was over 20 years ago, he was just starting out, and I was soundly beaten. Despite this, I enjoy nothing more than riding for hundreds of miles a week chasing that elusive victory against competitors that dedicate three times the amount of hours a week training and focus only on eating, sleeping, riding, and racing.  

I can’t help but compare the lessons learned as an endurance athlete to helping us grow and compete in business. Perhaps this is why so many former professional athletes write books and join the lecture circuit. Ok, so I’m not a professional athlete. I’m just a regular guy with a family and job trying to mix it up with the region’s best. So from that perspective, here are some insights from the athletic world I have collected over the years that have helped me in the business world. 

Benchmark your performance. There is nothing more depressing than finding out your lap times for a specific distance are 30% slower than a tour pro, or in business realizing that you have 3% market share in a particular segment. However knowing in a quantifiable way is critical to finding that small but uber important edge. Being able to repeatedly benchmark these metrics will give you a true reference to not only your current but potential capability. This is critical not only in athletics but also in business. For example, it would be difficult to predict my performance in an upcoming race by what place I finished in a previous race. The course, the distance, and the competition would all be different.  Instead, if I measure my performance against a metric like speed over various distances and grades, I would be able to better predict my performance for the new course.

Master your strengths, protect your weaknesses. Very few of us are gifted in every facet of sport. Your business is probably the same way. You are much better than your competition at some things and average in others.  A coach once told me, that at best I would only be able to take what I am average at and make it slightly above average. In the world of sport and business, being slightly above average typically equals not making the podium or losing the sale.  There are also things you do really well. These traits have the potential to be world class and when applied in the right event (or market segment) can deliver the podium finishes we all want.  Given there are only 24 hours in a day (and in my case only about one hour a day to train), one has to pick were one spends the time (or in the case of business money). Focus on what you do best.

Choose the right goals. The right measurable and repeatable metrics combined with a sound understanding of your strengths and weaknesses paves the way to setting the right goals and predicting your ability to perform. Often, we select as our goal winning a specific race, or in the case of business, winning a specific account. It’s ok to have these goals as the end result, but to achieve them you need to set objectives that can effectively predict the outcome. The things you can predict by measurement are the specific performance elements that make up a competition or a business opportunity.

One of my most important races last year was the National Criterium Championships, a fast race on a downtown course. I had no way of predicting who I would be racing against, but I did know the relative caliber of the competition, the course, and how I would approach the race. Using metrics based on performances from prior races against similar competition I set very specific goals for myself. Rather than simply saying my goal was to get into the top three, I set a number of specific performance objectives based on my strengths and weaknesses like being able to sprint for a certain amount of time without slowing down, or riding for three minutes straight at a certain power level. These paired with a specific training regimen acted as predictors to reaching my performance goals. Based on this “pyramid” of goals I would have the right level of fitness to reach the podium. Applying this to business is very similar, suppose you want to reach a certain amount of sales growth for a new product. You know from prior benchmarks that you get one sale for every five appointments and you get one appointment for every 20 calls you make, etc. By setting a pyramid of goals based on known benchmarks, you can confidently achieve your sales target.

I like to think if I had the knowledge and discipline I have now during that race with Lance Armstrong 20 years ago, the outcome may have been a bit different. OK, I’m no Lance Armstrong, but I may have made him work a little bit harder. We’d like to hear how you improve your game in the board room or office so share them below in the comments. 

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