If you follow or are friends with me on social media will know that I decided this year to train for a triathlon. You can read about that here. Most days I feel a little crazy for attempting it. I have never been athletic or sporty so it has been quite a confronting experience. It’s confronting from the equipment you need, to trying something new, to looking silly trying something new to being really unfit to having to get out of bed early a lot, to thinking you might vomit while training to being too fat, to having to wear lycra and so on…..
But it has struck me that there are parallels with maintaining a career. There are so many hard and confronting things you go through, don’t you think?
1. You have to move towards the tension
You see that there? That’s just some fancy bullshit corporate words that mean you have to do the stuff you don’t want to do. The stuff that’s hard or painful. For me at work? I have spent about four years cost cutting. That means letting people go, making their roles redundant and having tough conversations. I’m actually really good at terminating employment now but I’m not proud of it, and I still don’t like it.
For me in triathlon training? That’s running. For me, running is hard. My swimming coach says that’s because I’m fat. Which is not helpful. And also obvious. But not helpful.
The training for running is tough. I have to really have chats to myself to get out in the Singapore heat and run. Every Tuesday night I got to track to run and do intervals with a group of about 30 other people. Every Tuesday during the day I have an internal conversation with myself, which goes like this:
I don’t want to go to training - Just go to training and do the warm up. I guess I could do the warm up and then if I want to stop I’ll stop. But I don’t want to go. I want to sit on the lounge and drink wine. Come on. You know if you go it will be ok. I don’t want to go. It’s always hell. OK I’ll go but if it’s too hard I will stop. OK.
So I go every Tuesday night and I do the whole session even though it’s hell. And I’m getting better. It’s not getting easier but I’m getting faster. And I still don’t like going.
I have also started going out on the weekends and trying to run 5km without stopping. I find this harder than Tuesday night track sessions. At Tuesday night track sessions you get to stop and breathe and there are other people to talk to about how hard Tuesday night track session is. But I need to run without stopping because I have done two small triathlons now and the run is excruciating and I had to keep stopping. So I’m trying to move towards the tension and the stuff I’m not good at, and do more running training. I don’t think I’ll ever love it, or enjoy it but I should get better at running.
2. Changing Habits is Hard
I have been working with an Executive who genuinely wants to be a better leader. He participated in a 360 feedback survey (which are generally pretty confronting) and then he decided he wanted more feedback from his team so he asked to complete another survey. And then he decided he wanted face-to-face feedback from each of them in a meeting. I helped facilitate the feedback from his team and I was feeling nervous even though it wasn’t about me! The senior leader did a great job listening to the constructive but confronting feedback and asked good questions to really understand what his team was telling him. Was probably one of the most courageous actions I have seen in a long time in the corporate world.
So while he understood what they were telling him, he didn’t know how to change the habits and behaviours he had built up over a long time. My swimming journey has been a bit the same. I engaged the swimming coach that comes to our condo to teach my kids to swim. He has them swimming really well and also does triathlons. I thought he would be good to help me with my technique.
The next week I’m in the pool for my first lesson. It goes like this: “You are swimming like a snake. All over the pool. Your kick is not good and you are sinking. Your breathing is bad and you aren’t bringing your elbows out of the water enough. You should only breathe on one side. You don’t have any endurance. Apart from that your swimming is good.”
Sigh. I thought I was a good ok swimmer, . I just wasn’t fit. Turns out I had lots of bad habits and it didn’t matter how many times the coach pointed them out, it was really hard to change them. One week, after telling me for the 30th time, that my left arm was a disaster; crossing over my body, not lifting my elbow out of the water and doing something weird with my left hand, I kinda lost it! It went something along the lines of “Yes I know all this!! You keep telling me what I’m doing wrong! I KNOW!!! What I don’t know is how to change it and you keep telling me I’m doing it wrong, is not helping!! You need to tell me how to fix to fix it!!” I definitely felt some sympathy for the executive I was trying to help with his leadership skills. I have recounted this story to him and I focus my coaching on practical things he can do.
Luckily my swimming technique is improving and my fitness is getting better. Actually it’s not luck but hard work.
3. You will get better at the things you are shit at
I have always thought I’m not very good at spreadsheets. I’m not good at formulas beyond the basic ones. I can’t really create a pivot table, and if I could I wouldn’t know what to do with it. And macros? What’s a macro? Anyone?
But then I had a work period a few years ago where I had to align bonus plans across APAC with a clearly defined bonus structure. I worked in spreadsheets (some quite complex) to understand how bonuses were paid in various countries and how we would need to amend each employee’s pay to implement new plans so overall they weren’t disadvantaged. I felt like I was buried in spreadsheets and data. For months.
But you know what? I got better at spreadsheets and using data for decision making. I got good at it to the point that the head of compensation said to me that I could do her job. I try to keep that a bit of a secret because even though I have gotten pretty good at this type of work it’s not something I enjoy doing all the time.
So in the insanity of triathlon training what am I getting better at? Well pretty much everything but the biggest improvements are in running and swimming. I’m not showing off or having a big head because comparably I’m not good at these things at all. At track running on Tuesday nights I’m still the slowest most times and at swimming torture squad on Monday nights I’m mostly the slowest also. BUT I get better every time I try. Like every time. The base is low but making progress is motivating.
4. People will help you
So in corporate life sometimes this doesn’t happen. Some organisations have stripped out so much cost that there is no “redundancy” left. Practically this means there are not enough people to do all the things that organisations want done. There is not enough money to do things properly and in some cases this forces people or makes them forget to be human. In organisations being human (to me) means saying hello to your team in the mornings, talking to people face-to-face or on the phone, instead of emailing. Being conscious not to exclude people and if a tough business decision is made that affects people, we try to implement the decisions with the people affected in mind. In many organisations today, especially those under pressure, people are scared and frightened. Frighted they will lose their job or that others will get the promotion over themselves or by promoting a diverse and inclusive workforce they will somehow lose out. There are defensive behaviours that don’t help anyone.
I haven’t seen this in triathlons yet (or maybe I’m blind to it or not a threat to others because I’m too slow!). So far, training for and competing in triathlons is what I wish organisations would be. Some of the things I have experienced so far (which are surprising and delightful):
- When struggling in my first track running sessions the coaches telling me the things I was doing well, which made me come back week after week.
- Friends (mainly women) inviting me on bike rides when I wasn’t fast enough to do the bigger group rides (still not really fast enough but getting there)
- Other triathletes being no-bars friendly and encouraging and welcoming and supportive.
- Other triathletes telling you your race times were amazing! (when you are at the bottom of the field) and it makes you feel good anyway.
- Coaches giving you little tips that just help. Tips to help you sleep after a big running session. Tips to help you not become overheated before a swim. Reminding you that you won’t improve overnight! Reminding you that consistency in training is important. That sort of stuff.
So people keep coming up to me and saying do you love it? Do I love doing triathlons? My immediate reaction is to perhaps smack these people in the forehead but usually I just say ummm no I don’t think so. Or maybe not yet. Most of the time if feels like a form of torture.
I do have small moments when I have done something slightly better (like “gliding” when swimming) or running a bit faster than the last time, or my pants fitting a bit better and my skin being a bit clearer or learning a new way to ride my bike, and then I feel a tiny sense of progress. And these are the things we look for in our career don’t we? We want to feel like we are moving forward and doing better than the day before.