Lessons from a Triathlete: Begin with the End in Mind

Sara Strope by

Editor’s Note: This is part 1 of a 10 part series on how an elite athlete applies the lessons she’s learned from Triathalon training to her role as Fortune 100 marketing executive.

Five Ironmans. That’s the total number of long-distance triathlons (consisting of a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, and 26.2 mile run for a total of 140.6 miles) I’ve completed since 2008.

I usually try not to lead with that when asked about my background or my interests. But, it does set me apart. It differentiates me from the marathoners, the cycling enthusiasts, and the tough mudders. It sets me apart in my professional life too. Training for and completing an Ironman takes a different level of discipline, enthusiasm, planning, goal setting, and balance. It’s these lessons I’ve learned from Ironman and applied to my career that helped me leap into an entrepreneurial life and grow into a global marketing executive at a Fortune 100 company.

2018 will mark the tenth anniversary of my Ironman pursuits. As I debate whether I have one more race in me (IM Lake Placid one more time?), I took a few moments to reflect on what I’ve learned – and applied – to my life at work thanks to triathlon.

I’m a big believer that almost anyone can complete an Ironman, and I hope the lessons that follow can help you be successful in what you set to achieve at work. With that in mind, let’s jump right in.

Lesson 1: Begin with the end in mind

By this point in your career, you’ve most likely heard Stephen Covey’s principle “Begin with the end in mind,” from his book Seven Habits of Highly Successful People. While seemingly straightforward – it’s one worth digging into a little more – and a principle that I’ve come to regularly revisit from the time I signed up for my first Ironman race to my role on the leadership team within IBM’s Watson and Cloud Platform team.

When you think about beginning with the end in mind for your business, you’re likely thinking about some of the following:

  • How many users we’ll have when we launch our product?
  • What kind of press coverage will we get with this announcement?
  • How much we will exceed our earnings targets this quarter or year?

But, what if those “key performance indicators” were not the definition of the end?

If you go back to Stephen Covey’s principle of “Begin with the End in Mind,” you’ll see it’s not actually a concrete end he has in mind, but rather a place of being. Covey asks us to define how we want to be remembered.

I signed up for my first Ironman triathlon in 2008. I was a swimmer through high school and had picked up long distance cycling in graduate school. But, running a marathon, let alone after a 112 mile bike ride, would be a completely unprecedented challenge for me. To make it through 6 months of training (up to 20 hours a week) and the actual race day, I would have to define my end goal very clearly.

Just finish the race? Set a time goal for the swim?

It would be easy to get caught up in chatter with my training buddies about pace, time, nutrition, and gear. Would setting “crossing the finish line before the 17 hour cutoff” be enough of a goal? Was “just finishing” the end I was seeking?

A few weeks before race day, I reached out to one of my original swim coaches, who also happened to be a World Ironman triathlete finisher to see if she had any tips for me.

Bonnie said:

“My advice to first timers is: Always keep something in reserve. Enjoy every minute of the race and come across the line with a smile!! This advice has worked for everyone. It’s the athletes who go out like a bat outta hell that end up on the DNF (Did Not Finish) list…so don’t be one of those. Really get into it, talk to spectators, other athletes, officials, etc. High five people along the way…it is an awesome accomplishment, something you will savor for the rest of your life.”

The end I had in mind was not just about finishing an Ironman. I wanted to be an inclusive and appreciative athlete who built a community through training and crossed the finish line with a smile on my face.

How do you get beyond the metrics and define a sense of being within a business context? What would it look like if you changed your definitions of success to include how you want your program, team, product, or company to be remembered?

I began working with Derek Schoettle when he was the CEO of Cloudant, a small Boston-based database as a service startup. When we were acquired by IBM and Derek was tasked to create a whole new Cloud Data Services group within IBM, he set forth these guiding principles for our team:

  • We are building a business. It is ours to build.
  • We will operate as a flat, agile team.
  • We will make the rules of the game.
  • We will work in the open.
  • We will work to over-communicate whenever possible.
  • We will make mistakes.

It was clear that building a new business model and releasing multiple products would be a challenge, but beginning with the principles Derek outlined would set the framework for our team’s success.

I’m now a marketing executive at IBM and with each team I lead or at the start of each year, I set forth a few principles for my team – where I want to be and how I want to be – at the end of our year of work together.

  • Our managers will be recognized as the company’s next leaders.
  • Our content programs – from podcasts and websites – will be award winning internally and externally.
  • We will share our knowledge and our practice with our peers.
  • We will seek to understand (products, customer needs, etc.)

I encourage you to take a moment to think about what “the end” really looks like for you this quarter or this year. How will you feel when you get there? What will your team and your customers remember?

I’m certain that barely one of the dozen friend and family members cheering for me at Ironman Lake Placid in 2008 remember my final finish time or the splits between my swim, bike, and run segments – but they do remember the smile on my face and our group hug at the finish.