Lessons for Sport from Business

First published in The Huffington Post 24 September 2015

For a 47 year old business man who spends his life working with companies around the world and a hobby of participating in ultra distance cycling events, it’s been one hell of a year. Following a decade or more of mediocre results in a variety of sporting events, this year, along with my riding partner we set a new world record for cycling from Lands End to John O’Groats on a tandem of 45 hours and 11 minutes, shaving over 5 hours of the previous record set some 49 years ago. An end of season participation in a non-stop 606km ride over 16,000 metres of Dolomite passes produced first place in the unsupported solo category. How has this been possible? Unlike Lance Armstrong, it’s not involved drugs. Instead, somewhat fed up with sports people telling businesses how it should be done, I got to thinking what could sport learn from business. I reflected on those with whom I had worked over the years and started applying their lessons to my hobby as an athlete.

Hard work

It might be unfashionable in this day and age where work life balance is seen as so important, but I have yet to meet someone who has been incredibly successful in any sphere of life who has done it without working hard. What characterises the most successful people in business with whom I have worked is they seem to always be thinking about the challenges they face. I’ve found that if you want a productive conversation with them it’s often better to catch them before they get to the office or in the evening, when, freed from the tyranny of an overflowing inbox and the next pressing engagement, they are able to have a more considered conversation. And that’s the point, even outside of working hours they are still on the case. I find these people inspiring. Their motivation, enthusiasm and dedication are hugely impressive. I stopped criticising myself for an all-consuming focus on breaking a record and embraced it. Once you’ve entered this mindset it’s amazing what you can fit in and how you begin to begrudge things that are just a huge waste of time like television, social media, pointless meetings and the like.

Lessons from IT

I’ve worked with the IT teams of a number of multinational companies over the years. Over time systems get upgraded, companies get acquired with different systems and somehow the IT function has to figure out a way of getting everything to talk to everything else and provide a stable, reliable, resilient system. It’s one of those aspects of business that everyone takes for granted until it stops working. It struck me the same was true in cycling. I’ve become reliant on the data from the power meter built into my pedals and that information being transmitted to the bike computer which in turn provides information on the route, average speed, and gradient of hills and riding time. If the technology fails on a local training ride it’s inconvenient but that’s it. If it fails mid race in some remote part of the countryside then the consequences are far more serious. Learning the lessons from the experts, I’ve worked out how to have a series of backup solutions in place. This has engendered confidence on my ability to take on the remotest challenges. It’s also got me wondering where else in business we should be applying an IT mentality.

Lessons from CEOs

I’ve sat through many conferences where the CEO has stood up and set out the vision for the company. Done well, it is believable, inspiring and generates confidence and drives motivation. People leave the presentation with a clear sense of where the business is heading. From this, they set about thinking about what that means they need to do to achieve the strategic ambition. In the same way, in setting out the goal of breaking a long standing sports record I watched in awe as those involved bought into the idea and immediately started thinking through the possible challenges and how they might be solved. Despite a great many setbacks, they kept coming back for more with ever better solutions that eventually enabled us to achieve the goal. A vision really matters.

Experts are worth it

Given the top companies have recruitment processes that attract the most talented people to work for them, I used to be surprised at their continued dependence on management consultancies. Surely, I thought, they have the intellectual capability to think it out for themselves? It took me a while to figure it out. No-one knows the business of what they are doing better than those in the business.  It’s the useful, relevant insight from elsewhere that helps inform thinking that is the value consultancies bring. In just the same way, we used experts from multiple disciplines to help us. None of them had ridden hundreds of miles in one go, but all had phenomenal knowledge that when combined with the experience of actually doing the rides resulted in a much better approach to training and racing. Surrounding yourself with experts who have also bought into the vision and learning how to work together with them creates a significant advantage. Even better when the independent experts themselves work together as a team.

The outcome of all this is, as a very ordinary athlete I have been able to achieve extraordinary results. I’m hungry to find the other lessons I can apply to achieve even more.

© Dominic Irvine 24th September 2015 All rights asserted

You can read more of Dom’s “Insights from the Business of Cycling” here.

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