Ironman: the important lessons for business

Sigma Software's head of partnerships, three-time Ironman competitor, and entrant in the World Championships Hanna Khrystianovych shares valuable lessons that businesses can learn from participating in this extreme kind of activity
Ironman: the important lessons for business

Ironman's preparation is a transformational change. Your body changes drastically, your lifestyle, and so much more. Usually, people come into triathlon at an age when there's a demand for transformation, for some kind of significant change in themselves.

In business, when companies start a transformation, they often seek the services of some kind of consultants who will advise them how to do it, so as not to destroy what they have. In triathlon, these functions are performed by a coach and a club, a community of like-minded triathletes in a particular city or region.

When I went into this process, I realised that a lot of things would have to change. You have to sleep right, you have to eat right. Over time I realised that I had become a scheduling freak, even though before that, being a very creative person, I hated any attempt to regulate me during the day. Triathlon taught me that it’s impossible to systematically go for a big and challenging goal without careful step-by-step planning.

I realised that I need to plan well for work and personal meetings, concerts, and just about everything. Our family now has a yearly plan for races, events, trips, training cycles, and family activities. I write everything on a calendar, coloring it in different colors so there is some clear navigation.

This planning thing has a huge effect on your professional life, because you suddenly have more time, even though you seem to have less time.

Doing triathlons also helps a lot in coming to important decisions, cleansed from the influence of emotions. If I can't solve some big problem or come up with something creative, I try to think about it while training. Very often the solution comes. The same goes for some crises and problems. At the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, I was training all the time because it allowed me to get away from the emotional part, rationalize my decisions in the context of what was happening, and calm down. You finish training - and usually, you already have some kind of rational solution. Everything emotional is apparently already distributed, spent like carbohydrates during the workout, and only the essence remains.

In general, Ironman is a great opportunity to improve your professional results. But how can it help the business as a whole?

Continuous change, reflection, and goal setting

I work a lot with transformation projects in companies - first of all, digital transformation. And in this process, I see a lot of parallels with Ironman. Transformation doesn't happen at the snap of your fingers. You get into a mode of change, and you actually stay in it forever if that change serves your larger purpose.

Similarly, in companies, you can't do it right once, buy cool software, set it up - and become better than yesterday. It doesn't work that way. To move towards the goal, you need to be in a state of a certain load, some permanent changes all the time. And these changes don't stop after the first Ironman, it's even more interesting from here on.

In triathlon you train 8-16 hours a week and, as for the most part you do it alone. This provokes a permanent cycle of reflection. I have time to think about a lot of things during training, and this helps a lot, including in the professional sphere. 

Probably the first significant discovery and important moment for me was that

it can take two or three years from the beginning of training to the first serious race. That's a really long goal. It was always kind of a big challenge for me to think about what should happen to you in three years.

When I was doing my MBA, there was a lot of talk about the vision and mission of the company, and the need to imagine what would happen to your business in 5 years. It seemed strange to me - like, who knows what's going to happen to the company, the market, and the world in 5 years? It seemed like a completely unnecessary exercise with no rational component. It didn't make sense here and now.

But when I started working with the goal of going to Ironman, which physically could not start two or three years after I started training, I realised how important it is to have this long-range perspective in your head that shows where you want to go.

And not just understanding where you're aiming to go, but also why you want to go there. If you know and understand that then those seven workouts a week — early in the morning, in the snow, in the heat, and so on — don't seem like something exorbitant, and the lion's share of motivational questions simply disappear. You simply understand the purpose of this workout.

You realise that if you haven't done it, you haven't put a brick in this house you're building today. And you just go and do it.

That big goal, vision, very much determines how you're going to live your life today and how successful you're going to be in doing things in relation to your purpose.

Exactly the same is true for businesses. There are companies that understand where they are going, and they work towards that long-range goal, adding building blocks every day.  And maybe even today, some of the company's actions may not seem entirely appropriate, but they fit into that larger goal.

The company is gradually changing and striving for where it wants to go. This can be felt immediately at the level of communication with any employee of the company. If the vision and goal are broadcasted to everyone and everyone understands why they are doing it today, then there is the motivation to work, to do something that will allow tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, or in 3 years to get exactly to the right place.

Strategy and tactics

In preparing for a race, proper strategy is very important. This is true for almost any sport, but it is especially true here, as there are three disciplines that alternate on the same course. Each of them has its own specificity. And you can be differently successful in each of the three disciplines.

There are a million stories of people who are awesome at cycling, but because of unbalanced running and swimming lose the race. You can be better at one thing, but that doesn't mean you will succeed. Triathlon teaches balance.

Based on your strategy for the race, you choose your tactics for each of the three disciplines. Plus getting the right equipment for the terrain to squeeze the most out of yourself as an athlete.

And to be ready to juggle several scenarios, if suddenly there is a wave, if suddenly it is hot, if suddenly the wind blows, or if, God forbid, you fall off the bike or puncture a tire.

So it's not enough to go out and start swimming, driving, and running - it's very important to break it all down in your head. It's a lot of intellectual labour.

For me it is good training for managerial decisions, especially in force majeure circumstances. Because when you go into a business problem, you realise that you need to have several alternative scenarios, because circumstances can turn out differently.

Four months after my first Ironman, I evacuated from Ukraine because of the war. Despite the huge heat of emotions, my actions were focused and fast because Ironman taught me how to react properly to stress. And gradually you start copying that approach from your hobby into something serious, in your profession or in your personal life.

Or the same story with constant reflection. In sports, you have to analyze your results, see what went wrong there, and how to improve it.

This cycle happens almost weekly, that is, you are in a cycle of such analyses all the time. And when you take this pattern of behavior and transfer it to your professional activity, you are certainly developing professionally.

Technology is not a panacea

There's another example that works equally well in Ironman and business. It's about the role of technology itself. At Ironman, it often happens that beginner athletes buy a fancy bike for $10-20,000 and think that they will automatically start riding it much faster.

I worked in a banking environment for a long time, and many banks had similar software graveyards because everyone thought that if I bought this solution now, I would immediately "go" faster than other banks.

But it doesn't work that way. You can take advantage of a cool bike or other technology when you are at a certain level of physical and mental readiness. I rode a pretty basic bike for a year and a half, and I thought nothing was better. At some point, my coach and I decided that it was time to make a technological upgrade because physically I was ready to master the technology and get the most out of it. So investing in this technology started to make tangible sense. And the new bike really gave me good acceleration.

The speed downhill, uphill, my sensations - everything changed, but only because I was ready for it physically and mentally. And mental preparedness is just as important because you become afraid of the speed at which you are travelling with the new technology.

This happens a lot in companies. The new software gives some efficiency gain, but all the processes are still set up in the old way. People think in the old way, and they are shocked to see how everything suddenly starts to carry on, breaking their idea of how work should be done. Of course, the result is sabotage. The capabilities of the technology are not utilized, and there is no return on investment.

But at the moment when you are ready physically and mentally, you want these changes, you are ready, you are waiting for them. And if at that moment you give a technological injection, you start to feel a completely different flight. And these stories should happen to you all the time, just as they do to the company.

Step zero is to clearly realise that technology is not a pill that will take away some pain or give you euphoria. You have to be prepared, you have to be strong, and you have to be able to connect with technology in the right way, becoming one. The company should also understand that technology is a piece of the whole.

And what is often forgotten is that there is also a person who will use the technology. And it is important that he, firstly, wants to use it and, secondly, can do it. That is the question of this very training and the right motivation, and mindset, to ride this cool bike, and not just put it in the closet to stand there and tell everyone that I have it.

In conclusion

These are just a few of the parallels I see between training + running Ironman and business. In fact, there are many more analogies and lessons, that's why I decided, with the support of Sigma Software, to hold a separate event for companies where I will tell more about this topic. It will take place in Stockholm in January. I will be glad to see you!

Lead image via Hanna Khrystianovych. Photo: Uncredited.

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