5 Things Triathlon Taught Me About Leadership

My name is Betsy and I’m addicted to triathlon. I’ve been racing for almost 10 years (through two pregnancies). I’ll never be a professional triathlete, so I’m forced to have a day job to pay for my hobby…my very expensive, time-consuming hobby. Thankfully, I have a job I enjoy that helps me pay the bills. Even better, I’ve found that my growth as a triathlete has also made me a better leader.

Here are five leadership lessons my addiction has taught me.

#1: Know where you’re going

In my early years as a triathlete, I really didn’t know how to plan out my race calendar. I would pick one or two races for the year, flip through some books to get some workout ideas, and hope for the best. I didn’t prioritize between races, which meant I trained and tapered equally for each one. I passed up the opportunity to use the fitness gains from one race to better my performance in another (more important) one. I certainly wasn’t considering how one year’s training could unlock accomplishments in the next. I was so caught up in muddling my way through the day-to-day that I never took a step back to define my long-term goals and what I should do to get there.

At work…

After some reflection, I realized this same approach would help align and rally my design team. I lead them through an exercise to define our north star, and we saw immediate improvement in our team’s work. We found it so effective, we repeated the exercise through multiple rounds of team restructuring.

#2: A coach will help you get there

After years of slogging through with mediocre performance and nagging injuries, I gave up and asked for help. Coach Ben Bartlett worked with me to define what I wanted from triathlon training and racing:

  • What were my stretch goals? What did I want to do in the next five years?
  • What was I hoping to accomplish in this year and the next?
  • What were some of my limitations?
  • How much time and energy could I truly commit?

We mapped out an annual plan that highlighted my highest to lowest priority races. He has asked me to take a hard look at how much training I could honestly handle with a full-time job, two young kids, and a desire to see my non-triathlon friends (like, ever). That forced me to cut back a bit more and delay some races for the next year. Having a coach gut-check my plans lowered my stress and helped me articulate what I hadn’t been able to put together for the first seven years of racing.

While he keeps tabs on my training data, we check in routinely to gauge how I am feeling, determine my progress, and reassess my goals periodically. Talking through everything forces me to be honest with myself, too.

At work…

I use this same structure with my own career coach as well as my direct reports. I have weekly, pre-scheduled one-on-ones with each direct report. This provides them a guaranteed time to tell me about anything on their minds, whether or not it’s specific to work. I enjoy having a chance to get to know them and understand everything that could be impacting their work. It’s also an opportunity for us to revisit where they’d like to grow and how I may help them do it. I find the meetings helpful in ensuring we’re always on the same page.

#3: Find growth in failures

A year into working with my coach, I had few a solid training cycles leading into IRONMAN 70.3 Syracuse last June. I felt extremely prepared and believed I’d place well enough in my age group to qualify for the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Chattanooga.

Race day was hot and humid, and the swim was one of the choppiest I’ve ever navigated (and I’m a very strong swimmer). It lead into a very hilly bike course. I moderated my efforts on the 56 mile ride, hoping my run would come together.

Unfortunately, my body didn’t get the message. When I got off the bike, I was cramping, nauseous and barely made it out of transition. I told myself I just needed to try to run one mile at a time. I managed to keep it together and held my place in my age group. It wasn’t enough to qualify, but it meant more to me to have completed the race.

The training and mental gains I had from racing Syracuse laid the foundation for the best race of my life. In September, I decided to take on another half ironman and placed first overall for women. I even got a cash prize!

At work…

Even if you’ve prepared well, things may not go as planned. Two years into my UX director role, a company-wide reorganization cut our team in half. Soon after, some of our awesome designers left to pursue their own (amazing) startups.

These challenges pushed me to find new ways to continue to grow our design practice. I’ve taught Design Thinking to “non-designers” throughout the company. I encouraged Product Managers to embrace conducting design research and ideation sessions. Our Product team works together to iterate and test toward better product solutions.

Finding the positive side of each experience, project, or encounter will make you stronger for the next.

#4: Burnout can sneak up on you

I work full time, have a family, and still find the time to train. This has required a great deal of focus, prioritization, and structure. Each workout is designed to have the greatest possible fitness gains without killing my body. I also strive to build in plenty of recovery.

Even with all of that, I have still been caught off guard by burnout. I have needed to take extended breaks and to try new things. I recently decided to take four months to reduce my training and practice yoga 3–4 times a week with my sister. This time has given me perspective and a chance to reconnect with the people that make it all possible.

At work…

And as a leader, I am setting an example for my team. It’s easy to get caught in the daily grind of work and neglect my own needs. If I’m not taking care of myself, the problem compounds as my team follows my (unhealthy) lead and more people burn out. Therefore, it is even more important for me to be honest with how I’m feeling, take breaks to recuperate, and make sure my team does the same.

#5: You didn’t get here alone

I truly love triathlon and couldn’t log my training hours without loads of support. My girls love cheering me on and knew the standard race order from a young age. My husband is an equal partner in their care so I can get away for many hours at a time, and understands how important it is to me. I also have an amazing team that pushes me to train harder, faster, and smarter. We find fun in even the most painful workouts. We cheer each other on and support each person through their best and worse races. I would not have been able to accomplish what I have without my family and my team.

At work…

I also would be nowhere without my design team. The work they do everyday has helped improve our product experience and better connect with our customers’ problems. They are the ones making real change. Therefore, I strive to recognize and appreciate each person’s contributions and ensure they receive credit for the impact they have on our products and organization. I also try to take responsibility for our failures.

Nevertheless, she persisted

We try to plan and prepare, and sometimes things just happen. We cramp up. We need breaks. Companies change. Yet we find a way to persist. Who knows what my next challenge will be. But I do know I’ll find a way to keep moving forward each time.

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