Business Lessons Learned from Preparing for the World Marathon Challenge
Jonathan Terrell, Founder & President, KCIC
On February 5, 2018, I became one of a small number of people from around the globe to complete the World Marathon Challenge — seven marathons, in seven days, on all seven continents.
It was a grueling experience, but I was successful because I applied several lessons I’ve learned since transforming myself into an endurance athlete seven years ago after feeling unhealthy and overweight. While I am a pretty fair athlete now, I don’t win races. I am just a regular guy who decided to get in shape and do something extraordinary for a cause I believe in.
What enabled me to run 26.2 miles each day for a week, crossing 16 times zones and recovering quickly in between (usually in the air)? I relied on disciplines, habits and attitudes that have also enriched my life as a business owner/entrepreneur. There is much in common between doing extreme endurance sports and running a healthy business.
Connect to a higher purpose
I took on the World Marathon Challenge for a cause: to raise the profile of Children’s National Health System in Washington, D.C., and encourage healthy conversations around pediatric mental illness, which affects 1 in 5 children. Getting up at 4:30 a.m. to train before work was not easy, to put it mildly, but focusing on the higher purpose motivated me to keep sweating, day after day.
Likewise, in my opinion, businesses that exist simply to enrich their owners or management really have nothing to offer. Healthy businesses that I respect have a clear and compelling reason to exist — a deep commitment to a product, technology, industry problem or to improving the lives of a particular demographic. Sure, money is important. You need good financial hygiene for a healthy business, but it’s a byproduct of a healthy business, not the core purpose.
My own business is committed to two core purposes: to create an environment in which our employees can thrive and to solve problems for our clients in a transformational way. That is the lens through which we view all business decisions. If you can’t relate to our higher purposes, then you’re probably working in the wrong company.
Measure and be accountable
I have electronic devices that automatically measure my athletic activities and upload the data to a website for my athletic coach to review. There is no place to hide. The key metrics of heart rate, cadence, distance and duration are right there. When I was tempted to stay in bed, my thoughts would turn to my coach — wanting to avoid her criticism.
Accountability is also vital in business. At KCIC, our senior team meets three times a week — twice for simple information sharing and once for a long discussion. At least twice per month we go through all of the activities that we have prioritized for the quarter and check our progress. At the start of each quarter, we present to the entire company our priorities for the next quarter and results from the previous one.
When there aren’t neat metrics, we’ll try for something — make three product demonstrations, sell this product to that prospect, or finish developing this capability. It’s better than nothing.
Failure is not the opposite of success
Every endurance athlete experiences failure. The start of a race is all fun and games, but if you don’t execute right, you can have some very painful and dispiriting miles before you finish. How do you get through them? You keep going — stick to your plan, forget about the finish, focus on the moment, and keep moving forward.
When we take on ambitious goals, we experience failure — bleak moments and crushing disappointments. It is something we go through on our way to success. What do you do when you fall down? Stay down? Give up? Or get up, regroup and keep moving forward?
In corporate life, we may not be exactly where we hoped, but we regroup and move ahead. There is so much that can go wrong in corporate life — cash flow, competition, human resources, litigation, you name it. It’s rarely pretty, and I don’t know any companies that are perfectly run. But the healthy ones keep going without surrender. And yes, they usually get to the finish!
It takes a team
In 2013, American endurance swimmer Diana Nyad became the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida. It was her fifth try in 35 years. On exiting the ocean, she said, “Swimming might seem like a solitary activity, but it takes a team.” Marathon running also requires a team. As I ran across Antarctica, Africa, Australia, Asia, Europe, South America and North America, I reflected often on how grateful I was to have the support of my family, friends, coaches, staff at KCIC, business partners, and sponsors.
Any ambitious business goal requires a team. But “teamwork” is often a misused and misunderstood term. At its heart, teamwork is about generosity and sacrifice. I am intensely sensitive to self-centered characteristics in my teams or prospective hires. “Me first” people just do not do well in our company. We have no “brownie” point systems in our business development to reward rainmakers. Why? Because business development is a team sport — it takes the whole company. The junior hire giving great service is as important as the person making the pitch.
Preparation isn’t enough — you also need great execution
Come race day, you put all the preparation together, but preparation without execution will not win the race. And great execution without preparation will not get you far either. There is a symbiotic relationship between the two.
To achieve my goal of running every step of the World Marathon Challenge, I needed to execute perfectly. Pacing was vital. As much as my body loves to surge and pick up the pace, I needed to be relentless in slowing down and saving my reserves. I also needed to be disciplined about nutrition and hydration — replenishing properly before and after each race.
Execution is just as important in business. If our team is going to an industry conference for a major product rollout, we need athletic discipline and execution. We need to be on message, rested, and ready to engage with prospects during the day and later at cocktails and dinner. It can be exhausting, like a race, but the execution turns the preparation into business.
About the Author
Jonathan Terrell is Founder and President of KCIC, a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm. He has more than 30 years of international financial services experience with a multi-disciplinary background in accounting, finance and insurance. In 2002, he founded KCIC with partners and over time Jonathan took the lead as the sole owner. Prior to that, he worked at Zurich Financial Services, JPMorgan, and PricewaterhouseCoopers. In addition to his work with KCIC, he is an accomplished endurance athlete, and at age 55 he took on his biggest race: the 2018 World Marathon Challenge.