Giving a Gold Medal Effort With Energy to Spare

Lawrence Polsky Issue 12 - July/Aug 2014, Operations Leave a Comment

Lawrence Polsky on Working Like an Olympian and Why it Could Help You Get Some Rest.

Who do you think works harder: you or an Olympic-level athlete? Most people who want to get ahead work eight to 10 hours a day, maybe more. Olympians average 4.5 hours. And how many times a year do you have to be on your top game? Olympians have seven, maybe 12, competitions a year where there is a lot at stake. Leaders I talk to say “12 times a year? How about 12 times a week!”The answer to the opening question is you! You work harder. But I bet you don’t feel like you are winning the gold.

I researched this topic to prepare for a keynote speech I was giving to an organization going through a great deal of change. They wanted to teach leaders how to reach their peak performance during challenging times. One of the key messages was about recovery. While Olympians work 4.5 hours a day, the rest are spent on resting and recovery: massages, acupuncture and ice baths, or just eating, lounging and going about their lives. Our bodies can only take so much before they can’t take it.

Going Slower to Go Faster

Jeff Galloway, former Olympic distance runner and longtime running coach, explains the idea in his book “The Run-Walk-Run Method.” You can run faster and farther if you run, then walk, then run. After working with more than 300,000 runners, he has found that when they push too hard for too long, they can’t sustain it. But if they walk in between, they go farther and faster.

For most of us, it is hard to accept that we have to learn to go slower before we can go faster. Ancient Greeks knew that it takes a healthy body to have a healthy mind. Rapidity and alertness of mind requires a healthy person, or else rapidity and alertness can be quickly lost.

We talk about this extensively in our work with leaders. One example is Marc. He had just been promoted to Chief Information Officer of a leading health care organization and felt pressured to succeed. He wanted some support to make the transition successful, so he asked me to coach him. One day, after listening to him list all of his projects, I said, “Marc, when do have time for yourself?” He responded: “Well, I don’t. Yes, that is a problem.” Of course! How can he have the energy for his leadership role if he never re-energizes? How he can motivate his team if he is exhausted? We talked through how he would work with his employee Sue so that she could take over more, and how he could do more by working less.

The trick is to go hard on the hard days and easy on the easy days, says my friend Chris Loftus, who competes in triathlons: “Most people go too hard on the easy days,” he said, “and do not have enough juice to go hard on the hard days.”

You have to know when to push, and push then. But schedule in easy days and use them so that you have the energy for the next hard day.

‘You’ Time

An executive team member at a global manufacturing company we work with endorses this approach, while acknowledging it can be challenging to put into practice. “You need to try to balance,” she said. “Nobody can work around the clock. Quality will go down. Mistakes will happen. Misunderstanding and frustration will be generated. It can be the beginning of a vicious cycle.”

When people start acting edgy, tight and tense, it’s a sign they probably need time away from the office, she noted, adding: “Don’t create a culture in which employees are afraid to speak openly about the importance of taking time off.”

Because it can be difficult to take time off during periods of challenge and growth, here’s another way you as a leader can stay on top of your game: Schedule “you” time into your workday. High performers do this, whether they are in Olympic stadiums or corporate boardrooms. You time is that which you schedule into your daily calendar to recover from unexpected challenges you’re bound to face. Here’s how it works:

1. Schedule.

Set aside you time everyday in your calendar (15 to 60 minutes).

2. Reboot.

When problems occur, use this time however you need: maybe taking a walk, calling a friend or briefly meditating or visualizing. This way you always have time built in to recover and reach Olympic levels of performance.

3. Pace and push yourself.

When the demands are on you, draw upon the rejuvenating effects of you time to push yourself to higher levels of performance. Push your goals a little further, even if it feels like you might never make it. Push yourself until you think you might just fail, or until you fail. Push yourself to open your heart more and to be more honest, even if it feels really uncomfortable.

Look at your calendar. Where is your you time? If you can’t find it, then you can’t be there for your team. You’ll never have them reach their peak performance level until you reach yours.

Lawrence Polsky is Managing Partner at Since 2008, the global leadership and team consulting firm has educated and inspired more than 60,000 leaders across 11 industries in 30 countries on five continents. focuses on boosting bottom-line results, consistently helping its clients achieve 200 to 6,600 percent ROI.

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