Three things that leadership and my Ironman training had in common

3.8km swim. 180km cycle. 42.2km run. Aka the 'Ironman' – the endurance triathlon series that is the fitness 'Everest' for athletes the world over.

Six months ago entertaining the idea of even being able to complete a single component of those distances seemed a stretch. The prospect of having to combine the three of them was utterly overwhelming. I'd never done a triathlon. I hadn't been swimming in five years and had never done more than 30km on a bike.

But I decided to jump off of the deep end, aiming to complete the Busselton Ironman. With 100 days to train, could I get myself to the starting line in the form that would allow me to cross the finish line?

On December 6, I answered that with a resounding 'yes'; I became an 'Ironwoman' having conquering not only the distances but the additional weather challenges of intermittent storms and 35 km/h winds in 13 hours and 53 minutes. The sheer elation of crossing that finishing line was even better than I had imagined and the impact of this achievement has rippled positively throughout all aspects of my life.

These are the 3 top insights from my journey to become an ironwoman that I believe have great application to business and personal life.

1. What You Focus On Expands

It's hard for me to explain just how terrified I was by this goal, which was only exacerbated by the fact that I'd made my attempt very public. I spent the first two weeks panicking. Then it dawned on me that I needed to stop giving (read: losing) energy to fear and start focusing my thinking in a way that was going to help me reach my goal.

I stopped permitting myself to think about the race, failure or the goliath distances and focused instead on the low hanging fruit I could convince my brain was 'doable' to build my confidence and momentum. Initially, it was just about showing up - making the commitment to carve out the time and to never miss a training session, even if I had to stop six times on the run because I was out of breath. Once that became 'doable' I started focusing on the quality of these sessions, and from there I moved to longer distances.

In the Ironman itself, ruthless focus underpinned my race plan. I was continually asking myself "What's important now?"to draw my focus back to what I could control in the moment: this pedal stroke, getting to that next 'km' marker or making sure my body was feeling hydrated and fuelled … anything else would be a waste of energy that I couldn't afford to expend. If I started the day thinking about the race as one giant "elephant" I probably wouldn't have completed it. I had to break it down and, as though I were playing a game of dominoes, not let my focus move to the next domino until the current one had tipped.

When taking on an audacious goal, build a plan that works backward from the ultimate outcome but keep your focus on what you need to do in the here-and-now.

2. Training Integrity

In peak ironman training, you're doing eighteen hours worth of cardio a week… practically a full day a week of exercise! One of the things I learnt early was there's a marked difference between "training" for 18 hours (envisage comfortable jogs, leisurely swims etc) and training (envisage someone who's pushed their heart race and pace so much they're puffing like a biggest loser contestant post a Michelle Bridges workout).

Despite liking to think I'd sit in the second category, for the first two weeks I was definitely just "showing up". Changing habits is hard, particularly if there's some underlying disbelief in our ability to pull it off. The key is making sure you find comfort and security in the right form. In my case the game changer (and single smartest move I made during this process) was enlisting the help of a coach. She helped me set my plan to achieve my goal, tracked all my activity (heart rate, pace, VO2- there was no hiding) and outcomes and held me accountable for my results.

Improve your likelihood of success by building a team around you who can help you achieve the results you're after.

3. Train to hit walls – because you know they're coming

One of the fascinating components of Ironman training is that you intentionally train to reach breaking point. This sounded a ludicrous idea to me originally. However, the more you unpack the "why" for operating this way the more it makes sense. In an ironman race, you don't know when or how frequently you'll hit a wall but you do know it'll happen. If you haven't trained for it, how do you know how to work through it?

Whether we're talking exercise, business or life, whenever we're facing something that is already going to test and stretch us, the more "unknowns" we can take off the table, the greater the degree of confidence you give yourself. In this instance, by continually proving to myself that my body was capable of adapting and pushing through, I gave myself confidence that I could do that across any distance and in whatever conditions were thrown at me. I had to prove to myself that the Navy's "40 per cent more" mantra (the notion that you have 40 per cent more to give when your body first tells you to give up) was true and not just a phrase that belonged on a bumper sticker. 

In life and in leadership, stress test your plans. Prepare for the conditions you're going to have to achieve your results in, not an ideal set of circumstances.

Three Big Lessons from Four Pioneering Leaders

“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” ― Philip Pullman

“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”
― Philip Pullman

In an age obsessed with business cases, statistics and data-points we can sometimes forget that storytelling remains the most powerful way to put ideas into the world. Stories delight, enchant, touch, teach, recall, inspire, motivate, and challenge. They communicate ideas and unpack issues, not just intellectually but as a personal, emotional experience.

Stories have enormous power; the stories we tell ourselves, those shared with us, and particularly the ones that captivate us in such a way that they become norms, folklore, great works of fiction, or form the rich tapestry of our history.

Stories are also core to driving change- you can’t shift an outcome without shifting the story- be that internally or externally, individually or collectively.

Last Friday, I was privileged to MC and moderate the Layne Beachley Aim For The Stars Foundation ‘Women in Leadership Forum’ as we celebrated the stories of four incredible female leaders: former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Opera House CEO Louise Heron, Deloitte CEO Cindy Hook and CSIRO Deputy-Director Dr Cathy Foley. Importantly, the fundraising event was in aid of catalysing and empowering the creation of the next generation of women in leadership stories through supporting the Foundation’s scholarship program.

Our four speakers, each a trailblazer within her respective field, provided fascinating insights in to the challenges of getting to the top, being the “first” and navigating major leadership positions. We covered off handling criticism, overcoming doubt, how to have your voice heard and the deep importance of self-knowing and pursuing your passion. There was also a lot of discussion around what needs to be done to change the game when it comes to gender equality at large. It was an uplifting and energising event- and if, as the old adage goes, ‘you can only be what you can see’ the significance of having four pioneering women share their stories shouldn’t be underestimated at a time where we so desperately need a new collective story about women in leadership in Australia.

So for those who couldn’t be in the room, here’s my attempt to synthesise the smorgasbord of wisdom in to three key lessons:

1. Resilience: strong foundations + disciplined practice
In the flood of social media question suggestions I received in advance of the event the number one thing people wanted to know was ‘how do you handle criticism/failure/attack/sabotage?’ In Julia Gillard’s autobiography ‘My Story’ she reflects on resiliency having typified her three years as Prime Minister. On Friday she talked a lot about what she believed enabled her to weather the challenging times of her political career: carving out the time and space to get crystal clear on her purpose and what she stood for; being able to distinguish between fair critique and vitriolic attack (her hint: if it’s after midnight on twitter it’s probably alcohol not acumen talking!); and the critical importance of having a solid support crew around you.

As we start to lose the word resiliency to the grips of buzzword-land, we can begin to misguidedly look for the magic ‘silver bullet’. The key all of our speakers came back to was embedding strong foundations of self-knowing and, as Deloitte’s Cindy Hook put it in drawing parallels between CEO preparation and marathon preparation, putting in the consistent, hard work to build up your resiliency muscle. Do your best to foresee the rocks and prepare specifically for the sorts of situations you can foresee will call on you to exercise your resilience.

Adding to this, Opera House CEO Louise Heron spoke about the idea of ‘detachment’- the importance of having a healthy distance between your work and your identity, which she said had proven key to being able to remain resilient during periods where work had been particularly challenging. She described her own role as having stewardship over the cultural icon for a period of time, with the continual awareness that just as she had been preceded she would be succeeded. Again, it was emphasised that the ability to do this isn't magical nor immediately bestowed on you at first crack- it's honed through the disciplined practise of ensuring you invested in non-work related activities and relationships.

2. Risk: punt on yourself, regularly
You’ve got to risk big to win big, and as our line-up spoke to on Friday, leadership studies still show a demonstrable difference between the preparedness of woman take a risk on their own capabilities. As the Harvard study we’re probably all too familiar with says, women will wait to meet 4 of 5 criteria before they apply for a job, whereas men will apply when they meet 2… that’s not good math (side note: it’s also not great that only 6% of girls in year 12 are studying advanced math… but that’s a soap box item for another day). Having the confidence to put yourself forward and parking the fallacy of ‘waiting til you’re ready’ (here’s a bubble burster: readiness is a mirage, so don’t delay decisions for something that’ll never materialise) is vital; your career will rise in proportion to your preparedness to put yourself out there for opportunities.

Cindy Hook (the first female CEO of a big four accounting firm) punted on a move from the US to Australia, while Dr Cathy Foley up and ran a childcare centre alongside her scientific work at CSIRO to build her exposure to business management and governance challenges to broaden her experience base and help advance her career. Both spoke to having an awareness of the skills needed to advance to the heights of your career aspiration and ensuring that while you continued to play to your strengths you sought to continually put yourself in environments outside your comfort zone that would stretch the reach of your capabilities. As Cindy said, in articulating why the out-of-my-comfort-zone-hustle was key to her growth, “when I knew the very least I performed at my very best”.

3. No one is an island: cultivate, build and invest in relationships
All the speakers talked to the importance of those they surrounded themselves with: the significance of a strong support network, the power of mentorship and sponsorship and the criticality of bringing people with you and surrounding yourself with a brilliant team. The comment was made that perhaps they had swung too far towards mentorship at either the expense of (or in the absence of) sponsorship- an interesting point worth a quick elaboration; a mentor is someone who’s a trusted sounding board or advisor, while a sponsor is someone who goes in to bat for you and helps open the door to opportunities. While all speakers had been the beneficiary of both mentors and sponsors when it came to securing opportunities, it was sponsors who’d made the difference. Working with people who back you and/or ensuring that people who back you are aware of your aspirations so they can support you in achieving them were stressed as keys to ensuring you can leverage the power of sponsorship.

Emphasis was also placed on learning from the right people- taking roles alongside leaders you admire, investing in coaching and development and taking breadth roles (say in community organisations or on boards) that would give you exposure to a different cohort of leaders and a different context in which to learn from how they work.