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How to Cultivate a CEO Mindset

ceo endurance sport women in business Dec 06, 2022

Whether you aspire to start a business, move up to a C-suite position or be a better CEO of your own life, the lessons from endurance sport will serve you well - if you learn how to use them.


By Sara Gross, PhD


We’ve all heard it before - endurance athletes make better [fill in the blank], with the blank representing everything from partners to parents to leaders. And to some extent that’s true. A test of endurance on the road or trail can help us find the internal strength to reach success in other realms. But lessons learned from the hard miles on the pavement or by staring at the black line on the pool bottom can only be fully leveraged if we can name those lessons and understand how to use them. 


At the recent Outspoken Women in Endurance Sports Summit, I asked the freshly appointed CEO of USA Triathlon, Victoria Brumfield to join me on Sunday morning for a fireside chat-style presentation on how to adopt a CEO mindset - even if you aren’t a CEO. (You can listen to the whole thing on this week’s episode of the Women’s Performance podcast.) The session was excellent and as expected, Vic was full of wisdom, and more importantly, together, we were able to put that wisdom into words that everyone could use. Here were the key takeaways.


Let Your Goal-Setting Skills Shine


Endurance athletes are excellent at goal setting. We know how to sign up for an event and systematically train for that event day in, day out for months or even years, because we understand that the journey to Ironman starts with a 5K. Similarly, Vic typically sets her goals annually, and she finds that they manifest themselves two or three years later, much like those big goals in endurance sports.   


That has been true for me as well. While building Feisty, I have found that it’s essential to be able to hold a balance between knowing what your long-term vision and goals are, while also knowing what you need to do today to make it happen. 


Keep Showing Up


In both sport and business, consistency is queen. During our CEO chat, someone mentioned that a race typically only takes a few hours or a day, but in business building, it takes months, years, decades. How do we stay motivated??


If you are the founder of a  business it can be really hard to take a break or find a finish line. Many of the lessons I take from sport into entrepreneurship don’t come from the race itself, but from training. Training is where we learn to be consistent — day in and day out. If you keep showing up, even when it’s hard, even when you’re not feeling it, you keep making forward progress. And just like endurance sports, at some point you look back and see how far you’ve come.


Toss the “Garbage Miles”


Most endurance athletes have heard the advice to get rid of extra “junk miles” that aren’t making you faster. So let’s apply that philosophy to our work and lives. When you’re an entrepreneur or trying to succeed at something that is important to you, it can be all-consuming. When you aren’t working on it, you’re thinking (or obsessing) about it. But is all that time constantly spent mulling over your ultimate goal with your blinders on really serving you? Is it getting you closer to your goal? Or, is it like those garbage miles, actually just wearing you out and maybe holding you back? Treat how you apply your energy to your goals like you do your training. Be intentional. Sometimes you’ll be head down in a big build phase. But you also need to periodically create space, like a tapering period where you pull back, do other things, and let the hard work sink in, to do your best work when you are all in. There will be times when you don’t recognize you’re putting in garbage miles until you’ve covered a lot of ground. That’s ok too. It will help you learn the lesson for next time. 

You Have to Train and Line Up to Believe You Can Race


If you just sat on the couch watching Netflix, the thought of completing a marathon would seem impossible. You develop the confidence that you can do hard things through action. In the case of sport, that means training and racing, following a program, working hard, and ultimately toeing the line. In business that might be trying a new strategy or marketing plan, putting yourself out there and networking, or listening to your instincts and trying something new.  


I asked Vic when she started to see herself as a CEO, and surprisingly, she only saw herself in that role when she took over as interim CEO, “I wanted to be Rocky Harris (the former CEO), but it never occurred to me that I could be him because I was the person doing the work, I wasn't the person leading the vision. When he left in August, I moved into the interim role for three months and it gave me an opportunity to realize, I also have the vision, and actually, I can do both.”


Though it can be nerve-wracking, just like endurance sports, you need to line up and give it a go to realize – and believe in – your full potential. 




Develop a Strong Team–and Work with Them


Like many young athletes, I was super competitive with my training partners. We all know people who like to win everything including the warm-up right?  A simple shift from trying to win every workout to realizing that if I actively try to get the best out of my training partners, I will also get the best out of myself changed everything. 


In business, collaboration is my number one value. Recognizing that having people in my organization who value different things and have divergent skill sets is essential for our success. We need to be aligned on the vision and mission, and to move forward, we also need to actively try to get the best out of each other. 


Don’t Rush the Process


Sport teaches us that it takes time – months and years, sometimes decades – to build a world-beating performance. That is also true of creating a 7-figure business. Put simply, as the saying goes, “it takes ten years to create an overnight success.” And as Vic adds “There's also this trap people fall into by trying to look like you’re in your 10th year in your first year.” No one can learn everything they need to know in one year and perfectionism can set the stage for failure. Be patient with yourself, you are learning everything you need to know and can trust the process. Most things are accomplished incrementally, so roll up your sleeves and get scrappy. 


Find Meaning and You’ll Find Your Motivation


Anyone who has done a long-distance event will know that when your legs get tired and the hours get long, you better know why you are out there or your chances of success plummet quickly. The same applies to business. What is your why? What do your goals mean to you? Why is this pursuit important? That needs to be at your front and center to keep you going when you feel like quitting. As Vic says “If you live your life every day trying to figure out how to maximize and fulfill your potential, it will give you purpose. Then you will surround yourself with people who lift you up and that is when opportunity will present itself.”


Remember to Play and Have Fun


Sport ceases to be fun when it feels like it’s all work and no longer play. Ironically, the same is true for work, which also should have an element of fun to make it sustainable. One of Vic’s mentors once told her that you can only create an event that’s as fun as you are, “If you aren’t fun, your event won’t be either.” I couldn’t agree more. Fun must be baked into any business plan or goal. 


Ultimately, just as in sport, pursuing a goal starts with action, and every action is affected by your internal confidence and what you believe is possible for you. And that’s how confidence becomes a daily practice and how you can teach yourself to believe that you can achieve great things. And as that practice evolves, what was possible for you 10 years ago is going to set you up for what's possible today and 10 years from today. Using the skills we learn through sport will not only create success, but might just be fun too. 




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