Professionalism – 5 Things We Can Learn From Athletes

PROFESSIONALISM

Professionalism is on of those things that is hard to explain. We admire people that are really professional. And many folks would probably think of themselves as being highly professional. Yet, many people are frustrated when it comes to their careers. They are either not getting promoted or they feel that their accomplishments are not being honored by their colleagues. Instead of complaining, I suggest that we all look in the mirror and ask ourselves an important question: Are we really demonstrating true professionalism?

THE RISING STAR

The other day I saw an interview with one of the rising soccer stars in Germany. This 21 year-old ‘kid’ was asked about his plans for 2012. Let me tell you, I was blown away by his response. First, he presented his progress in 2011. He was very specific. Then he proceeded to discuss some of the gaps he was looking to fill. And he finished by providing a quick overview of his planned activities for closing his perceived gaps. That raised a question: How many of us would be prepared to do the same?

5 THING TO LEARN

To compete at the highest levels in sports, you really need to demonstrate professionalism. Talent alone is not enough. It will get you to the 96% level but not any further. To be successful, athletes make huge sacrifices and investments. Having had the opportunity to work with a few professional cycling & running coaches in the past, I pulled together a short list of things professional athletes do. Take a look and ask yourself how you rate in each one of these items:

Continuous improvement: Athletes cannot afford to stagnate or to stand still. The competition is intense. They are extremely focused on continuously improving their skills. Day after day, week after week. These guys set themselves challenging & objective goals and they go after them with a club. Ask yourself: Are you really working on improving your skills, or are you just getting work done. It is worth taking a moment and reflecting on where and how we have improved. How can we make sure that we stay competitive? Set some ambitious developmental goals and work on those every day.

Discipline & Sacrifice: Athletes are extremely disciplined. They focus on their goals like there is no tomorrow. Training at a high level can be extremely painful sometimes. If achieving the individual training goals requires riding a bike in freezing rain for six hours, they will do it. There is no partying on the day before an important competition. Ask yourself: Am I really disciplined at work or do I choose the  ‘let’s wing it approach’? Am I prepared to do whatever it takes to reach my personal goals and the goals of my company? Review some situations where a more disciplined approach could have improved your performance. Work on your discipline.

 

Professionalism
Looks smooth. But it hurts. It really hurts.

Coaching: Professional athletes work with coaches. Coaches help us identify strengths and weaknesses. They help us develop improvement plans. And they provide feedback which we can use to increase our performance. Ask yourself: Have you actively solicited feedback from your manager, spouse, friends? Who could act as your coach? At a minimum, plan to take some time to review your performance once in a while.

Innovation: Athletes typically have the latest and greatest material. Whether it is a super-light carbon bike or a stiff ski, athletes know how to use innovation to their advantage. They probe, they test and they demand the best. And it is not just about materials. There are also training methods. Lance Armstrong always pulled together a team of experts from different disciplines to craft new training methods. They pushed the envelope. Ask yourself: Are you trying to push the envelope or are you set in your ways?  Are you actively trying to educate yourself in the latest and greatest materials for your job? Develop a healthy level of curiosity. Take some risks. Try something new. Adopt new technology. And keep an open mind.

Rest Periods: Athletes know that they can’t run one marathon after another. Our capacity is limited, unfortunately. Rest periods allow our bodies to replenish resources and to heal. Athletes therefore schedule frequent rest. During these times, they let go (think: less discipline), they relax and they step back from their demanding jobs. Soccer players stop chasing a ball, cyclists put their bike in the garage, etc.. Many people are afraid that rest will set them back. But as a matter of fact, we typically return in much better form. So, take a good look at your schedule. Are you engaged in a never-ending race? Schedule active rest periods (vacation, etc..) and don’t feel guilty about it. Plan on doing something completely different and leave your Blackberry at home.

IMPROVING

Implementing a few of these things can make a huge difference. If you want to learn more about professionalism, I highly recommend David Maister’s classic book True Professionalism. This makes for great reading over the holidays!

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Manager

CAUTION

Please do not read this post if you are opposed to humor, irony and severe sarcasm.

THE BATTLE CRY

The other day I came across an article in Time magazine about Amy Chua. Even here in Europe we can’t ignore her infamous book “Battle hymn of the tiger mother”. No matter if you agree with her or not, we cannot deny that she has started a pretty heated debate about raising our kids. Just this week I came across various articles about her and had to listen to some radio shows discussing her methods. Even here in Europe. Having heard so much about this topic, Jen and I certainly had a quick discussion about our approach to parenting.

BUSINESS ANALYTICS AND CHANGE MANAGEMENT

Some of you probably attended the Gartner BI Summit in London. As every year, many people discussed the problem of user adoption and change management. Over the years, I have witnessed many different attempts to increase user adoption: town hall meetings, trainings, flyers, videos, candies etc.. Some methods are successful, other methods fail. It always depends on the organization and its culture. During a discussion with different delegates, somebody made the comment that users can sometimes be more difficult than kids. Hmm…that sparked an idea.

ENTER THE TIGER MANAGER

If you follow the discussions in the press, there is heated dispute whether Mrs. Chua’s methods work or not. But since many organizations are struggling with change management, how about trying Mrs. Chua’s methods? How about unleashing the Tiger Manager:

  • “Nothing is fun unless you are good at it”: Some users resist using business analytics tools. They prefer to stick to spreadsheets. That’s what they know and that’s what they enjoy doing. Could it be that they are not using the new software because they are not good at it? Would it make sense to force users to practice using the new tools? Rather than sending out a friendly invite to attend training, would it make sense to just lock them up? To make this as effective as possible, one should not allow anybody to drink, eat or sleep until the users get better at it. Bathroom breaks should be strictly forbidden during the critical learning stages.
  • “You are garbage.“: We should all strive for perfection and we all know that poor analysis can lead to poor business decisions. Yet, some users seem to feel that it’s ok to use the new software sporadically. They resort back to spreadsheets and they make mistakes. If we come across somebody like that, we should call that out openly. Instead of offering help, why don’t we openly call those users ‘garbage’. Adjectives like ‘lazy’, ‘stupid’, ‘useless’ or ‘repulsive’ could represent a decent choice as well. The public insult and ridicule will teach these users a critical lesson: ‘You better use the new software and you better get damn good at using it!’. PERIOD
  • “Sorry. No sleep overs”: Users spend a lot of time on social networks like Facebook and Twitter. They also spend time getting coffee or lunch. All these activities take time away from learning how to use business analytics software. Would it make sense to cut off access to social networks? Also, would it make sense to force the inexperienced users to forgo coffee & cigarettes during the early stages of their learning experience? Also, isolating those users that struggle the most could help? Find them a remote office or conference room? Social interaction is fine. But it should only happen in a highly controlled manner.
  • “I am going to take all your stuffed animals and burn them.”: Some users are weird. They complain, they refuse, they battle. In other words: they just don’t get it. Soft skills only go so far. For those particular users we should start threatening to take their office decoration away: their favorite coffee mugs, their stuffed animals, their stress balls, etc.. And don’t just stop there. Some users need more drastic measures: smash their coffee mug in front of them, spit on their awards, rip their stuffed animal apart. That will teach them a lesson. And remember: Life is hard after all. Life is a battlefield. This type of experience could help them excel in other areas of their job as well.

What do you think? Seems like a good list of things. Let’s all strive to produce the best end-users a company could ever have! Would love to hear about your experiences with this. Maybe we will be able to read about your experiences in the Wall Street Journal. I could envision something like “Why Tiger Managers are Superior“…….