Successful Business Transformation: 5 Lessons from a Marathon Runner

E. Ann Hollier, Ph.D.Management, Self Care, Vision


One of the most important lessons I learned from one of my mentors is: How you do anything is how you do everything.

It happens to be true, and the realization makes me much more attentive about everything I do, whether in the parts of my life I love, like my work and my family, or the necessary things I could happily live without forever like housework or flossing.

I’ve learned five principles essential to success in my training for long distance running. They are equally essential to business success, whether you contemplate taking a multi-billion dollar corporation through a major change or building your own business. The implementation tools needed may be particular to your situation, but if any of these five pillars is missing – good luck. You’ll need it.

The first essential pillar is a deadline. As the saying goes, a goal is a dream with a deadline. Without that your dream is just wishful thinking and big talk. Most of us put off our big visions because they’re so big we can’t see how to get from here to there, but this is actually backward thinking. Once you make an unshakable commitment to your dream, the “how” appears.  Setting a deadline is part of declaring your seriousness. My deadline is the San Diego Rock n’ Roll Marathon on June 2, 2013.

The second pillar of business success is accountability. When you are interested, you do what is convenient. When you are committed, you do whatever it takes. You must hold yourself accountable to your goals and intentions, even when they are freaking inconvenient. Like doing your daily run even though it’s only 3 degrees outside. And guess what? Accountability has very little to do with will power. If you depend on will power…You. Will. Fail.

So if will power doesn’t work, what does? Creating new structures and habits. Will power only gets you through the first three weeks needed for a new habit to take hold and supplant an old one. Like getting up, putting on your running clothes, and getting out the door before you can think about it too deeply. It means meeting up with the rest of the team every Saturday morning instead of sleeping in.

If you are an entrepreneur it might mean creating a routine where you still get up, get dressed, and go to the office at 9:00, even though the office now is just down the hall from your bedroom. Or if you work in the corporate world, creating the structure of a project plan with benchmarks to keep yourself and your team on track.

Creating accountability also means surrounding yourself with a like-minded community who will hold you accountable to your goals and intentions. This is the third essential pillar of success. Having signed up for the marathon, I am telling everyone. It’s a lot easier to hold myself accountable when there are others noticing whether I follow through on what I said I would do.

Further, I’ve joined Team in Training. I have people to train with, share ideas with, and go to for encouragement when my resolve falters.  The TNT community also shares a cause I believe in: A passionate commitment to raising money to find better cures for cancer.

For an entrepreneur, this might mean joining a mastermind group, hiring a coach or a consultant, forming an advisory board, and going to networking groups and conferences. For a corporate executive driving a change initiative, it means creating visible senior-level championship and a committed change initiative leadership team who all believe the change has merit and are prepared to meet the challenges head-on with you.

Stay away from the nay-sayers. They may mean well, even love you, but if they don’t get what you are doing their doubts and criticisms only amplify the ones you already carry around in your head. Of course there are risks and success isn’t certain. That’s true of any stretch goal. But if you aren’t going to go all-out, what’s the point?

Which brings us to pacing, the fourth pillar for successful business transformation. This is perhaps the area where business has most to learn from sports, especially endurance sports. We live in a business culture that encourages us to believe we should pedal as fast as we can and hope for the best. True, there’s benefit to knowing what we are capable of when we go all-out, whether it’s training like a maniac to run 26.2 miles, or working long hours to get a new business off the ground. However your approach must still be sustainable.

In a marathoner’s training schedule, easy runs follow hard ones, gradually increasing in difficulty at a rate your body can absorb. After race day marathoners take time off before returning to training at a much more relaxed pace. Business people seem to think they can get away with burning the candle at all three ends indefinitely, but this isn’t true. Try it for too long and you’ll end up with a divorce, a drinking problem, or a heart attack. Never mind being a miserable stressed-out mess. Your body can’t take it, and neither can your psyche.

Pace yourself, and you’ll accomplish much more over the long haul. Having tested this in both my physical training and my business life, I know it’s true.

The final pillar of success is a reward. Money, recognition, and status are only tangible placeholders business professionals use to keep score. The real rewards are intangibles coming from within, opening us to the person we were meant to become. It might be the satisfaction of making our ideas real, blazing a trail into new territory, or creating something our own rather than someone else’s.

As I prepare for my marathon, there are plenty of tangible rewards. By the time race day rolls around I will have amazing legs, less body fat, more energy and endurance, far less stress, and I’ll sleep like a baby. Yet the intangibles are the real reward.

The bone marrow transplants that currently save lives are also incredibly difficult. The preparation is lethal by design, destroying the patient’s own bone marrow before rescuing them with the transplant.

I am a cancer survivor. I’ve had a bone marrow transplant. At one point I journaled: “Oh Lordy. I had forgotten. Forgotten what it was like to lie here on my narrow bed like a sacrificial offering. Feeling my body being ransacked, my thoughts cast loose from their moorings. It flays the soul, laying it open, snick snack, with the sureness of a boning knife. There are not enough tears in one body to wash away the savagery of it all. How could I have forgotten?”

That was day two of preparation for my transplant. I had five more days to go.

On race day – and any day when training feels impossibly hard – all I have to do is remind myself that I run to raise money so that others never, ever have to feel that way. That is my reward.

If you want help embedding these five principles of successful business transformation in your business practice, contact me to see how I can help.

And if you would like to support better cures for cancer by supporting my marathon, click here to make a donation. I know for a fact this creates tangible results. I am only here because of the generosity of people just like you. Their donations helped fund the bone marrow transplant techniques that saved my life.

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E. Ann Hollier, Ph.D.

E. Ann Hollier, Ph.D.
Managing Partner
The Cogent Executive LLC

Ann Hollier provides strategic consulting and performance coaching to high achieving senior executives and management teams. She specializes in change management, strategic planning and implementation, leadership development, and building world-class collaborative teams. Learn more at

E. Ann Hollier, Ph.D.Successful Business Transformation: 5 Lessons from a Marathon Runner