Our hobbies are supposed to be separate from our working lives. But that is just a theory. I have started to observe how our hobbies can show us how to create direct improvements in our “team based” work lives.
I first noticed this about five years ago. I read a fantastic blog by a Silicon Valley CEO that outlined how she learned certain business lessons from a recent cycle tour. As a cycling enthusiast, the blog struck a chord with me. I began to notice how my own experiences as a cyclist and a business team member have converged.
In cycling, the group of riders all together in a bunch is known as The Peloton. It is based on a model of cross-discipline teams working together for one outcome – to get a single rider across the finish line. If one team doesn’t pull its weight, then the whole group suffers. Even in a “breakaway” (a small group of riders ahead of the main group), these smaller teams still must work together to provide it the greatest chance of surviving, or risk be overtaken by the main group behind and lose the race.
This is how our we should look to structure our work teams. A team may be able to go fast, but unless it works with others it won’t go as far as it could. The same goes for our business teams. Rarely do teams work in isolation, we almost always operate in partnership and harmony with others. If we don’t, none of us will make it to the line as fast as we should or could.
Because we are human, we all make mistakes. We may fail to prepare ourselves properly for our races, we may start out too fast or choose a course with hills that are just too steep for us. These challenges happen to everyone at some point in their riding life. When it does, riders will find that another rider will often “fall out of the pack” and come help the rider overcome their challenge. They do this because they know when it happens to someone else, the person they just helped will be inclined to do the same. In our work life, we need to be able to recognise when our colleagues are struggling, and find a way to drop back and help them. Not only does this keep the team together, but one day someone may need to drop back and help me!
I cannot count the number of times a planned ride with a group of bikers needed to change mid-ride. Weather, tire punctures, mechanical breakdowns or sometimes we find our team is just slower than we expected. This almost always impacts what we do on each ride.
The best groups I join are ones that look at these events and see them as opportunities to find something new versus a disappointment. They know these adjustments can lead to a road not travelled before, a hill not climbed, a café not visited, or a lesson learnt. Through open communication, we make hundreds of instant decisions each ride, each of them a “pivot or preserver” one as Eric Reiss would say.
I have found a direct parallel to this cause-and-effect process in my work life. Organizations, teams, and individuals need to be flexible and adapt. Every company, project or initiative will face moments where the original goal might need to be adjusted. Communication with all of the project stakeholders is essential and understanding the data behind each decision is the best way to success, even if it’s not what was initially intended.
My final lesson is one I learned the very first time I climbed a mountain on a bike. It was in the Alps, and it was exceptionally hard! On this climb, there was a section which followed a narrow, wooded path. The bends in the road were hidden - I had no knowledge of how long it would be before I could reach the peak and start to descend.
I went through a little village and turned a corner. Out in front of me was a wide open plain where I could see a series of peaks in the distance and a crystal clear blue lake. Immediately, I felt a wave of euphoria as I knocked my gears down a little and took in the view. 20 minutes of incredibly hard work had turned into30 minutes of gliding back down the mountain.
Every climb seems to have moments like this. I try to bring these thoughts into every project, every presentation, every meeting I participate in. When my team has been working hard and reaches the end, I encourage all of us to do what we need to enjoy what we have achieved. This may be a social event, or it may be as small as going home early and watching a film. Above all, we all need to reflect on what we did right, zip our jerseys up, get on the drops and hit those descents prepared.
This blog was originally published on 29 July 2021, a day most of my compatriots were all focused on a football match. I was looking over at France where, an hour before kick off, a rider crossed the line in the day's stage of the Tour de France. This victory encapsulates all of my lessons above.
The rider, Mark Cavendish, is considered one of the greatest sprinters of road cycling. He is second on the list of all time winners of the Tour de France stages. Due to a series of physical and mental health issues, it had been five years since his last stage win, three since his last participation in the race and eight months since he thought his career was over. Just two weeks ago he wasn't even scheduled to start the race.
Through each of the lessons above, he resurrected his career, by working with others, by both giving and taking a wheel and by learning to enjoy each successful step along the way to rehabilitation. As a result he now has a chance of equalling the record he has sought for his entire life.
I could not have asked for a more apt case study. As we cyclists say, chapeau!