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Effort ≠ Success: The Art of Strategic Balance

A light breeze blew over Lake Michigan, causing the ordinarily small waves to crash against the harbor wall, creating a washing machine effect for swimmers. Floating in the water, waiting to start my first triathlon, I was terrified.

Only three months earlier, I’d taken on the challenge of racing my first triathlon. In my naive early 20s brain, I figured it couldn’t be too difficult. I could run and knew how to bike, so what could be too hard? My swimming, however—if you could even call it swimming—was more like a glorified doggy paddle. I couldn’t make it a full pool lap without gasping for air and reaching for the pool wall. With only one element to focus on, I put my head down, literally and figuratively, got in the pool and put in the work. My doggy paddle adapted into a passable front crawl, and I built my endurance just enough to race.

When race day came, sitting in that water, I was still terrified. I was afraid of the unknown, the open water, the other swimmers next to me and the murky water below me. I had my plan, though; I could see the finish line a half mile up the harbor. I knew what I had to do, and I knew I could physically do it. So when the horn went off, I did what I'd practiced. I put my head down and swam. Stroke, stroke, breath. Stroke, stroke, breath. I was in my rhythm and going at a good clip.

After a few minutes, I could no longer feel the splashes of my competitors or spectators on the shoreline. I picked my head up and couldn’t find any other swimmers. I panicked, taking in a big gulp of lake water, choked it out and looked around again. Somehow, instead of going straight along the shore, I’d taken a direct path toward the center of Lake Michigan en route to Michigan.

Picking Your Head Up

Often, as leaders, we know exactly where we want to go, we have a clear picture of our finish line and we’ve done all the work to get there as fast as possible when the time comes to sprint. The problem is, if you put your head down and swim toward the finish line without looking up, you’ll likely find yourself alone in the lake with no one around you.

I like to say I immediately learned my lesson, but the truth is I overcorrected, swam nearly directly back toward shore, almost slamming into the harbor wall, then overcorrected again and swam out to sea until my misery finally ended when I turned back to shore and the finish line. I learned the hard way that when swimming in open water, it’s critical to pick up your head every 100 meters to spot where you’re at (and where you’re going) and to make adjustments to get back on course.

There is a delicate balance between putting your head down and doing the work—driving hard because you have ambitious goals and demanding investors—and pausing to assess progress, make adjustments and realign your direction. It involves putting tactical practices into your workdays, weeks and quarters to ensure you pick your head up. One can’t happen without the other. You can’t simply spend all your time with your head up, assessing your strategy, and you can’t just put your head down and work the plan without course-correcting.

So often in business, we’re incentivized to move fast. Our board pushes us to set bigger and bigger goals with fewer resources in a shorter time span. It feels impossible to slow down and pick up our heads to assess our strategy, redirect or forge a new path, so we put our heads down and plow through. When we finally look up, we’re so far off course that we overreact and make decisions without the proper information, causing us to veer into a new and equally wrong direction. This zigzag strategic pathway slows down progress, causes team members to lose trust in your strategic ability and, ultimately, puts your team and business at risk.

There’s an intense fear in our business culture today that if we’re not running at full steam, we’re failing or on the brink of failure. This is the fallacy in our mental model of progress. We believe growth and success come from incremental steps until you reach your goal. The more effort you put in, the more progress you’ll see. Though it sounds nice, it’s just not how growth works. We may take three steps forward, then five back, and then feel like we’re stuck in quicksand before we ultimately make a giant leap forward.

When it comes to leading hyper-growth teams, knowing where you want to go and working your ass off to get there isn’t sufficient to reach your ambitious goals. Getting your team moving in the same direction toward your desired future requires more than just effort and ruthless determination; it requires planning, structure and masterful communication.

It's about empowering leaders across your organization with tools and practices to create a clear path, master their time and communicate for performance. When your managers lead with these structures, you'll have a culture of performance to pursue even more ambitious goals.

Originally published in Forbes on March 4, 2024.


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