Approach your Board Career like an Olympian

All gold-medal athletes have one thing in common; they didn’t start at the peak of their game. They consistently worked hard, applied themselves to becoming a highly proficient expert at something, and progressed up to the highest level in their field (making a series of ‘minor’ wins along the way as they reached the top). They also masterfully balance periods of hard work with periods of hard rest and recovery.

Sound familiar?

This is the same path that I see board members taking in their board career. This gives us a wonderful opportunity to adopt some lessons (and tips from the top) from the inspiring athletes we just watched in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Here are some principles from elite sport that you can adopt into your life as a corporate athlete:

1.    Long-term with short-term goals along the way.

Athletes know that reaching goal medal level performance doesn’t happen immediately. Rather, it takes a long-term commitment of deliberate practice to achieve “smaller”, short-term goals (like winning their local, state, and national competitions) to build the foundation for elite performance on the highest stage.

Your board career will likely follow the same path; starting on “smaller” (but no less significant) boards, learning as you go and building your board skills, providing the foundation for progressing your board career to “bigger”, more sophisticated boards over the course of many years.

To make it clear, of course you can choose to be elite at any level of board service. Organisations of all sizes appreciate and get great value from great, high performing board members. There’s nothing wrong or bad about wanting to keep your board career at this level (or any level). We’re all chasing our own version of ‘greatness’.

2.    Losing is learning.

The most valuable lessons often come from when we ‘lose’ in our game. Rather than seeing losing as a problem, elite athletes see losing as a lesson. They lean into the discomfort that losing offers and therefore become receptive to the lessons that it teaches them about their form, methods, approaches, preparation, and habits.

What happens when you experience ‘losing’ or have a setback? Do you resist it and dig deeper into “your way” of doing things? Or do you leverage for improved future performance?

I have made many mistakes in the boardroom and with my board career (and professional career), and these have become the foundation of extremely valuable lessons that have enhanced me as a board member and my performance in the boardroom. Yes, it’s uncomfortable, but I choose to see it as a learning opportunity. Losing is only truly a loss if you don’t take anything from it to grow and improve.

3.    Deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice is the development of greater and more complex skills and performance through lessons designed to push students just beyond their current skill level. As Anders Ericsson put it, “deliberate practice is purposeful practice that knows where it’s going and how to get there”¹.

For athletes to reach the top of their game, they train by doing things that are aimed at progressively make them better and better at their particular game. A very basic example is that runners become better runners by running, not by swimming.

Applied to your board career, deliberate practice provides you with an opportunity to understand and invest directly into the specific skillset needed to perform at a progressively higher and higher level (e.g. as you join the boards of larger, more complex organisations). You become a better board member through board service, regularly reviewing your performance yourself or with the support of others, investing this learning into your board practices and behaviours, applying it the boardroom, and continuing this process.

4.    Periods of hard work interspersed with periods of hard rest and recovery.

Smart athletes know that the best gains can come from well planned and executed periods of rest. Rest and recovery are an active part of every elite athlete’s regime.

As a ‘corporate athlete’ you can also make significant gains through regular rest and recovery.

24/7 performance is not sustainable. Performing at the level that you want and need to, in order to achieve your long-term board goals, necessitates periods of rest and recovery. In addition to replenishing your energy, recovery periods provide useful reflection points where you can look back on your just completed period of hard work, evaluate it, and make notes on the area(s) where you need to do some deliberate practice (either independently or with a coach).

 

Many of the board members of the largest organisations in the country have one thing in common; they didn’t start at the peak of their board career. They consistently worked hard, applied themselves to becoming a highly proficient expert at something, and progressed up to the highest level in their field (making a series of ‘minor’ wins along the way as they reached the top). They also masterfully balanced periods of hard work with periods of hard rest and recovery that allowed them to sustain their high performance. If they can do it, I am confident you can too!

¹ Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool, Peak. How all of us can achieve extraordinary things. 2017, Vintage, London. Pages 97-98.


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