Cycling is similar to many other professional sports. Beyond dealing with grueling physical challenges, cyclists rely on a strategy, and despite the fact that one person is ultimately awarded the title, a large degree of teamwork.
As an avid (though mediocre) cyclist, riding is my exercise of choice for clearing my thoughts, removing myself from the business world and ensuring greater focus and clarity.
Many aspects of cycling have helped me understand and manage business teams more efficiently and effectively. In honor of the start of the 2014 Tour de France on July 5, here are three cycling truths that even non-cyclists can learn from:
1. Members of the group know their leader and the leader knows the importance of the group. In multiday stage races like the Tour de France, each leg has a distinct challenge. One might be covering the distance. Another might be related to the terrain. Each leg requires different skills, and while professional riders are good in all areas, some specialize in one.
To effectively put together a winning tour, the members of a team cannot all be conditioned to excel in short individual time trials, sprint finishes and long climbs. Individuals must specialize in one of these. Likewise, employees on a team need to complement one another’s skills -- not duplicate them.
Most businesses do a decent job in diversifying their talent. The real challenge, however, is in making these differences clear to employees.
In cycling, each team member knows his individual role. He may be there to catch a breakaway and bring a person back to the pack (or peloton). Or he may be there to try to push the pace -- with the goal of tiring out members of other teams. Others are there simply to protect the chosen leader. By sacrificing themselves and making the leader’s ride safer and easier, the whole team goes for the yellow jersey.
2. There’s an art to suffering. In every Tour de France, there are epic mountain stages with long, punishing climbs through the Alps. Probably a rider will question at some point why exactly he got on the bike in the first place.
Sometimes I arrive at a point of questioning why I even own a bicycle (and this arises while trying to conquer a hill in my home state of Illinois, recently rated the second flattest state in the United States). Perhaps it’s due to the physical exhaustion. Or maybe sitting on the same, hard saddle for hours has worn on my disposition.
Such is the case with businesses. Entrepreneurs continuously pivot and push their companies forward -- a long process that can be physically and mentally taxing.
Suffering with grace is critical, however. Sure, it may be the fourth 16-hour day in a row, but the whole team is likely in a similar position (or recently was). And while injecting negative energy into a company is not done on purpose, complaining is detrimental to those looking for inspiration, particularly during an uphill climb.
Let’s take a lesson from Jens Voigt (riding this year in his last tour), who famously pleads with his body while leading breakaways up mountains, “Shut up, legs!”
3. Every battle matters. Whether in a stage race with natural breaks or during a long one-day race, competitors constantly have a distinct strategy to win the battle over the next 10, 20 or 50 kilometers. Even those who are long shots to win the race need to have a plant to conquer each of these battles.
The winner of the tour gets the yellow jersey, but each stage has a winner as well. And there are jerseys for best climber and most aggressive rider. These are not consolation prizes. They are serious competitions in and of themselves.
Many entrepreneurs are similarly tackling problems while pitted against larger competitors. Trying to unseat one of these competitors or win a client is a task that needs to be broken up into a million small battles. Acknowledging incremental progress builds momentum and morale. Yes, the goal is to win the war, but the individual battles do matter.
It's often said, “None of us is as smart as all of us.” That is certainly the case in the Tour de France, where an individual operating alone, regardless of skill and fitness, would have no chance against a person backed by a team. Business is no different. Even sole proprietors need to rely on partners and teammates.
When a winner dons the yellow jersey this year, remember that it took a team of nine riders, all suffering through 21 different stages, to get him there.