Bicycling

Some of the Best Business Lessons I've Learned, I've Learned From the Saddle

This Walmart tech executive shares his passion for mountain biking, and what it's taught him.
Some of the Best Business Lessons I've Learned, I've Learned From the Saddle
Image credit: Courtesy of Jeremy King
Guest Writer
Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer, Walmart
9 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Wheels up at 6 a.m.: That’s the only rule for my Friday morning mountain bike ride. No excuses.

I ride with a crew of high-tech guys from Samsung, Intel, Facebook and other Bay Area companies, for an hourlong loop around St. Joseph’s Hill, near Los Gatos. We’re long gone by 6:05 a.m., so if you’re not there, you’re left behind! There’s no waiting for anyone -- even if you’re the CTO of Walmart. We all have to get to work on Fridays, and we want to get our ride in.  

Related: How a Bike Trip Across New Zealand Helped This Entrepreneur Realize Her Dream

I’ve been mountain biking now for more than 20 years. I grew up in Morgan Hill, a small town 10 miles south of San Jose, tucked between the Santa Cruz Mountains to the west and the Diablo Mountains to the east. So mountain biking is second nature: It seems that in Morgan Hill, everyone rides the singletrack -- kind of a rite of passage.

(It helps that Morgan Hill is also the headquarters of Specialized, a homegrown -- now internationally-leading -- cycling brand.)

How I merged my love of mountain biking with my passion for work.

Mountain biking is an important part of who I am, but that wasn’t always the case. I spent some years away from the sport when work took over, and I seriously neglected my body. I can pinpoint the exact day when I decided to get back into it. I was at an eBay leadership event in Santa Cruz.

One morning, about half the team members suggested a run in the woods before starting. I had been a collegiate athlete, so I thought, "How hard could this be?" It wasn’t that hard of a trail, but that didn’t matter; within minutes, I thought I was going to die. Literally die. I faded back from the group, sat down on a tree stump and waited for them.

One of those guys, the late, great Bob Hebeler, who was a triathlete and in the best shape of everyone in the group, ran back and waited with me. He encouraged me to run another half mile before walking with me the rest of the way back. That was the moment.

I started riding (and running) again, and Hebeler and I became friends. And it was from that moment of kindness that I learned a valuable "best practice" for life and work: that the strongest guy on the team should always help the weakest -- lift that individual up and help him or her improve. It’s one life lesson that I always keep close.

In the years since, I've achieved a much better balance between taking care of business and taking care of my body. Work is still very demanding, and I travel a lot; but whether I’m in Bentonville, Ark., or Bangalore, India, I still like to catch a quick ride -- for the cardio, but also to focus my mind. And, believe it or not, I’ve learned a good many other life lessons from the saddle. Here they are:

1. Watch the trail in front of you.

Keeping an eye on what lies ahead is crucial in business and mountain biking alike. Many executives get too bogged down in the day-to-day activities of running a company to see the changes taking place in their business, market, industry -- and in my case, technology -- and are therefore surprised by them.

A recent Harvard Business Review survey of 270 corporate leaders showed 42 of them indicating their belief that the inability to act on signals crucial to the future of the business was the biggest obstacle to innovation in large companies.

“Too many companies wait for the annual strategic off-site to roll around before they address the changing dynamics of their market," the article stated. And I can relate: On a mountain bike, there’s just you, the bike and the trail; and the difference between exhilarating success and a potentially nasty spill comes down to experience and split-second decision-making.

But in business there will be no such surprises if you have: a) the right people on the ground, constantly looking forward and providing feedback, so that you can make the best, most strategic decisions; and b) the right processes, technology and corporate culture to quickly react to and implement changes.

Image Credit Courtesy of Jeremy King

2. Stay balanced and flexible through rough straights.

Our riding group's weekend mountain bike rides are longer and take us further afield: the Saratoga Gap Trail, the Soquel Demo Forest Flow Trail and around the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Related: Richard Branson Blogs About His Near-Death Bike Accident

We’re frequently riding drops and corners on jagged terrain that we don’t know as well. And there's a lesson there, too, in terms of biking: When you ride through uncharted territory, the key is to keep your weight central on the bike and your feet on the pedals. That way, if you hit some rough patches, you’re less likely to lose control.

Finding your balance in business is just as critical when you're confronting some unexpected bump. What's key there is to keep confident about your abilities and roll with whatever the terrain throws at you. Never stiffen up or get locked into place. Soon enough, you may realize that you’ve been down a similar path before, and you’ll remember how you conquered it.

3. Surround yourself with the best gear (and people).

For decades, I rode the same Specialized Rockhopper I'd bought back college. It never let me down until I started riding with guys who were much better than I was, and better equipped. Suffice it to say, I learned the painful way that gear matters. The same goes for business: The technology you use can either empower your organization or limit its abilities, so you’ll want the best you can afford.

Countless companies have been transformed by technology, of course, from the disruption of IT organizations by the SaaS model, to companies like Netflix that changed business models, using new technology. At Walmart, we’re seeing dozens of examples of long-running business processes that can be dramatically upgraded and efficiently replaced with machine learning.

So, keep an eye out in your own business: Make sure you continue with your lifelong learning, and remain acutely aware of what’s happening around you.

Similarly, surrounding yourself with the best and brightest people means that you will constantly push one other to do better and achieve more. When everyone on your team is challenging and supporting everyone else, businesses can accomplish amazing things.

4. Push hard -- even when no one’s watching.

When I’m grinding on a steep, technical trail and come across an easier path, human nature compels me to take it, but I never do. I’ve learned over the years that you can’t take shortcuts in life or business and expect superior results.

Everyone is familiar with the axiom, “Integrity is what you do when no one is watching” -- it’s a critical quality of the best business leaders. In fact, integrity is one of the top leadership attributes, according to The Economist Executive Education Navigator blog. The blog described a survey by Robert Half Management Resources in which both the employees and C-suite leaders polled placed a high premium on integrity among executives.

Tim Hurd, the survey author, observed that, “Companies with strong, ethical management teams enhance their ability to attract investors, customers and talented professionals.” In short, integrity is essential for motivating team members, because if they don’t see that quality in you, they won’t adopt it in themselves.

And me? I’m not opposed to finding better, more efficient ways of doing things, but while taking shortcuts may make your job easier or advance your career, ultimately it’s the organization that will suffer.

Image Credit Courtesy of Jeremy King

5. Appreciate the big picture.

When you’re ripping downhill on the trail, you have to focus. But when you’re climbing upwards, there’s a lot of time to think and appreciate your surroundings. Some people wear headphones when they ride, but I don’t.

I want to hear the wind, the birds, the sound of my tires and my bike on the road. Those sounds make me think. And when I get to the top of St. Joe’s, I like to stop. There’s a beautiful view there of all of Silicon Valley, and oftentimes the sky is clear all the way to the Bay Bridge.

I like to imagine that I can see all the stuff that’s going on down there -- the startups, the entrepreneurs and innovators and the captains of all those industries -- getting ready to start their day and take charge. Many of those leaders are visionaries, and to get to where they are in business, they, too, had to stop and look at the big picture.

Nothing gives perspective quite like pausing at the top of a technical trail, taking in the scenery … and then owning it on the downhill. In business, when you don’t have the big picture, the scenery owns you.

Related: These #5 Women Bikers are Riding on The Road Less Travelled

Mountain biking -- the sport, the community, the outdoors -- has become an essential part of my life that keeps me focused, supports me through tough decisions and reminds me of what’s important -- in both life and business. Riding the trail is not for everyone, as my many cuts, scrapes, broken bones and terror-inducing experiences will attest. But if you ever find yourself in the hills of St. Joe, we’d love to invite you along on our Friday ride. Wheels up, 6 a.m. sharp.

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