Gold medals or last place?

athletes running on track and field oval in grayscale photography

The best athlete in my class at school was a guy called Ray. The best by far – he’d be halfway around the 400 metre track before most of us had got to the first corner.

He had natural talent in abundance, far more than the rest of the class put together. (Admittedly, I did my best to make sure that wasn’t any harder than it needed to be, as I have the sporting prowess of a beached octopus.)

After winning every trophy at school, sometimes competing against boys two or three years older than him, we all expected Ray to be lining up for the next Olympics. Yet within a year or two he’d dropped out of athletics completely and, as far as I know, he’s never competed since.

The reason’s simple.

Because he could beat all his classmates easily, he stopped training as hard as he used to. He could win without going on that five mile run before school on a cold and drizzly winter morning.

Because he could beat us all easily, he thought nothing of staying out late at a party on a Friday before a competition on the Saturday morning. He still won.

Because he could beat us all easily, he started smoking to try to look even cooler than he did already (I know…different times…), and would have a drag behind the changing rooms before sprinting round the track to collect his medals.

In the good times, life was easy for Ray. He could do what he liked and still win every race. He became convinced he was unbeatable.

Except he wasn’t.

He had more natural talent than most of the people who were selected for the Olympics a few years later. No question.

His problem wasn’t a lack of talent, but rather that gradually, probably without consciously realising it, he started doing things that drained away the advantages his raw talent gave him. In the end, it was relatively simple for someone who trained every morning, didn’t go out partying the night before a race and didn’t smoke to do to Ray what Ray used to do to us.

Businesses are like that too.

I’ve been inside plenty of businesses over the years, but very few of them achieve their maximum potential.

Slowly, over time, without anybody realising it, businesses make enough decisions which turn out to be the equivalent of a ciggie break behind the PE block before a race. Short-term pleasure for long-term pain.

In good times, it might not matter too much. But in tough times, it’s the difference between success and failure…between thriving and not even surviving…between collecting the gold medal and wheezing around the track to finish after the winners have had their showers, got changed, collected their medals and headed for home.

That’s why, when I’m working with a client, although my objective is to grow their business, my first port of call is to see what might be holding them back.

There’s no point telling someone to train harder until they’ve give up their 20-a-day habit because any improvements will be tiny until they do and people quickly become disheartened by the lack of progress.

Kick the fags first, then we’ll start training hard. That’s how you’ll see the rapid improvements that keep you motived when training’s hard. You’ll get better and better faster than you thought possible.

It’s not the lack of potential that holds businesses back. Every business has the potential to be a world-beater.

But their potential is always capped by the number of “short-term gain, long-term pain” decisions they’ve taken along the way. Sooner or later it’s payback time.

Sort those out first and you’re knocking on the door of success a lot faster. Ultimately nobody can train hard enough to win the race while dragging behind them the dead weight of the decisions and behaviours that hold them back.

To get better faster, the starting point is to stop doing the things that make getting better harder.

Published by Alastair Thomson

Founder of Better Business Publishing Ltd. An experienced Chairman, CEO, CFO and Non-Executive Director for large multinationals across sectors such as advertising, manufacturing, financial services, utilities, printing, direct mail fulfilment, contact centres, professional membership bodies, education and training.

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