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Brave enough to not be busy

Sometimes we talk about being less busy as a kind of dream or a luxury. Not being overworked is not a luxury that you earn through success –it’s the key to being successful in the first place.

If each of us wrote down our definition of how to be be a good leader would we include something like “be so busy that you never have a moment to spare”?

No. And yet that’s how things end up for a lot of us, for a lot of leaders.

“It’s when we are at our busiest that we most need to free up time so that we can use it for the non-routine and the unexpected. In this way, we increase our capacity to lead…”

Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, Herminia Ibarra

Herminia Ibarra was building on an insight from John Kotter‘s study of general managers which showed that the most successful individuals had the most unstructured time in their days, the most gaps in their diaries. Effectively they made themselves less busy.

“Capacity to lead” is such a useful phrase when thinking about being a leader and our relationship with being busy. Kotter’s more successful general managers had more capacity to lead because they hadn’t overcommitted themselves to meetings and other scheduled activities in advance.

Unstructured, uncommitted time means that you have more ability to respond to things in the moment. Perhaps it also means that you’re more available, more present in the main workplace, instead of being sequestered away in meeting rooms. You get to see and hear what’s going on, get a better idea of what’s happening.

Ibarra’s phrase – “capacity to lead” – is striking because it is so fundamental to the role of a CEO or another leader. If you are too busy, you reduce your capacity to lead, which is irresponsible if not incompetent. Worse, you are implicitly saying, through your actions and demeanour – this is what a leader looks like: busy, over-stretched, unavailable.

In saying your responsibility is to create and protect your capacity to lead, we head off that other unconscious bad habit of busy people, that being less busy – having time to reflect, talk to people, lend a hand where it is needed – is an aspirational luxury, and probably an unattainable one. This attitude is an abdication of responsibility and a denial of the power that they actually have in their working lives. “I’d love to spend some time thinking, but it isn’t going to happen.”

Leading is an endurance sport

The Olympic marathon champion, Joan Benoit Samuelson, talking about long training runs, says “You need to have the guts to go slow at the start”.

Guts. You have to be brave enough to hold back. To go slower than you know you could. It’s harder than it sounds.

Brave enough to hold back: Joan Benoit winning her first marathon in 1984, Credit: (cc) On the Issues magazine. Image cropped.

On long runs –in races as well as training – when you start out on a 90 minute or longer run you start full of beans and a bit excited about the challenge. You discover you have lots of energy and want to go faster. Suddenly you’re moving a minute or two faster a mile than you wanted to. Perhaps you’re fitter than you thought? Maybe all the training and the rest has paid off more than you thought. The endorphins begin to enter your system and –wow– it occurs to you that you might actually be a superhuman.

An hour later with miles still to go and you’ve run out of glycogen and the easy stores of energy in your body, it’s harder to keep moving and you don’t feel like you’ve anything in the tank. You will finish through sheer bloody mindedness, but it won’t be pretty and there won’t be anything like a sprint finish. Kind of the opposite, in fact.

When you run well, you go slower at the start of a race, even if that means you see runners you know you could keep up with heading off into the distance. Then you go a little faster each mile, or maybe speed up a lot more towards the end–it’s called a negative split. In the middle of a race, if you run like this, you start to catch up the people that sped off at the start but have found out the hard way they won’t be able to keep that pace up. In the last third, you start over-taking people and keep doing so all the way to the end. I heard one coach describe this experience as “the tide goes out at the start, stops in the middle and comes in at the end”.

Perhaps because it is the beginning of the year her words came back to me in January. Rested and raring to go after the long Christmas break, I thought that I would come in and hit the first week at full speed. That’s what I need to do, right? That’s what bosses do.

No. No, it’s not.

Have the guts to go slower at the start. Have the guts to increase your capability to lead. January is a good time to spot behaviours you want to change as they start to reassert themselves after a long break.

Runners in the Christmas Day parkrun in Preston Park, Brighton.
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Tracksmith, stories and experiences

Connecting a couple of dots: retail experience and luxury.

The Economist says that luxury goods manufacturers need to look at selling experiences as even the poshest products become commoditised:

Makers of luxury have come to realise that the paradox of industrial craftsmanship can be pushed only so far. To captivate new clients and keep the older ones on board, brands will have to invest shopping with a sense of occasion and give ordinary customers some of the individual attention they have lavished on their biggest-spending ones. Increasingly, that is what they are doing. When Burberry launched a perfume in September, it gave customers a chance to inscribe bottles with their own initials, both in shops and online.

One new brand I’m watching at the moment is Tracksmith, a running apparel label from Luke Scheybeler, co-founder of Rapha the company that showed that stylish clothing at a high price would sell to cyclists.ZZ4AE0A249

With no physical stores yet, and a small collection of niche products, it is using story to create an experience for its customers – the story of running, style, culture and history. And the story of its own beginning.

Since it started, earlier this year, Tracksmith has been selling a small but growing – one or two items at a time – collection of clothing based on traditional New England and Ivy League designs. (Duffer of St George did something similar in the UK in the 90s, and then the brand drifted into mass market confusion.)

The brand is – like Rapha – defined by a bold, clear sense of self, of what it is about, the story it will tell, how it will feel to buy and wear its clothing. A beautiful website is a given with these guys – and this one is perfect. It takes its time – there’s space for the products. The look and feel of the photography is consistent and exquisite – you would buy the VSCO Lightroom pre-sets if they were available.

Tracksmith is testing the market and tempting it – a steadily building collection, limited runs of products. I’ve bought a couple to try out – and I’ve had to wait a couple of months until the first t-shirt I wanted was back in stock.

What’s interesting about Tracksmith’s content strategy is that – point of sale style aside – it centres on a print publication. Meter is essentially a Rouleur for running – all about the history and culture. It comes in a digital version too, but the print looks gorgeous – if you like design or photography and running, you want to own the physical one (only $5).

ZZ0EC2AC73As a runner, I’m used to technical, functional and often pretty unstylish clothing and – frankly – content. Runners World is the staple periodical for runners. It’s good for tips and motivation, but stylish and beautifully designed it is not – and its website is an embarrassment (I say that as a paying subscriber). It’s aspirational in a performance sense, but running as a culture and a lifestyle, not so much.

Any way – connecting this brand to experience. Look what happens when one of Tracksmith’s unsurprisingly pricey t-shirts arrives in the post

 

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The packaging is perfect, like receiving a gift.

And there’s a note in the form of a race number that marks that the order is one of the first 2,014 orders ever to be shipped. Everything about this feels special. Exciting. There’s a story being told and you are a part of that story is what it says. And – simple as it is – the quality of the product is exceptional.

So, Tracksmith. Watch and learn…

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Blogging on Ghost

So after failing completely to set up a Ghost blog on a server (not very technical, me) the hosted version is now available. Hurrah!

I’ve tried it out and set up a blog. It will be about running and will hopefully let me try out the platform and spare readers of this one endless details of training regimes, long runs in the rain etc.

Ember

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My most inspiring run (and how to start running)

Andrew Missingham asked me some questions about my running recently. In the interests of sharing and thinking in public – here they are, along with some photos from my running…

1. What’s the most inspiring run you’ve ever been on, in a city? What was it about it that was inspiring? What time of day was it? What could you see, feel, hear, smell?

It was in New York City, one hot summer morning at dawn. I ran from Chelsea out to the Hudson and ran up to the Upper West side, then back into Manhattan, through the southern end of Central Park and back down to where I’d started.

What was inspiring about was the variety of things I saw. The rotting pillars of old freight jetties in the harbour, the early morning workers shuffling along the street and later int he run the full strutting stampede of New Yorkers heading to offices and shops and studios. I saw the city wake up as i ran through it…

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It was so hot even though the sun was just up. The various smells of the foreign city – the river, the trash, the traffic, the coffee and breakfasts being made in cafes and street stalls. It was exhilarating, as New York always is – it’s a wonder of the world, the centre of the world, the greatest city ever, organic and alive, decay and growing anew variously. Incredible and captivating – you’re lucky to be there and to run there is to become a part of it, of the morning crowds of quiet runners and cyclists – dotted here and there on the avenues, moving in lumpy herds in Central Park and along the river.

The first part of the run, the dawn part along the river was wonderful. Once I’d made it to the waterside I was on Manhattan’s Greenway – I could run as far as I liked around the island without having to worry about roads, taking in the sights.

There were little parks along the route here and there. Some amazing sculptures of grey figures, eery and wonderful that made me stop to be sure they weren’t actual people dressed up (or something stranger). Those statues were literally inspiring, as I spent the next two or three miles making up a story about a sleeping disease whose sufferers rose like somnambulist zombies to terrorise the wakeful… fun.

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2. When you go for a run, what would you wish was available on the run, that would make your run easier (and make you more likely to run?

I am pretty self-sufficient on most runs. Being of a gadget-ish disposition, I carry water and sports drinks (this is my current favourite thing – a Nathan Trail Mix 4 belt).  If it is very hot then somewhere to re-fill water-bottles or buy a cold sports drink can be essential.

In cities, wide paths, well lit and public feel safer. Where there are other runners you always feel more secure to settle down into the groove of your run.

What makes runs easier is routes that mean you don’t have to cross roads. In part of New York runners share the wide bike-lanes with cyclists. In Brighton I like to run on the seafront or – even better – on the lonely chalk trails of the South Downs.

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3. What tools do you use to inspire you (music, apps, maps etc.)? How do these help you? How might they inspire you more?

Route signs and maps are really helpful in places you don’t know so well. You can become stuck in a rut running the same routes sometimes and it is great to suddenly notice a lane or a park you can run through for variety.

Big maps on signs are useful when I don’t know the area so well as it is easy to get lost, especially if I don’t have my phone.

Signs that make it clear whether it is OK to run in a bike lane for instance are really helpful. If you feel you have the right to run somewhere, like you have permission, it stops you worrying.

I listen to audiobooks and podcasts most while training. I used listen to my favourite podcast – Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo’s Film Reviews – while commuting. Now I look forward to catching up with it on a 10 mile run at weekend. When things get tough though – the music comes on – I have playlists for endurance and for motivating me to run faster.

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4. Taking yourself right back to the beginning of your running journey, what did it feel like to start running? How might the experience of running be made better, or easier for people just starting out?

Starting running is really hard. You have to overcome a lot of doubts about yourself and grow a habit of getting out there regularly. You have to not care that you look ridiculous, and you have to weather the odd nasty experience like being shouted at from cars or uncontrolled dogs chasing you.

What makes it easier?:

  • Apps:  The simple act of clocking up the miles on an app like Nike+ (as I did) or Runkeeper, helps you to see the progress you make. Also free apps for getting cadence right (metronomes), working out pace and best of all Walkjogrun – which shows you routes of every distance that runners have plotted around the world.
  • Other runners. I got a good set of shoes and some running gear from Run, a shop run by brilliant runners in Hove. Along with your purchases you get encouragement and solid advice. The owner, Karl, is on Twitter and has given me some sage advice via tweets. Once I said that my morning outing had been “less of a run and more of a miserable shuffle through heavy rain”. Karl responded to the effect that “they all count, Antony – especially the duff ones”. From an experienced runner that felt valuable – and its a great way of thinking about rubbish runs – they are the ones where you really had to be tough to get out and finish them.
  • Good gear – and plenty of it: One thing I did early on that paid off was to make sure I had a enough gear – tights, tops, socks, gloves, hats – so that I could always find something to wear for a run in any weather. Eliminating excuses not to go for a run one by one, is something that’s a good habit to keep.

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  • Expert help. I kept getting a bad back having to stop running for months – then it would be hard to start all over again. Chiropracty just postponed the problem each time I went – it kept flaring up. When I went to see a professional sports physiotherapist I got the problem properly diagnosed (tight hamstrings) and sorted it out quickly – but basically as part of the process I learnt to run again. From scratch. Analysing my gait (running technique) on a treadmill he showed me how to run more efficiently, with a higher cadence and landing on my mid-foot. The effect was transformative and within a year I’d completed my fast race and was rapidly getting fitter – a trajectory which continues today. (If you live near Brighton – he’s Kevin Hall: highly recommended!)
  • Supportive friends and family. My wife was so pleased I was running it really helped me get started and still helps me carry on as I run marathons and half-marathons fairly regularly. A couple of years ago she also took up running, which helps a lot. Praise means a lot from those you love – and often from other people too. (The flip-side is weird people who feel they have to warn you about the perils of running – with no apparent expertise on their side. You have to learn to ignore their “helpful” concerns.)
  • Advice and acceptance. Runners are incredibly inclusive for the most part, and generous with advice on how to get better. Right at the start I recall a Mum of one of our kids’ friends passing on the nugget that “it takes three weeks of running and then you are completely addicted”. Her advice was spot on, and that helped me get through the first three tough weeks of starting to run. Continuing in that vein, the simple three-step advice I give to people wanting to start is:
  1. Get a good pair of trainers from a running shop – they will cost about £60-80.
  2. Run every other day for 20 minutes or two miles, walking whenever you need to – record it on app like Nike+.
  3. Keep it up for three weeks. See how you feel then – and start setting goals – longer runs, enter a race and follow a race plan from Runner’s World. Find a Park Run near you to join in… and that’s it. You’re a runner.

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Brand content as culture

The North Face Ultra Trail Mont Blanc race is taking place today. The runners will cover over a 100km on some unseasonably wintry mountains in the next few hours.

There’s a double interest here for me. I love running, and seem to love running ever increasing distances. So ultra-marathons have a fascination for me, even if I may never get to run one.

There’s also a professional interest here of course – The North Face’s sponsorship of the event and some of the elite competitors and the content marketing that comes out of it shows us how this sort of thing can be done well.