Nobody looks at an elite runner chipping away at their mile time and asks, “Is that athlete improving?”
The increments may be tiny — a second or even milliseconds — but you can see their improvement as their pace grows faster. You can put a number on it.
In the corporate world, measuring incremental improvement tends to be not so simple. When improvement metrics aren’t tracked in such clear-cut units as a runner’s miles per hour, the sense of improvement for the corporate athlete, as I like to call today’s super entrepreneur, can become muddied. It’s easy to lose sight of whether you’re moving forward or just spinning your wheels.
Too often, business leaders don’t have the patience to tell the difference. They opt for highly visible short-term gains over subtle long-term improvements. But what leaders at the most successful companies in the world have realized — the Apples and Googles of their respective industries — is that dominating your field over a long period requires a similarly long-term perspective.
Build Up Your Corporate Endurance
When talking about incremental improvement in the corporate world, I like to think of a quote often attributed to turn-of-the-20th-century social reformer Jacob Riis: “When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred-and-first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that last blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”
To paraphrase, progress isn’t always visible, but when you eventually see real improvement, it’s the cumulative result of your long-term efforts. In the biotech industry, we see this phenomenon all the time with drug development. New drugs need to pass through a gauntlet of trials and iterations before they ever hit the market, so we can work for years without seeing a return. But those small steps add up to major breakthroughs. It’s a marathon of incremental improvements, not a sprint to a one-hit wonder.
Consider Covid-19 vaccine development: Pharmaceutical companies have experienced interim success chasing variants, but they fall a step behind as the virus continues to mutate. However, the company to first develop a vaccine that works against future variants could be the one to dominate the space.
In a similar vein, my company is developing a drug that targets one of the root causes of glaucoma, but we are also taking a long-term perspective by looking at our molecule and its other potential applications to other ocular diseases. Eventually, patients may develop resistance to short-term drugs, which renders those treatments obsolete. This paves the way for novel classes of therapies targeting different underlying mechanisms in the eye.
Bottom line: Improve the standard of care for your customers and you have real lasting power as a company. Regardless of the industry you operate in, if you’re able to develop a product or service from a long-term perspective and commit to the marathon of reaching your goals, you could dominate your field for years to come.
Calibrate Your Perseverance
While long-term success requires long-term goals and the perseverance to reach them, it’s important to address the question that causes leaders to flinch: How do you know when to press on and when to change direction?
Like a minor-league baseball player who sweats for years at a lower salary trying to make the majors, a corporate athlete, too, risks waiting for a dream ticket that may never come. In the meantime, they waste valuable months — or even years — they could spend building value on another project, at another company or in another career path.
If you’re questioning whether to stick with a task or let it go, you can gain clarity by weighing the data. Look at your endpoints, costs, risks and every other piece of information you can measure. This is analogous to the elite athlete factoring in their physical fitness, pace, nutrition and other data points to set realistic goals for themselves.
Knowing when to change directions is also a matter of personal accountability. The last thing you want is for your own stubbornness to keep you trudging down a dead-end path. Fortunately, there’s a simple equation for this: Consider the cumulative impact of your values, your trust in yourself, the structures reinforcing your ability to reach your goals and your motivation.
Next, consider your positive habits; they have a multiplier effect on each of the previous elements. If you have many positive habits driving your behavior — or from a corporate standpoint, driving your company’s operations — you’ll likely have higher accountability.
Finally, check the elements above against your intrinsic sense of intuition. Do you feel like you’re talking yourself into or out of a decision? Maybe “One more season and I’ll make the big leagues” feels relatable. If your gut is telling you there’s a problem despite the other elements checking out, it may mean you need to keep digging for data.
Think Like a Corporate Athlete
An elite, long-distance runner must commit to habits like regular training and optimal nutrition, and they also need to accept that transformational change happens in incremental steps, not all at once. How else can they convince themselves to put in the work day after day?
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Succeeding as a corporate athlete requires the same commitments but with the added challenge of not always being able to see the progress you’re making. You’re both the marathon runner and the rock cutter whose cumulative effort can help you reach your goals — if you can stay the course. If you lose track of your progress and start to doubt your plan? Apply the equation for personal accountability: It’s one methodology that can create structure in what can otherwise be a difficult-to-discern process.
After all, choosing the long-term path over short-term gain isn’t the easy choice, otherwise every leader would make it, but it’s how runners become marathon winners and companies become dominant leaders in their fields.