Learning From The Greats

I’ve always enjoyed learning for the greats of any discipline I practice.  Their lessons and experience drawn from years of practice can spare people like me many mistakes, or at least help us recognize similar situations to follow or in some cases to avoid.  In addition, these greats often provide the inspiration to succeed for us mere mortals.  With my passion for both triathlons and business, it will be no surprise that I would often read books from leaders in both these area.  Jack Welch and Chris “MACCA” McCormack are both greats of their disciplines and have excelled in their chosen trades for decades.

Though at times controversial, Jack Welch has been a pioneer in business and sat at the helm of GE for 20 years from 1981 to 2001.  In my MBA and my own research, I’ve studied Jack Welch in the past and have applied many of his lessons from his book Winning throughout my career and still to this day, I try to remind myself of some of the lessons from this great leader in business.  Similarly, when I started triathlons three years ago, I started studying the greats of the sports and I have always had a keen interest on Chris “Macca” McCormack and have studied his career quite closely.  It will come as no surprise to most of you then that I purchased and quickly read his newly released book.  As soon as I picked up the book, I noticed certain similarities between the approach of these two men in their own disciplines.  To start off, the titles are eerily similar between Welch’s Winning and Macca’s I’m Here To Win.  The title alone indicates a deep-seeded mentality of competition, goal setting and absolute commitment to success for both these men.  Of course, there are many other similarities and key points that we can draw from these two greats in their own area.

Candor

The first and most obvious characteristic both these men share is candor.  Jack Welch calls it “The biggest dirty little secret in business” and Macca undoubtedly applies it in everything he does.  Some may call him blunt, others arrogant, but he just lays out the obvious to those around him regardless of the consequences.  Welch argues that “lack of candor basically blocks smart ideas, fast action, and good people contributing all the stuff they’ve got”.  Surely, Macca would agree with this same philosophy he’s applied so well throughout the triathlon community and sport.  In fact, he demands this honesty from those around him preferring not to be surrounded by Yes Men but by people who can discuss his performance and weaknesses openly.

The title of their books alone show that success comes from a deep-seeded winning mentality and focus

As rare as it is effective, candor can and has shocked people for both of these leaders.  People within GE and the business industry often had difficult time getting used to Jack Welch’s candor.  Those in the triathlon world had just as difficult a time to get used to Macca’s vocal and blunt commentary.  Nevertheless, it is their ability to openly talk about their problems and challenges that has made them so great in their respective disciplines.  Both these men advocate and practice this honesty enabling them to discuss the real issues and tackle them head on.  It is surely a key differentiator between them and the competition leading them to have an honest conversation about their core area of focus.

Know your Business and your Competition

Knowing your business is key to excelling at it.  Within any entity, those who reach the top usually have a deep understanding of the business they are in.  Jack Welch knew his business inside and out and often spent quite a bit of time in the dark corners of his conglomerate.  In fact, he proportionally spent more time on the new and small businesses that could ensure some of the company’s top growth.  Welch seemed to always question everything as he looked for ways to grow more, to grow faster, to grow smarter.  In addition to knowing the internals of his business, he studied his competitors relentlessly.  He knew what they released last year and planned to release the coming year, he knew what key acquisitions they made, which talent their hired, etc…    In fact, Jack told his team that they have to “know what each competitor eats for breakfast”, and having studied the man a bit, I’m guessing he was only half-joking.

Macca is just the same.  From being a kid when he watched the “Iron Wars” over and over again with Dave Scott and Mark Allen to his current work training for the Olympics, Macca has been an incredible study of the sport and his competition throughout the years.  From the sport to his competition, Macca has been relentless in knowing all aspects of it.  From a competition perspective, he knew all the splits of all the top 10 or 20 competitors and knew exactly how they would respond based on their latest race data.  He knew all of their strengths and weaknesses and knew exactly how to not only beat them all but how to use them against each other.

When Macca couldn’t find the answers he needed inside the sport of triathlon, he wasn’t afraid to look outside.  When he needed to work on his cycling speed, he looked for the greats of the biking world to give him pointers and adapted his training accordingly.  At one point, he even went to bodybuilding to find the long elusive answer to his cramping problem which was a key to his second win in Kona.  It is this ability to challenge conventional wisdom and look outside their core areas that has enabled both of these great men to exceed the possibilities of their time and excel in a tough and challenging environment.

As Macca has recently transitioned to his effort to make the Australian Olympic team and come full circle in his career (I wish him the best in his latest pursuit of course), he has shown once again his impressive tactician ability in his analysis of the Brownlee brothers, whose mere names instill fear in the competition.

Macca has dominated both the ITU and long distance fields

Planning to Win

One thing I am confident both Jack Welch and Macca would agree is that winning doesn’t happen by accident.  Each of their success has been carefully planned through hard work and analysis.  Jack made it quite simple in his company by declaring that GE businesses would  become “No. 1 or No. 2 in every market, and fix, sell, or close to get there”.  Simple, but effective.  Jack made a clear goal and decided to compete in those areas where they could succeed and not to get dragged in areas that were not successful.  With the exception of Kona, Macca made similar decisions throughout his career.  As a heavier athlete, Macca knew which races he could win and which races to avoid.  For example, he knew it would be difficult to compete with climbers due to his heavier physique.  As such, you never saw Macca at Ironman Nice or some of the well known climbing courses.  On the other hand, when he set his sights on a course that would suit him he studied it until ever detail was sufficiently prepared to win.  Several reports I read indicated that Macca practiced the final stretch of Alii drive along with Terenzo Bozone dozens of time timing it exactly to the number of seconds it would take him to reach that winning banner.

This kind of preparation makes winning no accident.  Although it took him a few years to figure it out, Macca planned his nutrition very precisely with different stages depending on where in the race he was at.  I’m not sure where Macca got a reputation for being “Fluffy”, everything he does shows that he’s anything but.  On the contrary, his meticulous planning of all aspects of the sport, from the training to the nutrition and the well described psychological element is what ensured success for him and has kept him at the top of his sport for so many years.

There are many other success factors and similarities that could be drawn between these two men.  Clearly they both surrounded themselves with a core team that constantly challenged their ideas and sought expertise elsewhere when needed.  At no point in their careers were they afraid to take on tough challenges and rewrite the conventional wisdom on how to achieve them.  They both used candor as a weapon against inertia in their effort to move their respective disciplines forward and leap frog to new standards.  The business world already looks at Jack Welch as a man who revolutionized the domain.  Though he has his share of vocal critic, I know of no other pioneer that was able to move the bar without criticism.  Chris McCormack is no different in that he rewrote how to win in the sport of triathlon.  He challenged our thinking that short course specialists could not win long course events, that heavier athletes can take on lighter physiques, that older athletes can become world champions at the Ironman distance.

I’ve learned a lot from studying these leaders’ performances and experiences as well as their books and clearly, Chris McCormack’s book I’m Here To Win shows that he is to triathlon what Jack Welch was to business.