Pushing your personal edge

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In this week’s ramblings from the coaching front line I’m going to talk about finding the motivation to get the tough stuff done (there is a whole different conversation coming about why this stuff feels tough). It comes off the back of a week of continued uncertainty which is disrupting the rhythm and focus of the businesses I work with.

One of my clients, Gary Livingstone, is currently cycling over 1,000 miles from John O’Groats to Lands End. You can check out the details and of course hand over some cash here.

As well as seeing others complete these endurance challenges (lets call them that for the sake of simplicity) I have completed a few myself. From the point you commit and start training to the point you cross the finish line is a heady cocktail of small personal victories coupled with hardship and mental struggle.  Invariably the completion of something that you perceived to be beyond your reach has the potential to impact your sense of self worth, in a highly positive way.

Just like the clichéd use of sporting metaphors, the parallels with growing a business or overcoming commercial adversity are irresistible. Yet my experience of eight years spent coaching directors and owners to grow businesses (and motivating myself to grow my practice) has shown me that it really isn’t that simple.

So where does the motivation comes from for these types of challenges? More importantly, what can we learn from our motivation in these challenges that transfers into our commercial lives?

The flames licking your butt

Whilst specific triggers seem to be unique to individuals, motivation boils down to one of two key sources; the desire to move away from pain or move towards pleasure.  The vast majority of humans are motivated more by the former, than the latter.


On the surface it looks the decision to participate in an endurance challenge is motivated by the desire to achieve a goal (move towards motivation). The preparation and training that follows is to minimise the pain of participation (move away motivation). Or at least that is how it looks.

I have spoken to many people who have undertaken major challenges and, more often than not, move away motivation is still the force in play. We often voluntarily undertake challenges as a way of proving to something to ourselves or others, or as a way of distracting ourselves so we don’t have to deal with other things that are going on.  We can also participate to overcome a sense of boredom with day to day life, which makes the call to adventure irresistible. This is move away motivation.

Either way, understanding the true motivation that drives your level of participation in life is important. It can help you access the inner resources you need to get the job done or save you the effort of doing things you don’t really want to do.

Your business marathon

There are lessons from endurance events that provide useful pointers for getting the major challenges in your business resolved. But before I take a look at them I want you to have a think about something.

The difference between an endurance event and a business is that one is finite and the other is continuous, or at least that is one way of looking at it. If the cycling or running gets tough you can push through simply by recognising that the end is coming. With a business it feels like a project that never ends. If you want to access the motivation you get in that can in an endurance event then start to view your business growth as a series of discrete projects. Each one with a specific goal and plan.

As you look at your business today what is the ONE major project that would make the single biggest difference to the growth of your business. Perhaps it’s a sales drive, a major recruitment play or a system implementation. Pick one and stick with it.

Clarity of the goal

Endurance events have a crystal clear goal, typically a combination of a distance and a time. You either achieved it or you didn’t. Whilst there are outside factors like weather, illness or injury that may stop you attaining the goal the key determinants of success are within your direct control; your fitness to participate.

In business we tend to frame goals as an outcome e.g. numbers of customers, sales or margin. These outcomes are subject to factors beyond your influence, such as customer behaviour, competitor activity, market and economic shifts.

When I set goals I set them around activity rather than outcomes. For example instead of a goal of ‘increasing sales by 10%’ I would use ‘design a new group coaching programme for business owners and market it to my existing and historic customer base’. Both goals have the same outcome but everything in the second statement is under my direct control.

Laser Focus

I’ve often said that the easiest way to earn a living is to be an Olympic athlete. I get that the training is gruelling and prolonged but, there is very limited things to have to focus on; essentially fitness, technique and nutrition.

Running a business requires that you attend to multiple disciplines and cope with multiple situations, all within the course of a day. Your attention has to hop and skip around as events emerge. An athlete can reasonably predict how each day will go but a business owner can often see their well planned day fall apart within minutes.

A great attraction of competing in endurance events is the sheer simplicity of the goal. It may be tough physically but it is simple. Keep pedalling or putting one foot in front of the other. A mind state of complete clarity is often achieved while participating. The month I spent in a fitness camp in Thailand was physically and, at times, mentally tough. But it also came with a calm, almost zen like, state of mind.


The way to achieve this level of focus in business is through a combination of ruthless prioritisation and delegation. In reality I think many small businesses just do not have enough people so the owner ends up tangled in the operational firefighting. Trying to fix too many things and attend to too many issues is why running a business can seem tough and even boring. Delegating more and continually backing activity off to your team allows to focus on the few key things that will keep you moving and growing.

Keeping on track

I’ve been tracking Gary’s progress. I can see his daily mileage, time spent cycling and the amount of elevation he has climbed. I can see not only how he is progressing towards his end goal. I’m also able to see whether he is on track each day. More importantly though, he is able to clearly measure his progress and achievements.

In business there is often multiple hoop to jump through before a measurable result is obtained. For example, a sale may have to go through a number of stages before you finally get the order. In addition, most small businesses are not always that good at tracking their profit and loss account so that the actual profit made (the ultimate goal for the year) is often not known until six months after the end of the year!!

This is why I am obsessed with the measurement of activity in the business and regular reporting of financial data. Understanding where you are, relative to your target, at any point in time, helps to focus your attention and keep you in the game (because ultimately business is simply a game you are choosing to be involved in).

Nowhere to hide

As I said earlier whilst the motivation underpinning an endurance event looks like ‘move toward’ type, it will include a large dose of ‘move away’ motivation. The potential risk of letting down your team, sponsors or all the people you boasted about your event to is a highly powerful motivating force.

In an endurance event there is nowhere to hide. Your achievement of failure is laid bare for the world to see. You can’t even kid yourself if you didn’t give it everything you had in the tank.

In business there are plenty of places to hide.  The circulation of your results can be restricted to you and your accountant. No one has to know.

There are also lots of excuses available and plenty of external things to blame when you don’t achieve what you wanted.

This is the principle reason why coaching is such a powerful tool for the business owner. You can make all the excuses you want but they won’t wash with me. The role of a coach is to hold you to account for the way you show up and the actions you take in pursuit of what you truly want. Surely there is no more powerful weapon in a business owner’s arsenal.