Organisational and personal success: it’s not a sprint but a marathon

It’s a truism that the goals most worth achieving involve an effort more akin to a marathon than a sprint.  I work with several relatively long-lived organisations – one of them, a religious order providing residential care for the elderly, in five regions of the world, is over 150 years’ old.  There are very few businesses that have proved so enduring.  What do you need to do to be in it for the long haul?

I cannot claim to have run a full marathon, but I did complete a half marathon in Bath in 2013.  I’m still quite surprised at myself.  Before 2011 I’d never run more than a mile at a go and that was when I was at school (40 plus years’ ago!).  How on earth did I do it?  Looking back, here are some lessons I learned, all of which, on reflection, resonate with what I have experienced with the Sisters.

  1. Will power is not enough – you’ve got to really want it
    What kept me going out on a cold winter’s morning or evening to run faster or further on the damp streets of Chertsey when clearly, at that moment, there were more attractive options? I wanted to do it, odd as that may sound.  If the idea is to do something that takes you way above your current capacity, well out of your comfort zone, you are unlikely to achieve it if propelled only by notions like “I should” or “I ought to”.  You have to want to achieve the goal.  It has to capture your imagination.  Your desire for it has to be greater than your desire for other things.  Will power does come in to it – but only to reinforce something you want for other reasons.

    Still in one piece after the Bath half!

    When I met the Sisters for the first time, they had become (or so it seemed to me) focused on short term survival, closing houses as the number of active Sisters diminished and the operation could not be sustained.  They were in danger of getting locked into a cycle of decline.  The first thing we did together was to recover the longer perspective, the sense that they had a calling which mattered to them more than anything else.  That they wanted, at least, another 150 years of serving the poor and needy.  Clarifying this took up a lot of the early period of transformation and involved a total of over 50 meetings worldwide.  It might have looked overdone to some.  But it was this renewed sense of motivation and purpose that enabled the Sisters to undertake a gruelling and lengthy process of transformation.

  2. You need to be organised – enough
    Yes, you need a plan. It’s not enough to ‘just do a lot of running’.  You have to act purposefully, with a sense of how every step moves you towards the goal. You have to think about what will be required to achieve your goal (running 13 and a half miles in this case) and any ideas you have about how well you want to perform (in under 2 hours in my case) and devise an approach to enable you to do that.  You need a framework within which to place your effort.  I ran three or four times a week – in one I would aim at speed, in another at an extra half mile a week and in the other(s) I would just do it not worrying about time at all.  But the plan should not be too complicated or too restrictive, not a series of ‘musts’ – that just sets you up to fail!

    Of course, any process of organisational transformation must be organised.  But it is easy to over-organise it, especially from the top.  Yes, there were congregational plans and regional plans and desirable outcomes.  There was a significant element of describing and setting out to achieve a vision.  But we avoided ‘targets’.  There were no 100 page plans and complex sets of Gantt charts.  Things changed as we went – we had enough of a plan to be able to improvise where necessary.  And there was little or no micro-managing.  The Superior General has the formal power to do just about anything, but she chose to trust the Sisters and a growing body of professional staff in regions and houses to manage the detail of implementation.

  3. Focus on the next step
    One of the paradoxes of the experience was that, though I was powered by the desirability of the final goal, I didn’t think about it very much. I found it much more useful, at the day to day level, to focus on short term goals.  The whole was too big to deal with at any given moment.  So, I would focus on how good I would feel when I completed this run.  If I was struggling I would just focus on getting to end of this road.  Then I’d worry about the next bit.  And, though I was far from the level of fitness and training required for the race itself until near the race, I’d take satisfaction in every further half mile or every second off my best time.

    Sisters in training

    In the middle of the work it was easy for Sisters and staff to feel they were trudging from one meeting to another, enduring one change after another.  Confusion and fatigue was the inevitable result and with that it was easy enough to lose sight of the goal.  At such moments, the mantra was always: “trust the process”.  Just keep on putting one foot in front of the other, focus on the achievement of the short-term goal, rather than worry about the whole, believe that you have done enough planning and preparation to carry you through.  And they enjoyed the achievements on the way – my favourite being the sense of pleasure and satisfaction enjoyed by the Sisters and staff who completed a university postgraduate course in care management.

  4. You have to enjoy the “journey” – the activity itself
    Even a highly desirable outcome, backed up by a good plan, probably won’t be enough if every step on the way to achieving it is torture or tedium.  If you don’t enjoy running then you will struggle to maintain the necessary training schedule.  I didn’t think I liked running until I tried it a few times but I discovered I did like it.  Of course, sometimes it was unpleasant or exhausting.  Usually the first half mile or so was the worst, the time when I felt most like giving up, but I found again and again that I got into a rhythm that was almost meditative and allowed me unusual clarity of thought.  I saw parts of the town where I lived that I never otherwise saw except in the car – every run was a kind of voyage of discovery.

    Before we started the process of change the Sisters saw little beyond the houses they lived and served in and houses within Regions had very little contact with each other.  One of the features of the process was that it brought everyone together and created a new sense of solidarity and shared purpose.  The Sisters like having a good time! – and meetings were nearly always fun, light-hearted affairs.  In short, I think they would say that, for all the slog and hard work, they enjoyed it – that the process had value for them, in itself.  It created a new confidence about thinking through and tackling problems together.  It made their world bigger.

The Sisters have turned a 150-year-old organisation around and moved from alarming losses to healthy surpluses in a marketplace which is testing and defeating many businesses.  They have overhauled their business model and have been able to do it because it assures the long-term future of a venture that exists to fulfil a shared vocation.  They have, and are still doing the work required to run a marathon.  And I’m still running too.

Does your marathon have a process and a purpose?

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2 thoughts on “Organisational and personal success: it’s not a sprint but a marathon

  1. I try and go for short runs in the early morning (half an hour), and this is making me ponder whether I should aim for longer! I welcome the helpful insights from running that lead to organisational reflection.

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