06 January 2022 17:09:07 IST

The CEO and co-founder of TalentEase, Fernandez is a thought leader in education and a consultant and coach to school heads, teachers and parents. He has 18 years of outsourcing leadership experience in the Asia Pacific, consulting with and servicing global and regional clients. He was previously partner/managing director with Accenture, Singapore. He was the COO with Hewitt Outsourcing APAC, and President India Life Hewitt. He has overseen teams in sales, operations, client and account management, technology, finance and HR, and has extensive experience working with multinational clients across a wide industry and geographic spectrum. He is a sought-after speaker at education and industry conferences and is a columnist with Business Line on Campus .

Which race are you running?

Marathon running race, people feet on city road

Leaders need to ask themselves if they are building a great business or just chasing the next quick buck.

Just a few weeks before the 2021 ended, I participated in the Hyderabad Marathon doing the 10k run. It proved an interesting lens through which I could ask some important questions about the new year. There were three runs happening — the 10k, the half-marathon at 21.5k and the full marathon at 42k. As I ran, I was observing my fellow runners in the 10k but also some of the half marathoners and full marathoners.

It was striking to me how the attitude, the behaviour and even the expression on the faces of these three groups of runners were so different. It set up a compelling question for all of us aspiring leaders as we kick start the new year — do we know which race we are running in? The answer could have important pointers to how I live and how I lead.

How I run

Watching a recent co-founder team split was anguishing and yet predictable. One half of the team were marathoners who had come prepared for the long haul, the other half were chasing overnight success. From decision-making to people choices, to consistency and rigour, it was an almost invisible tug-of-war until working together became impossible. Which race am I running in — building a great business or have I entered a business and everyday am I occupied with how much I can exit at? Am I building excellence and services and offerings that make a difference or am I just chasing the next quick buck?

How I run is also driven by who I compare with. Imagine a marathoner feeling frustrated as he sees a 10k runner zip past him. If he has a poor sense of his race and his finish line, he may sometimes yield to temptation and accelerate needlessly, losing energy and strength. Imagine a 10k runner deciding she’ll match the languorous pace of the marathoner. She’s unlikely to set any 10k records let alone finish within a qualifying time.

There are times that the marathoner does run a little faster — it may be taking advantage of an easier stretch of terrain, it may be making the best of a second wind. They know when they need to build a mini sprint into their marathon.

Business leaders often do this — they know that even though they are running a marathon, there are times when a sprint is needed. There are times when they must urge an exhausted team to find that inner strength and resolve, for a second wind. Covid times brought this challenge. Many business leaders found that in the toughest times, they had to dig the deepest, they had to find reserves of superpowers they didn’t even know they possessed.

Then they had to make that superpower infectious — challenging their teams to raise their game, right when they were ready to give up. Those businesses and leaders were left standing after the worst of the crisis swept the rest away. Surviving was what counted and the marathon leaders by sprinting at that moment had kept their team and business prepared to resume the steady pace of the race once a semblance of normalcy returned.

What I celebrate

It was funny to see several 10k runners rush for the water table and health snacks literally 500m after the race started. To them, that was a good enough milestone to celebrate, to take a breather. The marathoners on the other hand looked at 5,000m as a milestone. Many 10k runners spent a lot of time taking selfies as they ran, some even live-streaming their ‘herculean’ effort to friends and family. But the half-marathoners and full-marathoners ran undisturbed by these distractions.

They consulted their GPS devices sometimes to help them gauge where they were, but their faces were set on a longer distance, a bigger goal. They ran with silent fortitude and grit, their faces set on a finish line much further than other runners could see.

Their milestones were different. What and when they celebrated were different. Leaders need that self-awareness of the race they are running. It helps them set the right goals, it helps them decide which milestones matter and which should not.

Elizabeth Holmes — the former star founder of Theranos, who was convicted this week — was a sprinter looking for the adrenalin-rush of the sprint. The problem was she didn’t know she was running in a marathon. Every milestone she celebrated was about celebrating valuations not value. She modelled herself physically on Steve Jobs with his turtleneck sweater, but she hadn’t picked up his marathoner qualities — the stamina for the long run, the quest for genuine excellence for itself rather than for the approval of others, the resilience to bounce back from failures with hard work rather than scamming your way to the finish. She celebrated milestones which were really just illusions.

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I saw this too with some of the 10k runners. Many had obviously come to just have a good time, so they weren’t averse to taking a little short cut. In the one of the earlier runs which involved a route that took a U-turn and came back for the return, several runners just crossed the road and continued with the run to the finish, without having gone the distance on the way up — guilty smiles on their faces. Very Holmes style. Full marathoners had come prepared for the long haul — there seemed a sacred integrity to going the whole distance.

How I adapt

Which race you’re in decides how you’ve come prepared and how you adapt. Have you been practising doing 10k every day and decided that was enough to take on a full marathon? As the 10k and 42k runners ran it was easy to see the different paces they adopted. You’d often see a 10k runner burst into an excited sprint, you’d catch him a few minutes later gasping for breath at the side of the road. The marathoners pace demonstrated the twin qualities they brought - focus and consistency.

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Take this insightful piece of self-awareness from Ben Horowitz in his classic and must-read The Hard Thing About Hard Things:

“The most important thing to understand is that the job of a big company executive is very different from the job of a small company executive. (At a big company) I spent most of my time optimising and tuning the existing business. Most of the work that I did was “incoming” …big company executives tend to be interrupt-driven. In contrast, when you are a start-up executive, nothing happens unless you make it happen…Without massive input from you, the company will stay at rest.”

Knowing your race helps you decide your pace.

Ultimately, we must be aware that we are in a run, not a race. Each of us has our own unique finish line and therefore each of us must decide that we must run to complete our own race, not somebody else’s. This leads to clearer decisions, happier lives and more impactful leadership. Knowing and choosing our race is just as important as getting to the finish line.