Preparing to succeed

Some sunkissed, sun-lounger moments over the last few weeks will doubtless have been spent thinking about the start of the final third of 2019 and how to prepare best for a strong finish to the year. What better time to share with you a summary of the key insights provided by Olympian and Paralympian coach, Keith Antoine, when he was a guest on the Success iD podcast sharing his views on the importance of preparation.

The business case for preparation

There’s a difference between preparation and catering for eventualities. People think they have to prepare for what’s going to happen, which is different to preparing for what may happen. Here’s where I am, here’s where I want to go, I will lay the ground as I want the ground to go, yet life has a tendency to mess that up. This can lead people either to feeling, “What’s the point in preparing as you can’t guarantee how it’s going to go?” or over preparing, which can be unhelpfully constraining. You need to look down the road, see the journey, predict what might happen, then prepare yourself for those things that may occur. Being prepared for unpredictability gives you flexibility. A practical way to deal with reality.

Flexibility in planning is key

Expect a plan not to go to plan. Break a goal into small sections – it’s more practical to get from A to B then think about what route the journey make take from B to C, rather than A – Z from the get go.

For example, if you were aiming for success at the next Olympics: Then track back, to where you would be in an ideal world, at each separate staging post, ie each championship along the way or the end of each season. Ideally. Not setting these in stone. The stepping stones will ultimately just be fond memories, or not so fond if you get beaten along the way…but that’s okay, as at that point in the journey you were working on these as building blocks for your ultimate success i.e. gold medal at the next Olympics.

So, for leaders, you need to hold on to both the macro and the micro – the end state and where you are now. Leaders have pressures of hitting targets by year end, etc, as that’s what they’ll be judged on, just like heading for the Olympics. It can seem conflicting to take care of today in the rush for tomorrow but you absolutely have to deal with today in the context of tomorrow. People get wrapped up in the busy and judge output as success, but can’t join that up with future goals. That’s normal.

In big complex organisations it can be harder to make those adjustments when people are looking to you but the principle is the same. The world of business is moving so fast now, it is likely that a fixed path will not be relevant by the time you reach the destination. A good leader needs to have the ability to say “you know this plan we had, we need to change it as everything we can see in the environment is telling us the world has changed so what’s the point of keeping to our plan when it won’t apply anymore.”

Coach Keith and I unpicking preparation as a topic.

Connection between preparation and creativity

Some feel that too much preparation stifles the spark of creativity. However, without a foundation of preparation, a core, a central theme, how can you channel creativity effectively? Keith enjoys the creative challenge of working with Paralympians – no two bodies are alike. Working with Richard Whitehead, the double gold medal winning 200m sprinter, preparation/research/understanding of the facts enabled him to innovatively overcome technical issues Richard was having with his prosthetic legs on the bend of the track, to achieve a faster performance and the ultimate success.

In a business context example, prepared key notes for a speaking event are your backbone, but presenting is more than reading something out. You need to read your audience and engage with them and adapt to them.

Preparation is actually freeing, not constraining, both in sport and in leadership. It liberates us as long as it’s servicing the end. For example, Keith’s detailed notes of each training session enable him to deviate from the plan due to unforeseen circumstances like injury or sickness, as he knows exactly the position they need to come back to. If you resist spending more time on building the right foundations, the building won’t be able to fight the vagaries of the actual or the organisational elements, many of which are unforeseeable.

The relationship between preparation and experience

Leaders with many years’ experience, should be able to prep more effectively, faster. They can more quickly work out what should/may happen, at the same time as accepting it’s not absolute and it’s not infallible.

Experience is a wonderful thing as long as it doesn’t stop you looking around and constantly monitoring what’s happening in the here-and-now. New concepts are popping up all the time and experience allows you to determine whether you should pay attention to it or not. A coach may say “This is the latest thing, we need to use this…” Great, take a look at it, however, just because it’s new doesn’t mean it’s better. Experience will help you make those judgements. But you need to be open to looking at it, not just pay lip service. You may have 20 years’ experience doing something one way but a new way looks better. It doesn’t make that 20 years wrong. It was probably fit for purpose then. Value the experience but don’t get locked in to the experience.

Biggest ‘bang for buck’ takeaway for this topic of Preparation for Success

What really makes preparation work is trusting yourself. It’s very easy to get locked into preparation because you’re trying to justify what you’re doing to others, and it’s very easy to concentrate on creativity because you want to validate others’ ideas, but at some point the decision has to be made about what direction you take and you have to trust in yourself, your beliefs, your system, as that’s what drives everything else. It’s easy to get lost in the system and the organisation.

There’s a place for all of that but the most effective way is to trust in yourself whilst being open to other influences. If you’re comfortable with yourself and trust yourself, you’ll be in the best position to work effectively.

To listen to the original broadcast of Preparation as Success with Keith Antoine, please subscribe to the Success iD podcast on Spotify, Stitcher or iTunes.

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