Organizational Change is a Marathon, Not a Sprint

I just completed my first marathon in Chicago a couple of weeks ago. I started training in April to run 26.2 miles having previously only completed a 5K. It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. There were times during the last quarter of the race where I wanted to just peel off and sit down at the local Dunkin Donuts, or just sit in the middle of the road and not move. Just let everyone pass by and leave me to die. I’m obviously being a little dramatic here, but for good cause. It is hard to run a marathon, and don’t let anyone tell you different. It taxes you in ways, both mentally and physically, that the human body wasn’t meant to be taxed. With that said, the most difficult things to overcome can often times be the things that lead to the most growth and success. Stepping through fear and taking on those things that seem insurmountable are how we become better people.

The same goes for any organization who is driving a culture change. It is the long-term “marathon” which will lead to the ultimate prize of positive organizational change, but it doesn’t come without its fair share of pain and discomfort. Creating a positive culture where staff is self-aware, leadership development is championed, and tough conversations are had cannot be rushed. This kind of transformational change doesn’t happen overnight. It starts with a plan, like marathon training, and requires the discipline to live it day after day, without attempting to “short-cut” the plan for more immediate results.

In marathon training, you incrementally increase your mileage to handle the longer runs. In organizational change, incrementally rolling out smaller pieces of the overall strategic plan to implement will help the staff adjust and not be overwhelmed to the point they decide it’s not worth it. Giving them smaller goals which are difficult, yet reachable, builds confidence in the overall goal. Similarly, if I were to run 12 miles right after a run of 5 miles, I would get discouraged because the jump in distance would have come too quickly, making 26.2 miles seem impossible. But because each week our team ran a little more until we culminated in a 20-mile training run, we gained confidence that each week it was only a couple more miles than the previous week. By challenging your staff, but not overwhelming them, they collectively will realize that the next incremental goal is reachable. Whether that is an increase in sales, beating a fundraising goal, producing more units, or beating a safety record, there will be confidence they can reach it.

During the marathon, there were different stages of the experience. The elation and adrenaline rush off the starting line, the feel good of the first 10 miles, getting to the half-way point and taking stock, then The Wall. Everyone tells you about it, and it’s different for everyone, but no matter how it happens, it sucks. In organizational development, there comes a time when change has been going on for a while and progress is being made, but you just get stuck. Whether you need to reorganize your team, lay some people off, or just bring them together for a team-building session, something needs to happen to mentally get through that difficult stage. This is where having a very strong leader and/or a very strong mission is paramount. The team needs to be able to focus on the “why” in order to make it through “The Wall”.

Celebrate your successes throughout so that people don’t get too down on where they are going and the time it takes to get there, but also looks back and gets a boost from how far they’ve all come. During the marathon, I reached the 18-mile mark and began to cramp in a couple of different muscles. Because of my previous experience, I knew that if I slowed to a walk rather than push through, I could run again for a period of time before feeling the cramp come on again. Sometimes organizations have to pivot, or slow down and re-evaluate rather than forge forward. Be aware of your organization and staff and its capacity to handle forging ahead. Taking one step back may allow you to get to the finish line, whereas pushing forward may require you to shut down completely, and in my case would have required an Uber ride to the finish line.

Getting to the finish line is one of the most incredible feelings. Whether it is reaching an organizational goal, or finishing the marathon, it is worth celebrating. Don’t hold back on making a big deal. It will not only show your staff appreciation for what an amazing job they have done, but it will also give them motivation for the next big change. After I finished the marathon, I was by myself, wandering aimlessly through the finish chute, staying on my feet for fear of being whisked away by the “Finish Line Police” if I fell to the ground where I would be held in a medical tent for an hour until they released me. (They really do that) I did not have the energy or interest in ever running another race in my life. After I got back to our team tent and saw the celebration and talked to other runners and got the pats on the back telling me how proud they were of what I accomplished, it made me consider doing it again. The longer the time from the run, and the closer I get to actually being able to walk down stairs again, the more I’m considering how much has changed in my life, and how much I’ve accomplished, and BELIEVE I CAN accomplish by running this marathon. It was truly a life changing experience.

In organizational change, many times those in leadership don’t have the appetite for the time and discipline it takes to reach the promised land. Impatient shareholders, boards, and sometimes staff cause leadership to waver in their resolve and either shortcut change, or abandon it altogether. Speaking from my experience in both organizational change and running a marathon, hold fast and press on. The payoff is worth it, regardless of the short- term pain.

P.S. The organization I mentioned above, World Vision, is a Christian organization working to help communities lift themselves out of poverty. For good. They have been instrumental throughout the world, and most recently in the areas ravaged by the recent hurricanes. Team World Vision is a group of people committed to raising funds to provide clean water to children in Africa who have to walk on average 6K per day to collect water from sources which are typically unclean. The goal is to provide clean water to everyone on earth through wells, rain catchment systems, water pumps, solar kiosks, and more. Water changes the lives of children. They have better health, improved nutrition, and can go to school instead of spending the day fetching water, improving their chances for education and business development.The Our team I ran with here in Rockford, Illinois has raised almost $300,000 to date for clean water. If you are interested in providing support me through Team World Vision and bringing water to one child in need, please consider visiting my fundraising page HERE.