I was a tri-varsity athlete in high school: cross country in the fall, indoor track and field in the winter, and track and field in the spring.
The first two teams were coached by history and English teachers, and while accomplished runners, they weren’t exactly competitive spirits. The track and field team was another story altogether. It was led by the (American) football coach, because sprinting short distances and throwing heavy objects in awkward ways is what football players do to keep in shape when not on the gridiron. This was a completely different environment, one that valued results above all else. I thrived under the competitive pressure and became an important contributor in medium distance events.
The football coach had a saying that he’d repeat almost daily: “You lose muscle two times as quickly as you gain it.” I took it to heart, spending an hour in the gym five days each week. At the varsity athlete dinner at the end of my senior year, he acknowledged only two student athletes by name during his speech. One was the captain of the football team; the other was me. “So-and-so and Kevin Cohn hit the gym every day because they know that you lose muscle two times as quickly as you gain it.” Somewhat ironically, earlier that day was the last time I ran even semi-competitively.
I have no idea whether or not this is factually accurate—it probably isn’t—but it stuck with me as a powerful statement on the importance of preparation and keeping oneself sharp. Later in life I encountered Malcolm Gladwell’s fantastic book, Outliers, and then the Sandler mantra, you can only manage behaviors, not results, which is central to my management philosophy. The connection between the three is obvious: identify what needs to be practiced and then do so with consistent regularity.
When you’re operating a startup, the path to building execution muscle is obvious: put in the work. Because the daily grind is all about execution, simply showing up and having your head in the game will, over time, yield success. You’ll encounter novel situations and learn how to respond to them, strengthening your ability to detect patterns and make quick and accurate decisions. Traditional avenues for professional development — conferences and the like — further strengthen execution muscle.
Building strategic muscle is considerably more difficult, partly because there’s always an execution fire or two that needs dousing first, but mostly because there’s a relative dearth of opportunities for any given person to provide input on a matter that truly is strategic. How, then, can one build strategic muscle?
I made this an area of focus during my time off between Smartling and Brightflag. Since I had no operational responsibility, I could think only about the long-term what and why — and not the short-term how — if I so desired. Did it have a path to $100 million in ARR? What would cause a strategic to be interested in acquiring the company? Could the company be disrupted, and if so, how might such an outcome be avoided?
In effect, I did a lot of unpaid consulting and leadership coaching. The companies and people with whom I met benefited from my outside perspective, and I was able to think about business in a different light. Moving forward, I plan to carve out a meaningful amount of my personal time to provide guidance to founders and up-and-coming individuals, so that I can continue to sharpen my strategic thinking.
Not everyone will have opportunities like these. Luckily, a new breed of company is emerging to offer similar opportunities for strategic development. Chief, an organization for professional women, is one such example. I hope that these companies gain traction quickly, so that more people can be given regular opportunities to develop their strategic thinking. After all, you lose muscle two times as quickly as you gain it.
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