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How to Stretch for Success – Business Lessons from our 3 x Ben Nevis Bike Challenge

By Gordon Carmichael

Some businesses move from year to year making small adjustments but never stretch themselves for the big achievements. Other more ambitious businesses, and their leaders, try to find a way to achieve leaps forward that at first sight look too hard or possibly foolhardy. Some succeed and others fail.

Without setting ambitious goals, taking calculated risks, implementing careful strategic planning and proactive problem solving along the way, the big leaps are rarely made.

I would like to draw an analogy with a group of middle aged mountain bikers that I ride with most weekends, typically covering 12-15 miles on local technical trails. There was a collective desire for a more challenging project to stretch us. Various options for a suitable longer trek were discussed at “team meetings” – aka post-ride drinks at the pub. This compares with business strategy meetings where ideas are floated, discussed, filtered, and prioritised.

In January 2018 the decision was taken to ride the South Downs Way in May 2018 and 6 of us committed – it would stretch us but hopefully not kill us. Compare this to the vision for a new company direction – the management team needed to buy in 100%, believe that the plan could be achieved and that the reward would be worth it, but also recognise that there was a risk of failure.

Ben Nevis

The route would start at Winchester and finish at Eastbourne covering over 100 miles of long grinding ups and massive fast downs. The comparison was drawn that the cumulative 13,000 feet elevation of the trek would be the equivalent of climbing to the summit of Ben Nevis from sea level each day for three days. The magnitude of the challenge snapped into clarity – just like a committed management team we were determined to make it work.

The detailed planning and allocation of tasks and responsibilities started. We needed places to stay, secure overnight bike storage, train journeys at either end, places to eat, baggage logistics, spare parts, tools, access to water, medical kits, detailed routes for the three days, clothing to cover unknown weather conditions, bikes in top mechanical order, energy nutrition and higher fitness and endurance levels.

It was clear that a training plan would be necessary to stretch and test us before the trek. We had different fitness and mountain biking skill levels and a mix of individual activity and group rides would make sense. This peaked with a tough 40 mile ride 2 weeks before the trek. The milestone achievements boosted the team’s confidence, but could we do it for three days in a row?

Day one started early on the allotted Friday morning with a team breakfast and the train to Winchester. The ride started on schedule at 9:00am and the weather was dry and mild – so far so good.

Like any business journey there will always be bumps in the road and you may need to adapt. The prevailing wind would normally blow behind us but not today. Never the less, day one was completed without any serious mechanical issues or injuries and our bags had been successfully delivered. Our eyes were on the prize – a substantial meal set us up for the morning start.

It had rained overnight for the start of Day 2 and it was colder. The trail up from our B&B back to the South Downs Way was brutally steep in places and the mud was very greasy. We had started later than planned as the taxi company moving our bags cancelled our long standing booking and offered no alternative. Just like in business, unexpected problems can threaten to derail the plan. Team work and commitment saw us through this and we found a solution with the help of our hosts.

At midday it started raining and did not stop. We had all carried clothing for this eventuality and some expensive pre-trip purchases were instantly justified. Just like in business, the smart investments can pay off big time.

We had our first major mechanical issue with a burst rear tyre due to a sidewall cut. The rain turned up the volume. Our spare part planning paid off and a new tyre was fitted. One of our team fell off his bike at speed when a wheel jammed in a deep muddy rut. Fortunately, he was able to run and roll without injury. Shortly after this, his rear hydraulic brake pipe was severed by a rock. This was not fixable on the trail, so he did without a rear brake for the rest of the trek.

Had we taken on too much and would the trek beat us?  It was a huge relief to arrive at the B&B and our hostess welcomed us with “would you guys like a Bud”. Our dry baggage was waiting for us, warm showers were available and the pub with dinner was only 100m away. Just like a committed management team, we still could again visualise the prize. We had dealt with the curved balls and we could make it. Our team spirit was bursting again.

Day 3 dawned – an incredible breakfast was waiting for us, the sun was shining, and the ground had dried significantly overnight. We had to climb the longest hill of the trek, but we were prepared and regular stops to recharge got us to the top. When we could see Eastbourne, it was elating. The town was basking in late afternoon sun and the sea sparkled.

The 3x Ben Nevis statistic was recalled but this time the doubts and pain were gone. We had succeeded.

The mountain bike team was strong, and we had worked through the problems. The team’s planning and contingency preparation made success possible, just like in ambitious businesses that want to achieve a huge leap in their performance.

Contact Gordon Carmichael to discuss how our business advisors can help you develop a business strategy to achieve your stretched goals.

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