What running a marathon taught me about business development

Maggie O. Connors is director of business development, J. Walter Thompson New York

This time each year, I become a bit nostalgic. Not just because the autumn leaves remind me of school in Vermont or the fact that Thanksgiving is around the corner, but because on the first Sunday of the month more than 50,000 people do something tremendous – they run the New York City Marathon.

I had the privilege of running this amazing course a few years back. Time and again, I am reminded how much the experience taught me. The tools, discipline and perspective it gave me have influenced my personal and professional life. And it is also why I keep running … even if it’s just two miles in the cold, at 5 a.m. with a headlamp.

There’s something about preparing for a marathon and the simple act of running that is incredibly analogous to business development – something I know a little bit about. In running, there are so many things to learn; new people to meet; goals, big and small, to reach for; days when you feel on top of the world and days where you want to throw in the towel; and, of course, the ultimate … crossing the finish line. That’s what each day is like working to grow a business – pushing mile after mile until you win.

So with that, I thought I would share five lessons that running a marathon taught me about business development. Maybe these will inspire you to pick up your sneakers and approach business development in a new way.

Perfect the basics
When you decide to run a marathon, there’s nothing more important, and nothing more basic, than the shoes and clothes in which you run. They need to fit, help you perform at your best and function properly. It’s amazing how one faulty shoelace, shoes that blister or a shirt that’s too hot can become the difference between finishing and not.

The same holds true for business development. When you are out in the world selling the promise of your company or organization to prospective clients or partners, you are only as good as the tools in your toolbox. You need the stories and the content to deliver. Perfecting the simple narrative of who you are, what you believe, how you think, plus the proof points through the resulting work, is the foundation of successful business development.

Get out there
Training for a marathon is all about getting out the door in the morning and just doing it. No excuses.

In business development, there’s nothing more important than getting your name out there. Picking up the phone to call that old client to tell them about your company’s new division; going to that charity event and networking; sitting on a committee or a panel that covers an important industry topic. Every call, discussion and new person met is an opportunity for a lead.

It’s a team sport
At first glance, running appears to be a solo activity … but preparing to run a marathon cannot be done alone. You need peers and friends who have the same vision and end goal you do. When I ran the marathon, I ran with the charity Team for Kids, and had 100+ fellow team members that got me through every week of training and mile of the marathon. We would encourage each other every step of the way – when our legs were stiff or it was raining cats and dogs – and we’d cheer each other when we’d run a little faster or longer, taking note of what we did right so we could do it again the next day.

Business development is all about the team. There’s nothing more important that the camaraderie, support and goodwill between you and the people around you. And it’s not simply about collaborating – it’s about helping, respecting and championing each other. Working together to always push to the best possible solution and idea, and never letting each other settle or veer off course.

Just. Keep. Moving.
I remember when I hit mile 18. It was getting colder, the crowds and cheers were a bit sparser and my legs felt like bricks. At that moment, instead of focusing on the fact I had eight more miles to run, I focused on keeping my feet moving. One step at a time, one foot in front of the other. Just. Keep. Moving. I knew, at some point, I would finish.

Keeping your feet moving in business development is that little secret no one tells you. When times are slower, the urge is to stop, reboot and revaluate. My experience has shown the exact opposite works best. Take that meeting that seems like a long shot. Say yes to a proposal request that’s due in only two days. Try. Pitch. Call. Present. Keep the wheels moving, because every opportunity is a chance to practice, perfect and try new things. Doing so allows you to perfect the machine and build momentum – so when the big one comes in, you’re ready.

During the last two weeks of marathon training, our coach made us do something that, at the time, I thought was a bit corny. He made us run the last mile of the marathon, past Tavern on the Green, through where the finish line would be – over and over again.

I quickly realized his point – to imagine yourself finishing, to feel yourself already crossing the finish line helped you believe. It made you believe that this seemingly unattainable feat was just a few strides up a small hill in Central Park. It made you believe that not only would you finish but that you’d finish strong.

There are many important aspects to succeeding in business development, but at the top of the list is simply believing that you can.

Photo courtesy of Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com


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