Game on: Leadership lessons from an athlete executive

Reprinted from Associations Now

BY / AUG 1, 2016

Sheri Jacobs, FASAE, CAE, recently ran her 30th half marathon, and she has run 14 full marathons. But when she was growing up, she hated running. How did she go from zero to 26.2 miles?

She started running at 29, won a few local races, picked up more speed, and ran the Boston Marathon twice. The fact that she transformed herself from an “anti-runner” to an accomplished marathoner showed her that she could set huge goals and accomplish them.

The “confidence that you can achieve things that seem very big” is important in running a company, says Jacobs, founder and CEO of Avenue M Group, a marketing agency that works with associations. You need confidence to deal with the uncertainty that comes along with running an organization, she says.

Running has also helped her strategize. Succeeding as a long- distance runner requires setting a big goal and smaller goals along the way. As a competitive runner and as an executive, “you have to plan, but you also have to make course corrections when things don’t go as planned,” she says. When things go wrong, “it can paralyze people, but you have to be able to make adjustments.”

Running has given Jacobs perspective on competition. “There will always be somebody who’s faster than you,” she says. “Running is not about competing against other people—it’s about doing your own best.” She started Avenue M Group during the recession, and she wondered where her company would fit in among competitors. “We thought, where’s our space?” and looked for the niche where they could be the best, she says.

Marathon running, even in the best circumstances, entails dealing with adversity. In one Chicago Marathon, the temperature climbed to 103 degrees. Everyone, including Jacobs, was struggling.

“There were so many moments when I wanted to stop and walk and give up,” she says. But she pressed on. When she was two-tenths of a mile from the finish line, the race was cancelled, which meant she could not officially finish, even though she had covered the distance.

“This taught me that they can throw anything at you, and you can get through it,” she says.

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