Inside our small investment team of 15, we are lucky to have two voices who have experienced the absolute tip of high performance and pressure in professional sports.
One of these voices is Steve Solomon, a two time Olympian (hopefully three come Paris ’24), 6 time national champion of the 400m (one single lap of the track and one of the most physically demanding events in athletics).
This article is a virtual lap of the track with Steve. On your run together, Steve weaves cornerstone principles of high performance athletics teams into a leadership tapestry for founders building enduring businesses.
By Steven Solomon
I found myself in an extraordinary situation – the youngest person in a room that statistically I should never have been in. Surrounded by the seven fastest humans on the planet over one lap of the athletics track, I was dressed in Australia’s Green and Gold, and had nerves racing through my body at such a frantic pace that my right leg was physically shaking – marking the only time in my life where I can remember forgetting how to put my shoes on.
But my leg was not the only thing shaking; a global audience of patriotic and passionate sporting fans created such noise in the London Olympic stadium that the athletics track was rumpling, a violent tremor of such magnitude that the camera at the finish line could not take a still image.
Yet all of that turned silent at the call from the race starter, “Athletes, on your marks”. It was like someone cut the power at a rave. I went from my eardrums being overstimulated by an ecstasy of noise to suddenly being able to hear nothing but my heart beating through my chest and the sound of air softly moving in and out of my perched lips.
Over a decade in professional sports has rewarded me with a number of these experiences. I was seventeen years old when I qualified for my first World Championships, nineteen years old when I became the first Australian since Cathy Freeman to race in the final of the 400m at the London Olympics, and today, at thirty years old, I am preparing for what I hope will be my last lap(s) of the athletics track at next years Paris Olympics.
I reached the top of my world in Athletics not through destiny or natural talent. My parents were not athletes and I was not always the fastest kid in my school class, let alone country. I never grew up wanting to be an Olympian, yet this period of my life has forever changed me, instilled confidence and created an addiction to what is possible when one focuses on a commitment to excellence and lifelong improvement.
Through my experiences in professional sports, I’ve come to understand that victory is within anyone’s grasp. However, the pursuit of excellence doesn’t guarantee success for everyone. In my time collaborating with passionate entrepreneurs at TDM to construct businesses that span generations, I’ve identified shared characteristics within high-performance cultures: audacious objectives, humbling setbacks, collective teamwork, and transformative moments that reshape lives.
I invite you to join me in my 400m leadership framework, a virtual lap around the track where, with each passing 100 meters, I will introduce and emphasize a cornerstone principle of high performance. These principles are designed to guide you in building businesses that can stand the test of time and span generations
Success in the first 100 meters starts with cultural elements of high goals and accountability.
I joined my first professional athletics team when I was sixteen years old. Without a predetermined goal, I followed the natural path that newcomers often do when joining a fresh team – I embraced and adopted the goals of my teammates.
My teammates were ambitious. They wanted to become national champions. They wanted to set new records. They wanted to become Olympians.
This is the single most important lesson of this entire essay, so let me say it again.
When I joined my athletics team, I immediately adopted their goals; goals that turned out to be the highest order possible in our world.
Setting confronting goals commanded our behaviour. Every decision we made as individuals and as a group was put through the lens of whether or not that action would help us towards our goal of being the best in the world. How do we need to warm up before training to get the most out of each session? How do we need to recover after and between workouts? What do we need to get out of today’s workout and what is its purpose in our larger training plan? Who is best on the team to pace the first rep of the workout and who is best to lead the last? Where do each teammate need encouragement along the way, and how best can we serve one another towards success?
The challenge of recruiting and retaining exceptional talent weighs heavily on growth-oriented companies. Drawing upon my experiences within various high-performance cultures, I can reassure you that crafting an environment and culture centred around ambitious objectives and unwavering accountability breeds an environment that is, in essence, addictive. High achievers gravitate toward the company of their peers who also excel and are driven by continuous improvement. Once the realm of possibilities expands before you, regressing to lower standards becomes an insurmountable task.
While I possessed a measure of innate talent, it was the culture forged by Team Fira, my professional athletics team, that transformed me into an Olympian and laid the groundwork for a successful athletic journey. Extend the same principles to your business, and I assure you that you’ll embark on a trajectory toward triumph.
The back straight of the 400m track is the jungle.
You enter it at ridiculous speeds, striking the ground three times a second, with each strike delivering close to four times your body weight through the ground. For me at close to 80kg, that’s over 300kg of force punishing the ground each stride, propelling me at a pace of nearly 10m/s.
Amidst the sheer velocity, the pressure of the race begins to exert its weight. A competitor from the inner lane inches closer to your shoulder, while another on the outer lane gradually stretches the distance between you. These moments – both as athletes and as team members – define the boundary between adequacy and greatness.
There is a saying in 400m racing that the race cannot be won in the first 200m, but it can be lost. Athletes can lose the race on this critical segment should they fall prey to losing concentration and letting the chaos of the jungle distract them from executing on their race strategy.
When a fellow racer creeps up alongside me on my right, what emotions course through me? What tactical adjustments do I enact? What core belief about myself do I uphold? My response to these pressing questions, arising in times of elevated tension, draw autonomously from my training.
CEOs and leaders grasp the intrinsic worth of training and the dividends of maintaining discipline. They recognize the necessity of merging total mindfulness with unwavering self-control. Discipline acts as a compass, steering attention toward the right path.
The pivotal question becomes: What warrants my attention? The answer lies within your scoreboard – the repository of metrics guiding your trajectory, akin to both a North Star and unfurling sails. Leaders must answer the question of what constitutes their scoreboard and which metrics shape its elevation.
Fostering this response within the body transpires on the training ground – the realm of “doing the work.” At TDM, we collaborate with our portfolio companies to cultivate essential skills and habits. The aim is to ensure that when race day arrives, they’re firmly entrenched in the zone, deftly employing the trained responses honed over weeks and years of disciplined practice. Often, we assist companies develop a rhythm of public company reporting and help establish a mature board structure many years prior to their actual IPO. This begins to build their muscle memory for consistently reporting key metrics that shareholders use to assess the performance of the business. When these companies do go public, they are at ease with the demands of being a publicly-traded entity. Crafting and delivering data, investor narratives, guidance updates – these tasks have already become second nature. Such preparations bolster the trust investors place in the management team and the enterprise, empowering the business to focus on the ultimate goal: driving results.
Consider if there’s a current challenge you face that could inch closer to resolution with one stride forward. Is there a challenge you see in the future where you can preemptively build a trained response?
In 400m talk, the top curve is the third 100m of the race. At this point in the race, our body has burnt through two of its three energy systems. Our blood is starting to turn acidic due to the build-up of lactic acid, making each contraction a little more painful.
The top curve is analogous to the learning curve. It’s a stretch of the race that you must overcome. And as is true along all learning curves, the journey will be full of ups and downs – and only the best are able to pick themselves back up and keep running, especially during the downs.
When we win we celebrate, and when we lose, we learn.
One of the hardest falls I’ve had in my career was failing to make the Rio Olympic Games in 2016. After feeling on top of the world four years earlier having placed eighth in the final of the London Olympics, I failed to even get to the starting line in Rio. Yet the lesson that I took away from this experience propelled me to make the next seven consecutive national teams. Here’s that story.
One year out from the Rio Olympics, I asked myself the question: “where is the best place for me to train to give myself the best chance of success in Rio”? I optimised for training my environment and decided to take a year off my studies at Stanford University and instead set myself up at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra.
Training in Canberra was intense. But that was okay – I was used to the intensity of training. What I was not prepared for, nor even conscious of, were the other factors at play that made me a successful athlete. Factors that were absent while I was training at the Olympic institute in Canberra.
In Canberra, I had little social connection. None of my best friends were in the area. Nor did I have any family. I also lived on the institute campus, effectively living, sleeping, and breathing, athletics. For the first time in a long time, all I was focused on was athletics – I had no study or work to give me an outlet to other parts of my life that I enjoyed and was competent at.
In the end, I failed to make the Olympics by four one hundredths of a second. If you are having a hard time comprehending that amount of time, four splices of a second divided into a hundred pieces, I can forgive you. In fact, when I crossed the finish line of that race, the scoreboard had said I had qualified, only to be corrected by the photo finish camera that revealed my shadow tripping the camera sensor a hair before my chest.
This was a very public failure. I moved countries in pursuit of the goal. Every single person in my life knew what I was training for and knew that I had not achieved it. I was in the newspaper with the world “failure” splashed in the headline. This was a steep fall on the learning curve.
But when we win we celebrate, and when we lose, we learn. When I sat down with myself to reflect on this experience in the weeks after missing the Rio Olympics, I realised that the question I had asked myself was all wrong. And in that process, I came up with a new question; one that I have asked myself every year and has helped me to a further three world championships, two Olympics and two Commonwealth Games since Rio.
“Where am I at my best?”
The slight nuance of this question allows the space to capture factors of my performance beyond having great coaches and training facilities. It answers the higher-level question of what does my complete environment look like when I succeed? And how can I be purposeful in designing that environment?
Now to you. Operating and excelling in growth businesses is all consuming. There are going to be periods where you will find yourself on the bottom of the curve just as I did in Rio. What I’ve found is that this all-in, all the time, mentality, while necessary for short stints, is not sustainable over the long run. Design your environment to set yourself up for success in the long run.
Do as I do – take yourself away for training camps of intense focus on work/projects. But make sure that you design your environment for the long game. The success of your business depends on you and your people having an environment conductive to long-term success.
We are now entering the home stretch. The part that counts most.
In the 400m, this is the part of the race where the body wants to panic. Our shoulders want to become earrings, our back starts to arch, our breath becomes short, and there is a lot of pain running through the body.
So as we close today, I want to leave you with one last thought that I hope will relax you through the chaos.
Success is not about being an outlier at any one thing. Success is really about figuring out the four or so skills that make up our goal, and striving to be a little bit better than average at each of those skills, for when we compound each of those skills on top of one another, we end up at the top of the world.
By raw speed, I am not the fastest in the race.
By raw strength, I am not the strongest.
By raw fitness, I don’t have the best endurance.
By raw pain tolerance, I’m not the toughest.
But! On average, I’m a little bit faster. A little bit fitter. I have an above average pain threshold and am a little stronger than the average 400m runner.
And when you compound all those skills, I become one of the fastest athletes in the world over one lap of the track.
Why am I leaving you with this message?
Because as I said earlier, over a decade at the top of the sporting world has shown me that anyone can win. Those that do are not genetic freaks or destined from birth for glory.
Victory is within you and I, and we unlock it by setting high goals, figuring out what the most important constituents of that goal are, and committing ourselves to discipline and excellence, learning from our failures, in effort to get a little bit better than average at each, so that we allow time to compound all those averages and take us to the top of our world.
At TDM we believe an effective, high performing culture is the greatest competitive advantage any company can build.
This belief is as relevant to our own growing investment firm as it is to our portfolio companies which in some cases have grown to billions of dollars of revenue and thousands of employees.