Thursday, September 25, 2008

Joanne Ernst Speaking the Quiet Truth

A personal story from Jim Collins:

I'm reminded of a personal experience in my own family that illustrates the vital difference between bravado and understanding.

My wife, Joanne, began racing marathons and triathlons in the early 1980s. As she accumulated experience—track times, swim splits, race results—she began to feel the momentum of success.

One day, she entered a race with many of the best woman triathletes in the world, and—despite a weak swim where she came out of the water hundreds of places behind the top swimmers and having to push a heavy, non-aerodynamic bike up a long hill—she managed to cross the finish line in the top ten.

Then, a few weeks later while sitting at breakfast, Joanne looked up from her morning newspaper and calmly, quietly said, “I think I could win the Ironman.”

The Ironman, the world championship of triathlons, involves 2.4 miles of ocean swimming and 112 miles of cycling, capped off with a 26.2 mile marathon footrace on the hot, lava-baked Kona coast of Hawaii.

“Of course, I'd have to quit my job, turn down my offers to graduate school (she had been admitted to graduate business school at a number of the top schools), and commit to full-time training. But ...”

Her words had no bravado in them, no hype, no agitation, no pleading. She didn't try to convince me. She simply observed what she had come to understand was a fact, a truth no more shocking than stating that the walls were painted white. She had the passion. She had the genetics. And if she won races, she'd have the economics. The goal to win the Ironman flowed from early understanding of her Hedgehog Concept.

And, so, she decided to go for it. She quit her job. She turned down graduate schools. She sold the mills! (But she did keep me on her bus.) And three years later, on a hot October day in 1985, she crossed the finish line at the Hawaii Ironman in first place, world champion.

When Joanne set out to win the Ironman, she did not know if she would become the world's best triathlete. But she understood that she could, that it was in the realm of possibility, that she was not living in a delusion. And that distinction makes all the difference. It is a distinction that those who want to go from good to great must grasp, and one that those who fail to become great so often never do.

Source: Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t (New York: HarperCollins Books, 2001), 116-117.

A review of this book can be found at Reviewing Books and Movies.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: “she crossed the finish line at the Hawaii Ironman in first place, world champion.”