Digital transformation: 10 lessons from an ultra marathoner

Being average is no longer an option. Defeating average in a digital economy requires companies and individuals to stretch themselves beyond what enabled their successful path in the past. Digital business transformation, like running ultra marathons, is grueling work.
Written by Vala Afshar, Contributing Writer

Digital business transformation is grueling work. To reinvent your company, a business leader must persevere across a number of dimensions including culture, talent, process, strategy, technology, market dynamics, and ever-changing customer expectations. Being average is no longer an option. Defeating average in a digital economy means companies and individuals must stretch themselves beyond what enabled their successful path in the past. 

Colin Nanka has tackled rigorously the process of re-invention by working hard towards defeating average. Nanka is the senior director, enablement for North American Sales and Leadership Development at Salesforce.com. He leads a team of experts who work with the biggest and most successful companies around the world as they embark on their digital transformation journeys. In his spare time, he competes in multi-day, self-sustained, adventure races in the world's most treacherous terrains, including the Sahara Desert, Gobi Desert, Iceland, Grand Canyon, Atacama Desert, and Antarctica. Most recently, Nanka challenged the notion of being average by running multiple back-to-back marathons in Patagonia.


Colin Nanka: Defeating average is the path to true transformation.

Nanka has been running for most of his life. He started at the age of 6 and continued through University. Nanka would often crack the top 5 but rarely hit the podium. It wasn't until he was 32 and was running away from an unsuccessful year that Nanka took time off from work to recharge and connect with nature. Nanka joined a travel group and climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa, raising money for a local school. It would be the turning point in his career. He took a year to find the next adventure and in 2011 he trained for 10 months to take on his first running endurance race. Nanka was looking to replicate the capacity that he had built and continue to Defeat the Average within. He trained 6 days a week and often ran 4 to 5 hours a day on weekends. 

Nanka soon realized that the Sahara Desert environment was drastically different than at home -- 160 miles in up to 115 F of heat. Nanka had underestimated the task at hand, both physically and mentally, and quit half way through. That was his first important life lesson about unanticipated hardships even after giving your best effort. Through these races Nanka found that he was redefining his own limits on what he was capable of, while at the same time being part of a team that was transforming the cloud computing industry and trailblazing the way in digital transformation. Each were emotional, uncomfortable and took a big team to pull off. Nanka has a warrior and 'can do' spirit. He is always optimistic, very hard working and super disciplined. He is also an educator and an inspiring team player. 

I asked Nanka how his ultra marathon experience can apply to digital business transformation. Here are 10 lessons that business leaders can learn from a successful business trailblazer and ultra marathoner: 

10 Digital Business and Leadership Transformation Lessons from an Ultra Marathoner

1. Failure is your tuition to finding success. If you have not failed, you are not pushing the edge on innovation. Failure and/or mistakes are also your best teachers. Successful business leaders and or athletes learn from their losses and work towards incremental improvements over time. Don't ask for life to be easier, ask to be stronger.

2. Don't focus on managing your time, focus on managing your energy. You have a limited supply and if you know when you are at your best, you know when to accelerate. Managing the energy of the entire team will have you move faster than managing people's time.


Colin Nanka: Focus on managing your energy, not your time. 

3. Re-frame problems to opportunities. I broke my iPhone the night before the first day of our race in Antarctica. I quickly had to accept I would be without music, audio-books and other distractions for 7 days. I gave myself the gift of presence to hear glaciers crackle and be the most present I would ever be in my life. Learn to re-frame problems to opportunities. Project obstacles are just opportunities to rethink and move past.

4. Get comfortable being uncomfortable. You learn the most through anxiety. I've put my mind and body through intense strain at up to 13,000 feet running in the Andes and when I got back to sea-level had much more capacity than when I left. Working through anxiety will give you capacity to take on more responsibility and grow your career.


Colin Nanka: Get comfortable being uncomfortable.

5. Train like a marathoner, but adopt a sprinter's mindset. In 2012, I recovered from my first defeat in the Sahara and redeemed myself by finishing a similar race in Mongolia, China. The last 50-mile running day along the Kunlun mountain range took me from 9am to 6am the following day! As I wandered aimlessly under the stars at 2am I hit a wall. I felt like I couldn't go further.  I was frustrated and angry. All of a sudden, I got curious. I asked myself what is the learning opportunity? I realized I needed to flip to optimism and chunk out the final few hours, in 10 min blocks. Run 5 min, walk 5 min. It helped me finish the race with a smile on my face. Break down big projects into bite sized chunks. Don't get overwhelmed by the entire project.

6. Fight self-doubt by focusing on the immediate path to success. In Iceland in 2013, I injured my ankle and was not sure I would be able to start the last day. I could barely put weight on the ankle as I went to sleep that night. I decided I would start the day and take it one step at a time and leave the race with no regrets. It took me 17 hours in the pouring rain. I used a mantra: 'I am Strong, Relaxed and Grateful' and probably said it 10,000 times. I created a deep belief in myself that I could conquer any obstacle. Know how to prioritize and zero in on the critical path to success. By focusing on the most important task, others become easier over time.


Colin Nanka: Be present, optimistic and focused on the journey to success.

7. Adopt a beginner's mindset and stay adaptable. In 2017 we ran as a team in Patagonia. We knew each other and had trust from past races, but had not been clear ahead of time on our roles, and what would happen if we hit obstacles. After day three of six and 70 miles in we pushed one of our team members too hard and almost burnt out his motor. As we started day four we need to realign on our mission, reestablish roles and plans for each remaining stage of the race. You will always hit obstacles mid project; how you realign is critical for achieving your objectives.

8. The best teachers are lifelong students who share their knowledge. I've gone from being the rookie in my adventure races to being an elder statesman nine races in. I try to pay it forward as much as possible to those running their first race and in those conversations, master my craft.  Mentoring others along the way helps you master your craft and allows you to grow while you build an army of future supporters.

9. You are not a team because you work together. You are a team because you care, respect and trust each other. I am grateful to have been able to travel all over the world and run on every continent. When you are grateful you are rich. Starting your day with the right questions sets you off on the right path. What am I grateful for today? What am I excited about? What am I am I happy about? Extending that gratitude to your team members is critical. I have a calendar reminder every Friday to write thank you notes to at least three people on my direct and extended team. Gratitude is a force multiplier. 


Colin Nanka, Jesse and Ashe complete the Patagonia ultra marathon. You are not a team because you work together. You are team because you trust, respect and care for each other. 

10. To reach higher, stretch higher. In Patagonia I set out to not only complete the race as a team, but to have it filmed by a good friend of mine (Peter O'hara) an up-and-coming cinematographer. I've always wanted to create a mini doc on this journey. It took me 10 years to put myself into position and dedication for a year to make it happen. What we came out with was an incredibly beautiful journey that speaks to how to "Defeat the Average Within" Set stretch goals for yourself and your team and dream big. Be patient and play the long game to realize your potential.

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again…so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. " - Theodore Roosevelt


Colin Nanka - Leaders are not born, they are made. Champions are not born, they are made. Set audacious goals, work hard, anticipate obstacles and maintain a positive and persistent mindset.  

Any big hairy audacious Digital Transformation (DX) project worth completing is a journey. Their will be inspiring days and ones that make you wonder why you started. Being physically and mentally fit are critical to developing a warrior mindset, as is good sleep and taking regular breaks to recharge and restore. Olympic athletes on average sprint for 6-8 weeks and take a full week off to restore. Accepting the obstacles that lie ahead, while chunking out the work in sprints, drive you towards your vision and through the marathon and mountain of work.

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This article was co-authored by Colin Nanka.  

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