Comrades – Heading Home

June 10th, 2011

Heading home!

A quiet morning as we got ready to head home.  After breakfast, we packed and hung out around the hotel until Ruth and Lindsay picked us up – again at their insistence.  What great friends they have become – we have enjoyed them so much and their hospitality has been extraordinary.  They took us for lunch at a private ski club located on a secluded harbor north of the city.  There are three ‘clubs’ located side by side – a dive club, a yacht club and a ski club.  All are fairly modest but nice, with play areas for the kids, places for families to picnic or brii, a nice beach area, and a bar/restaurant with outdoor picnic table seating.  It was quiet today, but Ruth says that it is packed on weekends.  I had the ‘line fish’, which is the SA term for fish of the day, and Sharon had an enormous plate of prawns.  A perfect ending to our trip.  We are in JFK now waiting for our flight to SFO. If all goes well, we should arrive by 2pm and my goal is to be in the shower before 4:00 – can’t wait!!


Home now, with suitcases unpacked, laundry underway and pictures downloaded to Facebook – the essentials taken care of.   Memories that will last a lifetime – priceless!

Comrades – Day Four

June 10th, 2011

Day Four

At breakfast this morning it was very obvious who yesterday’s marathon runners were.  Their plates were piled high pretty much everything you could imagine, and most were walking very gingerly, particularly up and down steps. The mood was different, too.  Where yesterday and the day before, there was a buzz in the air as people strategized and dreamed, today was the reality check.  You finished or you didn’t.  You achieved your goal or you failed.  You won or you lost.  In the circle of people we got to know, most finished, including some by only a few minutes before cutoff, but a few that did not.  They were a bit quieter, but still seemed glad to have made the effort and committed to try once again next year.

I was wrong about the cutoff time, by the way.  It was actually 12 hours – the time was increased by an hour several years ago to encourage more people to attempt the race.  While we weren’t there to see it, I heard that when the hour struck, the town mayor closed the gates into the stadium and, as tradition dictated, shook the hand of the first person who missed the cut and that was it.  Race over, with no record kept of those who did not finish within the allotted time.

After breakfast, at Krista’s recommendation, we took a taxi to a place called the Oyster Box Hotel, which is located in Uhmlanga, right on the Indian Ocean.  What a beautiful spot – the hotel was like stepping back into the days when South Africa was an English Commonwealth, with white turbaned doormen and palm leaf fans slowly moving back and forth.  Sharon walked around for just a bit and then found a chair facing the ocean, but I took a longer walk down the boardwalk.  All along the beach, there were beautifully architected hotels and condo complexes, many looking relatively new.  I was surprised at the number of people who had obviously run the marathon – obvious because they were either wearing the blue race shirt everyone who entered received, or by how they seemed to wince with every step :)…

We hadn’t been there very long when I received a text from Ryan, inviting us to an ‘aches and pain’ party, sponsored by the local running club he is a member of, the Durban Old Boys. Again, Lindsay and Ruth insisted on picking us up (saving us a hefty cab fare) and took us to the event.  The club was located in one of the residential areas of town and looked more like a pub than anything else. We were ushered in, given a beer, and informed that we had arrived just in time for the ‘fines’.  There were lots of fines… most based on how you well you did in the marathon compared to what you had committed to do the previous year.  If you finished slower than your committed time, you were fined one Ran (about 15 cents) for each minute.  If you finished faster than your committed time, the fine doubled.  Even Sharon and I were called to the front of the room and fined.  Sharon received a 20 Ran fine for finishing ten minutes faster than her goal time, and I was fined 100 Ran for not entering the race :).  Oh, I did forget to mention that as part of the fine, we were required to drink a disgusting combination of beer with a shot of crème de menthe? Yikes!  Fortunately, I only had to have one, unlike most of the other attendees… Many of the members seemed to have known each other all their lives with their fathers and father’s fathers club members before them. Again, I could see the English roots, in a Dead Poets Society kind of way.  We had a lot of fun – Sharon in particular was quite popular, and was even made an ‘honorary member’ of the club, complete with club shirt and the requirement to post her 2012 race commitment time into their official book.  Ryan was requested to bring ‘more Americans’ back with him next year.

Before heading back to the hotel, we went out for another South African specialty, Bunny Chow.  Evidently back in colonial times, Indian slaves were brought over to work in the sugar cane fields, and needing some way to transport their curry lunch into the fields, they created Bunny Chow, which is essentially curry poured into a hollowed out loaf of bread. According to Ryan, it is the preferred South African ‘go to’ late night meal after a night on the town (no Denny’s here…) and I can see why.  Sharon and I split a chicken and prawn Bunny Chow – delicious!

Comrades – Day Three

June 10th, 2011

Wow, where to start – what a day.  First things first – the marathon is over and Sharon did really well.   She looked strong at the end as she went across the finish line and says she is very pleased with the way she ran.  We were both up well before the alarm clock and ready to go early.  Sharon hooked up with some people we had met the previous night, and I headed off with Lindsay, Ruth, and Krista, who were there to pick me up promptly at 5am.  After some navigation around all the street closures (due to the race), we were off to our first stop, a ‘suburb’ of Durban called Pinetown, I think.  Even though it was still quite early, the place was jumping, with people starting to line the streets and settle in for what was clearly going to be an all day event.  South Africans love to brii (barbeque) and even as early as it was, grills were going and the smell of barbecuing food was everywhere.  There were grills of varying shapes and sizes but most were small, about the size of a large frying pan and fueled either by wood, charcoal or the occasional propane tank.  We were able to see the first runners come through with a parade of advance motorcycles and media trucks (when I say media trucks, I mean what appeared to be flatbed trucks that had some type of bleachers built on the back for people to sit on – hope they had seat belts :)). We had coffee and rusks (which are like biscotti only better), as we waited.

Lindsay’s family is fourth generation South African so he was able to give me a lot of background and history of the area throughout the day, which I quite enjoyed.  For the rest of the day, we went from venue to venue, along back roads and through small villages.  The entire race was lined with people and it almost felt like a 56 mile street fair with music, dancing and the smell of barbecue every where we went.  I have to say that equally exciting to the race, was the driving experience 🙂 as we maneuvered around an amazing amount of traffic and people, most appearing to want to be at the same place at the same time.  There were several situations, where I was expecting horns to honk or fists to start flying, but everyone was amazingly calm.  Since we were moving around so much, we didn’t ‘brii’, but Ruth brought sandwiches and I have a new favorite – peanut butter and bacon…  surprisingly good!

Towards early afternoon, we headed to Pietermaritzburg, the town where the marathon ended, and made our way to the finish line.  As you can imagine, there were even more people with all kinds of food, music blaring (a lot of Black Eyed Peas and Beyonce, by the way), and general commotion.  There was one computer in the International tent where we could track runners, so I was able to calculate about when to expect Sharon.  She finally came through at 9 hours 20 minutes to much cheering and flag waving, beating her goal by ten minutes.  Sadly, Ryan was not so fortunate, I’m sorry to say.  While he ran strong most of the way, he had a pretty severe reaction to some medication he was taking for an old injury and was not able to finish.  Very disappointing and a sad note to end a wonderful day, but fortunately he seemed to be feeling better when I checked in later in the evening. French fries and a bottle of champagne for dinner (Sharon’s pick :)) and then off to bed.

Comrades – Day Two Postscript

June 10th, 2011

Day two postscript

The day is almost over with race bags packed and alarms set for tomorrow’s event.  Sharon’s alarm is for 3:45am and I get to sleep in until 4:15am at the latest.  The hotel is buzzing with activity as different groups congregate around planning their last minute strategies.  A trio of young Russians are sitting across from me and a bunch of either Aussies or Kiwis are across the way.

The serious runners have headed off for bed some time ago – the ones left are primarily just hoping to make the cutoff time of 11 hours.  Not sure if I have mentioned it yet, but another unique thing about the Comrades Marathon is that they have a hard stop at 11 hours.  A gunshot is fired and the race is over.  After at, no one who crosses the finish line is counted – it’s like they never ran at all.  Quite a blow after so much hard work. There are people on the course who act as ‘pacers’, whose job it is to run to a certain time.  So, if you want to finish in 9 hours, you can run with the 9 hour ‘pacer’.  If the 11-hour pacer passes you and you can’t catch back up, you are basically screwed. At dinner tonight, we happened on a professional team from South Africa, who are really trying to win the race.  As it happened, we were all trying to get a simple meal of chicken versus the pasta and curry options available.  The coach noticed that we were asking for the same thing as he was for his team, and included us in his plea to the chef – and as time past came over to talk with us for a bit.  Turns out that he personally recruits each runner from all over South Africa and has had them training in the mountains for the last five weeks – according to him they are all ‘starving’. When the food finally came out they piled their plates with chicken, bread, rice and potatoes, and all left with napkins wrapped with more of the same for their pre-race breakfast.  We ran into one guy in the elevator, and I told him I had just heard that the hotel ran out of bread, thanks to him and his teammates.  He laughed – again, everyone is very friendly.  I guess that winning is a very big deal here, as there is a lot of money to be won and a great deal of prestige throughout Africa.  Prizes go to the first place overall man and woman, the first place Zulu man and woman, and the first place south African man and woman.  That’s it.

As for tomorrow, the father (Lindsay) of the couple we met on the plane will pick me up at 5am.  I have no idea what happens next, but I will hopefully see Sharon cross the finish line between 8 – 9 hours later.  Can’t even imagine what that journey will be like for her.

Comrades – Day Two

June 10th, 2011

Day two

It’s been a relatively quiet day today so far.  We got up around 9am and made our way to breakfast at the hotel. Filled with runners, as you can imagine, and as far as I can tell, mostly from outside South Africa.  Breakfast was a typical European-style buffet with lots of meats and cheeses in addition to traditional breakfast fare.  A hard boiled egg and a 1/2 PB&j  were perfect for me – Sharon, however, was into major calorie load, and had two fried eggs on toast, orange juice, fruit and a huge croissant with lots of butter….  T’would be nice to eat with such abandon, but I’m not ready to commit to the side of the equation (training side), that makes that kind of a meal work :).

One of the things I have recently learned about marathon running is the concept of shedding. It seems that it is quite common to start at the beginning of a race with several layers of clothing, and as time passes and you (and the temperature) warm up, you shed layers, leaving them on the street.  At some marathons, charity groups put out bins for you to donate – at others including here, kids will swoop in and pick up whatever is left behind.  Sharon’s plan was to end up finishing the race in her sports bra, but has subsequently learned that she will need to wear her race number on her shirt, which doesn’t work with a sports bra.  The long and the short of it is that it may be that while I will undoubtedly never run Comrades (or any marathon for that matter), my workout top might just make the journey :)!  A double win for me as it is also a great excuse to avoid the meager excuse for a fitness center they have here…

After breakfast we headed back over to the expo for a bit and then headed over to a local shopping area just around the corner.  Wow, what a difference a half of a block can make.  Within one turn of a corner, we went from a diverse group of (primarily) runners, to a very local crowd, all busy with either their weekend shopping, or (mostly) just hanging out.  We were the only blond women, or frankly, whites around.  There was a huge crowd circled around a group of young Zulu girls who were dancing to the beat of an African drum.  I was having a hard time seeing much as the crowd was so big, but as soon as someone noticed that I was trying to get a picture, people around me voluntarily cleared a path so I could get a shot or two. One of the things that I have noticed is how very friendly people are – particularly the locals.  There are 11 different major tribes in this area, each with their own language or dialect.  Most people speak at least three languages – their local dialect, at least one other, and English.   In talking to our server at lunch, she said that she is Zulu, but speaks Xhosa (?) and English – our cab driver the same.  Current plan is to have dinner here at the hotel so as to have no concerns about food, and turn in early.  Supposedly there will be over 300,000 watching the race along the route, and it will be televised live throughout Africa, so tomorrow should be a very interesting day!

Comrades Marathon, 2011 – Day One

June 10th, 2011

I recently accompanied my best friend of many years, as she competed in the Comrades Ultra Marathon in South Africa.  So many people have asked about the experience, I decided to put the updates I sent to several of my friends on my blog.  Hope you enjoy!  Cheers,  Amelia

Day One

Arrived in Durban after an incredibly long flight – six hours from SFO -JFK, fifteen hours from JFK – Johannesburg, and a final 1.5 hours to Durban.  Surprisingly, every plane was packed full.  On the flight to Johannesburg were a large group of college-age kids who were on their way to volunteer at various places in Africa. The girl sitting next to me had just graduated from Penn State and was heading somewhere around Capetown to volunteer for three weeks at an orphanage and the girl behind me was going to work at a Cheetah preserve in Botswana. They told me that groups of similar size leave for Africa every two weeks during the summer.  What an incredible experience it must be for these kids and how impressive their desire to volunteer and make a difference is.

On the flight to Durban, Sharon sat next to a cute newlywed couple, Krista and Ryan, who were clearly also on their way to the marathon.  It turns out that while they currently live in San Diego, Ryan grew up in Durban.  Within ten minutes of conversation, they had not only insisted on giving us a ride to the hotel, but also invited me to hang out with their family on Sunday during the race.  When we arrived, their family, including Mom, Dad, a sister and her young son, literally welcomed us with open arms – hugs all around, and without blinking an eye, piled our gear in their car and drove us to our hotel.  Dad, who looked to be in his early 60’s, ran Comrades some time ago, and spent the drive telling us the history of the marathon and giving Sharon lots of advice on the race (don’t over-hydrate and be careful not to mix goo with soda is all I can remember)…  Emails and phone numbers were exchanged, more hugs, and off they went.  As a side note, the Comrades Marathon was started by a (white) South African army officer as a living memorial to the soldiers (comrades) who had fought so bravely during World War One.  It’s somewhat unique because the route alternates from year to year – one year running 56 miles from the coast to the mountains (up) and the next from the mountains to the ocean (down). For the record, this is an ‘Up’ year, which is supposedly the more difficult.  Excepting a five-year hiatus during WW2, it’s been run ever since, making this the 86th year.  Until the end of apartheid, blacks were not allowed to enter, and women have only been included since the late 70’s (think that’s right, anyway).

Our hotel is downtown and right next to the exposition center where the event registration and pre-race expo is located.  Sharon was anxious to pick up her registration packet as soon as possible, so after a quick shower (which felt awesome, by the way), we headed over to the expo center to begin standing in one of the longest lines I have ever been in.  Fortunately, we soon found out that the line was for the approximately FOURTEEN THOUSAND South Africans who have entered the race, so we were able to bypass and go to the foreign registration desk – no waiting there :-)!  Once registered, we wandered around the expo where there were lots of different booths and displays.  In addition to the various running related paraphernalia, we noticed one booth that seemed particularly popular, with long lines on both sides of not only runners, but also families and kids.  When we looked, I was quite surprised to see that they were all patiently waiting to get blood drawn.  Turns out that it was a free cholesterol screening and clearly many of the locals were there to take advantage of the opportunity to be tested.  To be honest, that was the first time it really hit me that while so much of what we have seen so far does not seem that different from the U.S., we really are in a different part of the world.

For dinner last night, Sharon had signed us up for a pre-race pasta feed (by the way, it’s pronounced ‘paasta’ versus ‘pahsta’ here) for the foreign runners that was held at a casino about a five minute cab ride from the hotel.  We hooked up with a group who I think were from the same running club somewhere in the Midwest.  It was an eclectic bunch, including a mother and her daughter (daughter running, Mom supporting), husband and wife (wife running, husband supporting), Sharon and I, and a few others, most of whom I never would have imagined as ultra marathon runners. The woman sitting next to me, who looked like a typical middle-aged suburban mom, was running her second Comrades. Apparently, the previous year, she had some problems and was unable to finish the race, and was back to give it another go.  I asked her why she chose to put her body through such an ordeal (more than once), particularly when there was no chance of winning, and she started talking about how important it was for her to set goals that really push herself further than she imagined was possible. She said that she would not have been able to do it (including all the time training) without the support of her biggest fan – her husband (who had some health issues and couldn’t make the trip), and while he really doesn’t ‘get’ why she wants to do this, he understands and supports how important it is to her.

More later – time for breakfast and a walk about town.

Succession Planning Below the C-Suite

January 27th, 2011

An article in today’s Wall Street Journal entitled Sudden Leader Loss Leaves Firms in Limbo, says that according to research done by the American Management Association, more than one-fifth of senior managers say that their companies are “not at all prepared” in the event of a sudden loss of a key member of the company’s senior management team.

While this is obviously important and thanks to Apple, currently receiving a lot of  attention, the issue goes much deeper.  Most of the writing and research I read about the need for succession planning, is focused on senior management.  To ensure effective strategy execution, more attention needs to be paid to talent requirements below the executive suite.

For example, at a biotech firm I worked with several years ago, when the program manager of a critical drug development project left unexpectedly, it resulted in the costly delay of the launch of the product.  Management at the top remained constant – they simply didn’t have anyone prepared to take over the reigns.

A manufacturing executive I spoke with the recently, is concerned about the loss of an entire layer of seasoned mid-level managers, who in the past, had provided much of the informal  mentoring and on-the-job training of young managers moving up in his organization.    He’s worried that while they have plenty of talent, they don’t have the necessary breadth of knowledge to handle unforeseen events when they occur.

When organizations lose core elements of their internal institutional knowledge, it can be perhaps not as externally obvious, but equally devastating as losing a member of senior management.

To help make these key talent requirements more visible, companies must explicitly identify the critical talent resources they will need to execute as a part of their strategic planning process, and develop contingency plans in the event of unplanned departures.

Has this happened in your organization?  How did you address (or not)?

What Makes a Good Boss?

August 2nd, 2010

Almost 25 years ago, an article in ‘Business’ magazine described the ten qualities employees most wanted their bosses to possess.  A lot has changed in the world since then, but these (with some updating by me) still look good.

1. Establishing organization clarity

a.  Establishing clear goals and standards

b.  Communicating group (not just individual) goals

c.  Involving people in setting goals (not just dictating them)

d.  Delegate responsibility clearly

2.  Encouraging open, two-way communication

a.  Open and candid when dealing with people

b.  Honest, direct and to the point

c.  Establishing a climate of openness and trust

3.  Willingness to coach and support people

a.  Supportive and helpful

b. Working constructively (and decisively) to correct performance problems

c.  Going to bat for subordinates

4.  Providing ‘objective’ recognition

a. Recognize good performance more often than criticizing performance problems

b. Tying rewards to excellence of job performance (vs seniority or personal relationships)

5.  Establishing ongoing controls

a.  Following up in a timely manner

b.  Giving ‘real-time’ feedback on how subordinates are doing

6.  Selecting (and keeping) the right people

a.  Both bringing the ‘right’ people on and exiting those who don’t fit

7.  Understanding the financial implications of decisions

8.  Encouraging innovation and new ideas

a.  Surprisingly, this was seen as important regardless of how conservative or traditional the company

9. Making decisions and ensuring the organization executes successfully

10.  Demonstrating high levels of integrity

a.  Doing the ‘right’ thing, both internally an externally

Anything you would add or omit?  Which one is the most important to you?

Keeping the Right People on the Bus

June 21st, 2010

I’m the guest author in the June edition of the STRe Solutions Newsletter. You can find the entire newsletter here, or read my article below.

What’s your secret for keeping your best employees engaged and motivated?

In the classic business book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t, Jim Collins states that to be effective, organizations need to first get “the right people on the bus (and the wrong people off the bus) and then figure out where to drive.” In essence, who you have on your team, is more important for the organization’s success than where you are headed and how you get there.

While I agree that getting the right people on the bus is as critical today as it was back in 2001 when “Good to Great” was first published, today’s leaders are faced with more complicated challenges.

Most companies have done a good job hiring highly talented, super-smart people. Especially in today’s economy, finding the “who” is not the problem. Where they struggle is keeping them engaged and focused on the “where” and the “how”. To say it another way, you can have strong individual players, but unless there is an overarching purpose that requires them to become a team, little will be accomplished.

For this to happen, organizations need to be two things.

First, they need to be smart. Smart organizations have the basics: Sales, Finance, HR, R&D, Product Development, IT, Services, Support, etc… — all the bits and pieces that keep a company running. The truth is most companies are plenty smart. In today’s world though, that’s not enough.

Organizations have to be more than smart — they have to be healthy as well.

Healthy organizations have low politics (not no politics — but politics that don’t get in the way). They have high morale, engaged employees, and no surprise, they have high productivity. Another thing I see in a healthy organization is a lack of confusion about where the company is going and how what every employee is doing fits.

I saw this time and time again in my 13 years with Federal Express where employees would regularly do amazing things to ensure that our customers were getting the service they expected — delivering critical payroll checks in a blizzard and completing customer pick-ups during the Loma Prieta earthquake are just two of many examples.

The trap that many companies fall into is that you can’t do one without the other and you can’t think about them separately. For organizations to be effective, you must embed the smart stuff with the healthy stuff, keeping the right people engaged and productive.

Employee engagement happens when four things occur:

* The Leadership Team is aligned and cohesive
* There is absolute clarity about the organization’s direction (strategy)
* Every person in the organization understands how what they do fits with the strategy
* Organization policies and practices support the above (this does not happen nearly enough)

One of my favorite quotes is from General Norman Schwarzkopf, who I heard speak not long after Desert Storm. He said: “Great leaders never tell people how to do their jobs. They set the goals and establish the framework. Lousy leaders think they know it all, and all the while, their organizations sit there, aquiver with potential.”

What are some of your best practices for keeping the right people on the bus? I’d love to hear them in the comments below.

Best Business Advice

June 10th, 2010

Once a month, I have the opportunity to spend a half day with about 10 CEO’s from a variety of different businesses, talking about issues they are facing and sharing perspectives. It’s a great group who really care about each other and offer thoughtful, insightful advice. Last month, on a whim, I asked them to share the best business advice they had ever received. Here’s what they had to say:

“Leaders Lead”
“Don’t do Retail”
“Don’t take it personally”
“Hire slow, fire fast”
“Hire people with good judgment”
“Don’t try to do everything”
“Make sure you know your cash position on Friday”
“You’ve got to do what’s right”
“Keep the ‘main thing’ the main thing”

What’s yours?