I’m the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, and training for a half-marathon taught me 3 major business lessons

I’m the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, and training for a half-marathon taught me 3 major business lessons

Scott Salmirs,


Sep. 10, 2018, 3:40 PM

Jaromir Chalabala/Shutterstock.com

  • Scott Salmirs is a runner and the President and CEO of ABM Industries, a Fortune 500 company.
  • After three years as CEO of the 100-year-old company, he realized some of the lessons from his race training were applicable in the office.
  • For instance, even the leader of the pack can benefit from the strength of others when running — and when working.

I’m a runner. I’m a CEO. And while training for the New York Half Marathon this year, I realized how much the two have in common.

We’ve all heard the old adage, “it’s a marathon, not a sprint.” In my three years as CEO of ABM Industries, the nation’s largest facilities management business, I’ve learned that transforming a 100-year-old company is indeed a marathon, and while we are all sprinting towards our goals, transformations take time, patience, and perseverance.

I was recently reminded that this spring marked the three-year mark of my tenure in this role. Admittedly, I hadn’t given much thought to the milestone, because my mind was zeroed in on another date that was fast approaching: the New York Half Marathon. But when I stopped to consider the significance of passing my three-year mile marker, I started thinking about all that I’ve learned in my first few years leading the company, and what surprised me the most was how much running a successful business is like running a successful race.

Here are three valuable lessons that first-time CEOs can take from half marathon runners to survive, adapt, and grow during their race.

1. Running the course with others will help you run faster and longer

Most runners would agree that running with a group will push you to work harder and run faster, and will help motivate you when you need it the most.

In my first year as CEO, I learned just how essential it was to have the support of others. In 2015, we embarked on a journey to transform ABM — which started as a one-man window washing business in 1909 and is now a global, 130,000-person publicly traded company — into a modern, culture-focused business with a long-term strategic view we call our “2020 Vision.”

This transformation is about growing the industries and solutions where we see the opportunity to build our competitive advantage, and about realigning our operations to better support our clients. To achieve this, we needed to transform the very culture of our business and how our employees work. To invigorate our workforce, we needed to enact changes that would bring greater value to them.

At the time, I knew I’d need the full support of my executive team to make the cultural shift, but ultimately, the scope of support required to execute our plan was much larger than I anticipated. Collectively, we successfully revamped ABM Cares, our employee volunteer program, and reinvested in skills and compliance training to give our workers the tools they need to excel in their careers, but achieving these accomplishments was a national-level, collaborative effort of many people within our organization.

Takeaway:It doesn’t matter how strong of a runner you are; even the leader of the pack can benefit from the strength of others. Improving culture is a critical part of leading any kind of business transformation, and the steady, ongoing support of employees who are excited about what you’re doing will play an important role in helping you drive the change forward.

2. Avoid becoming overwhelmed by focusing on small, achievable goals

While training for my first half marathon, one of the best pieces of advice I received was not to focus on the finish line or the entire 21k. You need to chunk the race up into small pieces that your brain can handle. Sometimes this means concentrating on the next telephone pole. Stay the course, even if you feel like you’re behind.

As we continued pushing toward the goals we set to achieve as part of our 2020 Vision, we had certain expectations for what we wanted to see from a profitability standpoint. As a first-time CEO, I felt pressure to show results for the transformational journey that I was leading. The reality of the situation is that while we’re headed in the right direction, our transformation is still in process, and we’re not at the finish line yet. It’s hard to pinpoint one reason why — it’s not a resourcing or personnel issue — but put quite simply, enacting transformational change in a company of our size just takes time. A lot of time.

Takeaway:During the race, it can sometimes be challenging to avoid comparing your speed to other runners or the feeling that you’ve fallen behind. The smartest runners, and CEOs, have an established race plan for their run that they strategize on many months in advance, and they have the discipline to stick to it. When working towards long-term goals, celebrating small wins along the way will prevent distractions and help you see your plan through to completion.

3. Don’t let setbacks throw you off the path. Be flexible and adapt

Maybe a carelessly tied shoelace caused you to stumble, or perhaps you gave chase at the wrong time and skipped a carefully planned water stop. When running a long race, mistakes are bound to happen, and sometimes they’re no one’s fault but your own.

Leading the charge to roll out new processes, new strategies, new technologies, and more are all part of what we do as CEOs. However, when something we’ve launched goes awry or doesn’t work out as planned, it’s also part of our job to take reign to resolve it. A few years back, under my strategic direction, ABM executed a plan to centralize our Center of Excellence (COE) and certain responsibilities that used to belong to our industry groups fell to the COE. Shortly after, we realized the process wasn’t working. I swallowed my pride and admitted I had made the wrong call because I knew it was more important for us to refocus our time and energy on another solution than to spin our wheels trying to make the seemingly ineffective solution I’d proposed somehow work out.

Takeaway:Obstacles will arise during your race — you won’t be able to prepare for all of them. The key to finishing the race strong lies in your response. First-time CEOs are bound to make mistakes, just like me, but taking ownership and action to correct the course will demonstrate a commitment to transparency and help you build rapport with your employees — these are the factors that set winners apart.

Scott Salmirs, President and CEO of ABM Industries.
Courtesy of ABM Industries

President and Chief Executive Officer Scott is the visionary leader guiding one of the largest facility services providers listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

After more than 10 years with ABM, Scott was selected to become CEO, distinguishing him as only the 7th person to hold that position in our 106-year history. Before joining ABM, Scott held leadership positions managing building portfolios at Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, and CBRE.


original contributor
Marathon Runners
Fortune 500

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