Professional Development

10 things cycling from Paris to London taught me about work

Also published on LinkedIn

In August 2016, I flew across the Atlantic, joined up with a group of strangers, and rode a bike from Paris to London. I was not an experienced cyclist. I didn’t have a traveling companion. I was alone, the only American in a group of 20 Italians, Germans and Australians. Could it have been a disaster? Probably, but it wasn’t. It was an amazing experience that I will savor for the rest of my life.

So how do you come back to work after something like that? After pining for a few days (yes, I admit that I pined!), you take everything you learned on that trip and channel it into your work.

Here’s what I learned.

1. Do your research

I’m not an impulsive person. I wasn’t going to run off to Paris and jump on a bike without preparation. I knew I wanted to be part of a group, so I researched tour companies and found a reputable one. I researched what I should bring and how much I should train. I talked to other people who had been on similar trips. I checked out guidebooks from the library and started learning travel French. I developed a budget. I made sure I could communicate with people back home who wanted to follow along.

Research is an important component of work too, and many similar principles apply. If you’re launching a new initiative, you want to learn as much as you can about it. You talk to other, similar organizations who have launched similar initiatives. You review the tools you have and budget for the ones you need. And you figure out how you will communicate with the audiences you want to reach.

In my fields of public relations and marketing, we use “RPIE” – Research, Planning, Implementation and Evaluation. I find this approach useful in nearly all areas of life – from travel planning to the boardroom.

2. Have a plan

After you do your research, the fun begins! Anticipation is probably the best part of a big trip, and I savored every moment. As a mother of three, I have plenty of mindless housework to do, so during those times I put my mind to work developing travel plans.

As the trip began to take shape, I booked my flights, created a google map of my cycling route, put all of the destinations and dates into my iPhone calendar and set aside a box for all the things I couldn’t manage digitally. Into the box went my passport, travel guides, special supplies, currency, etc. I created a packing list in an app on my phone, so that every time something popped into my mind, I could add it on the spot. I also had a backup in the cloud, just in case my phone failed. I created a blog and linked it to my social media accounts, so I could efficiently post updates on the go while keeping my loved ones at home up-to-date.

Work is no different. At my job, we use a project-planning tool called Basecamp, which is cloud-based and backed up. That’s where we keep all of our To Do lists, files, conversations and calendars. Basecamp integrates with Outlook, which we use to schedule meetings. We also use a social media publishing and monitoring tool to keep track of our 20+ accounts.

While all of these tools are great, they exist to support our Communications Plan – a document that keeps us all on track and aligned with organizational goals. All the activities, meetings, strategies and tactics exist to support that plan – and the plan is flexible enough to evolve as the organization changes. Which brings me to …

3. Have a backup plan for your plan

Nothing will go exactly according to plan, that’s a given. So what’s your backup plan? On our first full day in England, I was tasked with leading a small group of fellow travelers back to our hotel. The problem? The written directions we received from the tour guide were impossible to follow. My backup plan was to use GPS on my phone with a handlebar mount, but my phone and WiFi hotspot were almost dead. (I’d left my English plug converter in France  – oops!). My fellow travelers and I began to disagree about what we should do next. Moods began to plummet.

Fortunately, a passing British cyclist offered to lead us part of the way, and while he was doing that, I took one last shot and plugged my phone and hotspot into the battery backup. Voila! Enough juice to get a GPS signal. By the time our British friend rode off, I knew where we had to go.  An hour or so later we were back at the hotel, frazzled but relieved.

At work, technology fails. You forget your equipment or lose your files. That piece of paper on your desk disappears. What is your recovery strategy? Do you have other people you can rely on to help? Do you have a backup system in place? And can you stay focused on finding a solution, even as those around you are losing patience? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. Having a backup plan can be as simple as knowing what resources you have available when something fails. Staying clearheaded, focusing on the outcome, and solving problems will get you where you need to go.

4. Expect the unexpected

One day in France, a small group of us were going to take our bikes on the train to avoid a hilly stretch. The rest of our group left, and we walked to the train station, only to find out there was no train. The train workers were on strike. My companions and I were momentarily stunned. Our group was gone, we had no guide, and here we were with bikes and no train. Fortunately, I remembered that the tour company had a van with spare bikes on it, still at the hotel. My companion ran back and told them what happened. We put our bikes on the van and caught a taxi to our destination. Whew!

Unexpected things happen at work all the time. While not everything elevates to a crisis, having a crisis communications plan gives you a framework for dealing with the unexpected. When something happens, you gather your team (decision-makers, subject matter experts, managers, etc.), communicate about the issue, determine next steps and accountabilities, and begin your response.

5. Learn the language

I spent a good bit of time practicing travel French before I went on this trip. Little did I know that half our group was going to be Italian! The scarce bits of Italian I had learned on trips to Italy more than a decade prior were suddenly called into action. Adding to the confusion was Spanish, which I studied in school, and which quickly started mixing with the French and Italian words in my head. Dios mio!

The best solution was to ask for help. My new Italian friends were reluctant at first, but we quickly overcame the barriers thought pantomime and the few words we knew. Friendly hotel clerks in France tolerated my poor pronunciation and helped me learn the correct words. When all else failed, I used Google translate.

Whether you’re learning the language of finance to communicate about a budget, or learning the language of real estate to communicate about a building project, good communicators have to be quick studies. When I’m out of my depth at work, I ask a trusted friend or associate for help. When I was studying for my Accreditation in Public Relations, I had to learn the language of banking for a section on financial communications. I invited a friend who was a financial consultant to lunch, and had him walk through the different terms with me. Talking through the new vocabulary with a native speaker is much more valuable than simply reading definitions.

6. Take in the sights

On my trip, there were so many things to see. When the riding got tough – uphill, into the wind, joints (and rear end) aching – the beautiful views helped take my mind off those things. We rode past rolling hills, farms, hayfields, ancient villages, churches, castles, circuses and so much more. How can you not get lost in such beautiful vistas?

Fortunately, we had many stops – for snacks, bathroom breaks, coffee. One day I noticed an older Italian gentleman wandering away from the group. He had discovered a beautiful church a block away. How had I missed that? By being so focused on the riding. After that, I made sure to explore my surroundings whenever we stopped. (After a bathroom and snack break, of course!)

In work, it’s easy to get caught up in the daily tasks and forget to look around. In my case, I work at a library. So many people say that it’s their fantasy to work at a library, among all the books, but for me it’s my job. Every day I walk past stacks of books and rooms full of people without taking a second look.

My CEO once told me he does something called “leading by walking around.” It’s a great way to see the sights at your job while taking a healthy mental and physical break.  You might just find something you didn’t expect, or learn something that helps you do your job better. (Or, in my case, find a good book!)

7. Experience the journey

When you’re on an amazing trip, it’s hard not to count the days or think about the next day’s activities. I certainly did. But as much as I could, I resolved to be in the moment. I would consciously feel the breeze, take in everything my eyes could see, feel my hands on the handlebars, and remind myself, “I’m really here!”

Nothing has a beginning and end, really. It’s part of a bigger journey.

The same goes in a career. In my experience, other than my first day at my first job and my (far distant) retirement date, there are few real starts and stops. Each job sort of flows into the next. And everything you learn, you take with you. When I’m feeling frustrated or stuck, I remind myself, “this is just today.” And when something amazing happens – like winning an award, or giving a good presentation, or seeing one of my employees achieve something – I try to savor the moment. We can’t expect every day to be amazing, but we draw positivity from those happy moments when times are difficult. Which brings me to …

8. Don’t burn out your legs!

When I asked my cyclist friend Sean for advice for this trip, he said, “Don’t burn out your legs.” I thought, “That’s it? Where’s the rest of the advice? What about gear and equipment and stuff?” Well, he was right. Equipment can be tweaked, gear can be bought, but you only have two legs! My first two days of riding, I thought I was pacing myself. I remembered Sean’s advice. But at the end of day two, horrible pains were shooting through my knee. I had injured the tendons due to a sub-optimal seat and foot position. Looking back, I remembered pushing hard so I could ride at the front of the pack, instead of honoring my own pace.

Fortunately, ice and rest got me back into riding shape, but my knee hurt for the rest of the trip. That was a hard lesson to learn, but a good one. At work, we have the same challenge. When we have a really good streak, accomplishing lots of big projects and getting great results, it’s tempting to want to sustain that pace all the time. But that’s a short journey to burnout. I have seen brilliant, talented people suffer from burnout, and in most cases, it is at least partially self-inflicted. Which is why …

9. It’s ok to take a break

As much as I wanted to stay with the group for all six days of riding, I knew that my knee could get worse. What if I couldn’t ride at all? So I took two breaks. On days three and five, a small group of us took alternate routes to avoid long, strenuous rides. Was I disappointed? Sure. But we had our own adventures on those days, and I would have been really disappointed if I missed the rest of the trip due to overexertion.

So while it’s important for you and your team to be ambitious, you also need to calibrate your pace and give yourself breaks. If you don’t, you could miss that next adventure and an opportunity to do something amazing.

10. No regrets

Thanks to research and planning, I was pretty well equipped for this trip, and things went smoothly overall. However, there were definitely a few things that didn’t go as planned, and it was tempting to wallow in regret or beat myself up for small mistakes. But ultimately, who does that help? Not you and not your companions. Life is long, if you’re lucky, and you’re going to forget things. Why not forget the negatives (I forgot my charger, I hurt my knee) and remember the positives (the sights, the friendships, the food)? Riding up to Westminster Cathedral, the end point of our journey, everything evaporated except for this amazing feeling of accomplishment.

It has taken me many years, but I’ve finally been able to let go of regret at work. With nearly two decades of professional life behind me, I have made plenty of mistakes. No doubt there will be more in the coming years. But in the measure of your total career, they really don’t matter. What matters is the work you do, the relationships you create, and the experiences you gather along the way.

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