Key to Becoming a Top CEO? Train Like a Top Athlete.

Key to Becoming a Top CEO? Train Like a Top Athlete.

By Niels Lameijer on Oct 24, 2019
Key to Becoming a Top CEO? Train Like a Top Athlete.
Train like a top athlete
CEOs and Business owners are a breed of their own. They are the elite athletes of the business world. Many already excel, and have the drive to achieve more growth and higher performance by training like professional athletes. This typically doesn’t involve suicide sprints or bench presses – although some stressful days might feel that way.

Over the last eight years, I have been fortunate to work with many influential executives as a CEO coach and Chair for Vistage, leader in executive peer advisory. I root for them like I do my favorite athletes and I study them…closely. What follows are the archetypes of development for leaders and athletes alike. These are in no particular order because I think they are all important:

Stay Focused.

One of the most defining characteristics of any corporate professional or athlete is their ability to stay focused on what’s most important amid all the distractions. Many CEOs have a bit of the next shiny thing-syndrome and tend to jump on something new every other day. Seeing opportunities is a key strength of top leaders, too much can leave many loose ends not tied up and can drive the leadership team up a wall! One particularly impactful strategy is taking active breaks that get you up and moving. Actively engaging your body and mind throughout the day will get you across the finish line.

Hire An Executive Coach.

If you study top athletes with any sort of specificity you see how important relationships are to their success, especially with their coaches. Think about Phil Jackson and Michael Jordan – Phil didn’t need to teach Michael how to play basketball. Michael already knew that. Phil’s role was to keep him on top of his game by pushing him to the next level – into places he couldn’t reach on his own. A coach is a mirror, an accountability partner, a question asker, and a supportive challenger. This kind of coaching can produce as strong a leader as it would an athlete.

Workout Your Brain.

One of the criteria for becoming a Vistage member is curiosity and a passion for lifelong learning. We regularly bring in experts to teach and inspire our members on a variety of leadership topics from marketing to finance to finding balance. Similar to an athlete, it’s our way of getting a leg up on the competition and improving our capabilities for optimum performance.

Seek Feedback Daily.

Athletes are critiqued by coaches and fans – business leaders are evaluated by customers, advisors, and employees. Take a number, right? Feedback may sometimes be hard to hear, and it’s particularly valuable if it’s honest, well delivered and comes from a trusted source. At each step, when you’re told what won’t work and why, you’re emboldened to change a bit here and tweak some there. Every frustration pushes you beyond your current boundaries and gives you fresh perspective.

Don’t run from your destruction.

A lot of people attribute their successes to their failures. That is because they learn the most from them. If anyone, be it an athlete or executive, is at the top of their game long enough they often fail. It’s how you react to that failure that defines you on the field or in your field.

Widen your circle.

To sharpen their skills, elite athletes train with people who are just as good if not better than they are. This translates to pushing yourself just a little bit harder. Who wants to be the weakest link? Leaders, like athletes, also need a place they can go to talk about their challenges, their concerns, their fears, and worries with people who understand what it’s like to be in their position. That is what a Peer Group is for! I see this among my Vistage group members and in my own Chair Peer Group where my counterparts are my biggest teachers and help me see myself, and others more clearly.

I’ve noticed how this athletic approach to leadership development yields handsome dividends within my Vistage group members. Our monthly speakers make sure there is a good brain workout with plenty of new content and different points of view. Most significant though is the “carefrontational” feedback the members are giving each other during the afternoon conversations of their top strategic topics. In one of my recent meeting, a member gave an update of his company’s financial performance. Several peers did not feel he had a good grasp on the numbers and told him so directly. Not easy to hear, and so valuable. Three days later a small subgroup sat down with the CEO, and his COO combing through the numbers, giving suggestions on next step to secure the company’s future! The peer group feeling is similar to a sports team, “Nobody goes down on our watch.”


How are you getting in tip-top “corporate athlete” shape? I’d love to hear what is working for you!


About the author: Niels has led Vistage groups since 2012 and coached over 80 CEOs and business leaders in Santa Barbara, CA and North Carolina. He is a member of Vistage's Training Faculty and teaches Chairs all over the world how to be great coaches, facilitators, and mentors. He can be reached: [email protected].



Niels is a great resource who listens and then delivers clear, thoughtful, and most important, valuable feedback.
Gordon -- CEO/Owner