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Why strategic planning is like training for an Ironman

Amy Seppman is the Marketing Director at JCP Solicitors, a multidiscipline law firm with 200 employees and offices across South Wales. Overseeing a team of 4, Amy's main role is to assist with the strategic planning and development, ensuring all the company marketing activity falls in line with the business strategy. A member of the Chartered Institute of Marketing, Amy was made a partner at JCP in 2013 and became one of the owners of the law firm in July 2020.

As many of you will know, an Ironman, often referred to as one of the toughest endurance races on the planet, consists of a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and then a marathon.  It is, of course, a race that requires a careful plan.

You set a goal, you analyse your current situation and then you make a plan to get to where you want to go.This is much like long term planning in an organisation.

Don’t get any ideas, I’m no super athlete, I’m a finisher only. When I did Ironman Wales in 2019 my mission was to make it over the line in one piece. 


Where do you start?

I decided a year out that I wanted to do the race, but I didn’t go from a standing start.  Having already done a middle distance triathlon, a marathon and some long swims, I knew that giving myself a year was realistic.  Of course, it would be hard work and a number of things could go wrong along the way, but deep down I knew I could do it if I put the work in.

I think this is a great way to approach your strategic long term planning.  What do you want to achieve and is it possible to get there?

Be realistic

In sport setting goals that are unrealistic is demoralising.  The same goes for long term planning in business.  Don’t try and go from zero to hero.  Be realistic and get everyone on board.  People won’t buy into something they don’t believe can ever happen.  Set goals that you know are achievable but also require hard work and focus to stay on track. 

Break it down

Whilst my overall objective was to finish the race, I had to break it down to what it would look like in its individual parts.  To finish the race in the 17 hours allocated, I had to be realistic about the different elements and how much time I needed for the swim, the bike and the run.  Each of these sections needed a plan.

How will the different parts of your organisation, such as the sectors you serve, or the services you offer each contribute to your overall vision? 

Keep an eye on your competition

This doesn’t apply to me, but if you are going to win that Ironman, you need to know who you are up against.  You will watch your competition closely, you will monitor their races and look up their times.  You will know the conditions they race well in and the conditions they don’t like.  You will watch them, and they will watch you.

You need to do this same analysis for your long term plan, who are the established players, and who are the wildcards? Who or what is your biggest threat? 

Your biggest threat may not be a competitor, perhaps it is legislation, funding, or finding people with the right skills to drive your organisation forward.  Looking at your environment and identifying the challenges you will meet along the way is important for you to be prepared, and even better, to turn them into opportunities.

Stay on track 

If your overall goal is an Ironman, whilst other races along the way can assist with your training, too many will waste your money, cause fatigue, lose your focus, and inevitably result in injury. 

The same applies to your organisation.  Don’t try and achieve too much, it will use up your time and spend your valuable marketing budget.  Pay attention to the activities that will make a difference.

The hardest thing for any marketer, in my opinion, is advising against something that your seniors wish to support but you feel will not help to reach the goals of the strategic plan. 

Having a good relationship with your stakeholders is my best advice.  You will not win every battle, and sometimes you will need to concede to win the war.              

Measure where you are

Most people training for an Ironman will have a decent distance race somewhere in the middle of their training plan, not too early, not too late.  This will provide a measurement of where they are with their training and give confidence that they are going in the right direction. It will also highlight any areas that need extra attention. 

If by this date you need to be here, where do you need to be 6 months before, and 6 months before that?How will you measure where you are at any given time?

Know your athletes

A coach knows how to work with their athletes and get the best from them. Know how to write and present to your stakeholders.  You may need buy-in from different teams and departments – it is unlikely to be a one size fits all approach. 

When you write your plan think about who you are writing for.  It needs to be persuasive and if you fill it with marketing jargon, you may lose your audience. Don’t overthink it, over-complicate it, or create anything that people won’t have time to read. 

Weather the storm

If the weather is bad on race day, how will you adapt?  What will you need to change and adjust?  Do you have extra clothing to wear?

I first signed up to Ironman Wales back in 2016, but in May of that year, I injured my knee. Not being able to run or bike, I was realistic and changed the goal. I cancelled my spot and signed up for some long-distance swims. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a very mediocre swimmer at the best of times, but without that year, I probably would not be the swimmer I am today.

Be prepared to evolve and adapt and most importantly learn. When we need to change course it teaches us resilience. Making the decision early is often the hardest part.

In conclusion

Do not underestimate the importance of internal relationships, pick your battles wisely, and understand where your stakeholders want to go. I often speak to marketers who have been asked to write plans but are not sure of the long term goals of the organisation. You can’t plan a route if the road leads to nowhere.