The 20-Mile March Approach to Preparation

I am currently reading Jim Collins’ new book, Great by Choice.  For those of you who subscribe to FORTUNE magazine, you may have read the excerpt from the book in the October 17th edition.  If you have enjoyed any of his previous work, I highly recommend you check it out.  Jim Collins began the research for this book nine years ago in 2002 in an effort to determine why some companies thrive in uncertainty and even chaos when others do not.  Jim Collins and his co-author started from an initial list of over 20,000 companies and through a series of eleven layers of cuts, they came up with only seven companies that met all of their tests.  They labeled these companies “10Xers” because in every case, these companies beat their industry index by at least 10 times.  The book goes on to describe, through a series of concepts, why these seven companies were able to do what they did among a very trying and tumultuous time in the economy over the last nine years.

As with all of Jim Collins’ books, he outlines several key concepts from his research, and one of these concepts he discusses in Great by Choice is the 20-mile march.  To illustrate this, Jim describes the tale of two teams of adventurers in their quest to reach the South Pole in 1911.  Both of the expedition leaders were of similar background and skill, and both teams faced similar environmental conditions during their journey.  However, the journey for one team resulted in a race to victory 34 days ahead of the other team and a safe journey home whereas the other team experienced a devastating defeat and perished in their travels home due to the advancing winter weather.  The results beg the question as to how two very similar teams in very similar conditions experienced dramatically different results.

The answer lies in the 20-mile march concept.  One team took the steady and consistent approach to their journey.  No matter how favorable or how poor the weather conditions, they kept a consistent 20-mile march pace, modulating their efforts so as not to overextend their energy, supplies, etc.  The other team, in contrast, overexerted themselves in good weather conditions and would be utterly exhausted when poor weather conditions occurred, causing them to have to hunker down and wait it out before they could continue.  The best analogy I can think of in military terms is the ever popular Brigade/Corps/Fleet/Squadron “fun” run I’m sure everyone has participated in and experienced the accordion effect where you are either at a crawl pace or a dead sprint.  It’s a miserable way to run and much more exhausting than just keeping a steady and consistent pace.

This same concept can be applied not just to commercial business, but to various aspects of our individual lives as well.  For example, take one’s approach to exercise and working out and compare two very different approaches.  One person makes the commitment to get up three days a week and do something physical (running, lifting, etc.) on those days, and they do this week after week, month after month, on a consistent basis.  The other person works out seven days a week, two hours a day, for two weeks straight.  They get burned out and then take a month off before trying to start back up again.  Having spent most of my life either doing competitive bodybuilding or just working out, I can tell you with certainty the person who takes the steady approach even though they aren’t working out every day, will be in better shape in shorter time.

The same approach can be applied to the JMO and their preparation to transition from the military to Corporate America.  With today’s OPTEMPO in the military, deployments, family commitments, etc., it’s very easy to take this start-stop approach to your preparation, where a lot of JMOs will “cram” for a period of time when things slow down and then take an extended period off from doing any sort of preparation when work/life gets really busy.   It’s understandable and easy to do.  However, my recommendation to those of you currently preparing to make the transition or those simply considering it is to take this 20-mile march approach.  When things get hectic, make the commitment to read just 1-2 chapters of a book before going to bed, write out the answer to just one interview question and practice verbalizing that answer, etc.  And, when things are slower, it’s not necessary to go all out and overexert yourself.  If you take this approach, that 1-2 chapters a night will turn into reading several books over a couple of months and getting all of your answers prepared to the various commonly asked interview questions.  You will be able to stay on pace, retain more information, and have a strong level of confidence heading into your interviews.

Rob Davis