Cross-fitness for business agility

Apr 06 2016 by Christos Tsolkas Print This Article

Every large organization wants to act more like a startup, but how can they help their people develop the drive, urgency and mental agility needed for a startup environment?

Inspiration struck one day at the gym when I was working out with my CrossFit trainer. He was putting me through a series of intense but fun exercises like burpees, squats, deadlifts and tire throws to make me fit, fast and flexible. That's what a startup is like, I thought. You move quickly from one challenge to the next, exercising very different skills with barely any rest, and yet feel more energy, creativity and stamina than at a normal job.

I wanted my management team to feel the same way. We were preparing for a major commercial redirection and I knew we would need to be extremely self-motivated, resourceful, flexible, innovative, and resilient to solve new business challenges across a mix of functions and markets. How battle-ready was my team?

With that in mind, I worked with my Human Resources team to develop a customized cross training program for business skills. Then we invited all our managers to join us for two days offsite.

Let's take a couple days off

We met at a hotel, dressed comfortably in track suits and running shoes. When we gathered in a gym that morning, everyone expected a typical set of team-building activities.

We started with a talk by a CrossFit champion who explained the benefits of daily exercise and described how he trains for elite competitions. Then we divided into small teams and did some simple games to get our bodies moving and our hearts beating.

No one had any idea what was next.

You're never too cool for school

Once we were settled into a classroom, my managers faced their first big surprise: hardcore business training in the form of a series of consecutive, almost non-stop challenges.

At first, we gave individual exercises based on actual business problems not theoretical ones. We specifically mixed up areas of specialty. Everyone got the same cross-functional tests in a rotating sequence regardless of which department they currently worked in. Brand management experts were suddenly in charge of commercial planning, while key account managers were given problems associated with distribution or territory management. Every individual had to present his or her results to my senior managers who were acting as assessors and coaches.

The exercises were serious and involved real problems outside each person's comfort zone. We gave them little rest and the pressure was intense. It was a relief when we reached the end of the day. Little did they know a bigger challenge awaited.

Beware of Greeks bearing gifts

Over dinner, we relaxed, enjoyed a nice meal and joked about how tough the day had been. Then I asked each team to come forward to receive a gift as a reward. Since I am Greek, and we are famous for our Trojan Horse story, they should have expected a surprise.

Inside each wrapped box was a case study. The teams were instructed to analyze their case study, come up with solutions, and present on it the next morning. Few got much sleep that night.

What was I really up to?

My theory was simple. I wanted to translate physical cross training into business cross training. To that end, I took nine principles of cross training and applied them to the behaviors our company believed we needed to be more agile, innovative and fast.

Cross Training Skill

Key Behavior

Physical endurance

Learning and development under pressure


Collaboration with others in team and beyond team

Agility & speed

Nimble response to new developments and entrepreneurial opportunities


Clarity in communication


Generating impact


Leveraging people and resources through leadership


Taking on unfamiliar roles in new areas of specialty


Making good decisions while balancing a mix of complex factors and issues

I have a belief that there's a very strong tie between physical activity and mental agility and creativity. When I'm in physical shape my mind feels clear and quick. Science backs this up.

Exercise not only keeps your brain young, it also lifts your mood and reduces stress and it keeps your memory sharp.

How did it go?

Our training program felt very different. It taxed people physically, mentally, and emotionally while keeping them focused on urgent collaborative goals - the same way people in startups feel when they're working together and firing on all cylinders.

The teams responded well with bright ideas and good plans for execution while exercising a range of technical muscles they hadn't used before. At the same time, they learned how far they still had to go to lift our game to the next level. Even our stars, who wouldn't otherwise have known they had any weaknesses, now understood they had specific areas to improve.

If we wanted to be startup ready, it was obvious to everyone that we needed to work on cross-functional, high-intensity performance development. We gave each individual a specific development plans to work on going forward. Motivation was higher than ever, though. We knew that next time, the game would be real and we had a much better idea now what it would take to perform at our best and win.

About The Author

Christos Tsolkas
Christos Tsolkas

Christos Tsolkas is an Independent business advisor, entrepreneur and author of the new book, The Gift of Crisis: How Leaders Use Purpose to Renew their Lives, Change their Organizations, and Save the World. He has spent more than 25 years in positions of significant responsibility (general management, sales & marketing) with multinationals in the fast-moving consumer goods sector, leading senior teams to achieve high performance and change. His educational background is chemical engineering & business and he is dedicated to continuous learning.