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  • Writer's pictureJerry Phillips

Just get to the road!

When I was interviewing Mike Birch, CEO of Action Target Inc, he shared with me a story that is a perfect metaphor for how he leads. We were talking about the difficulty in writing a book. He shared that he tells his kids he is going to write a book. I asked what it would be about and he stated that he didn’t know the content, but he knew the title. “Just Get to the Road!”

Mike has been at the helm of Private Equity owned ATI for 5 years. In that time frame, they have taken EBITA to record levels. They are in a high growth mode in a fascinating business. They build turnkey shooting ranges. They work in the commercial, law enforcement, international and military markets. They build the facilities for their customers to train, practice and prepare, as well as for entertainment. They are world class facilities. They are global in scope.

Mike has a physical presence. He is a strong outdoorsman, both as a hunter and as a cyclist. The motto of “Just get to the Road” came from his competition in the latter. The Leadville 100 is a mountain bike race of endurance and strength. The race challenges competitors with 12,000-feet of elevation gain over the course of the race in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. This 100-mile event rewards the individual that finishes in less than 12 hours, with a large belt buckle. It’s an honor earned through hard work and smart execution.

It took four attempts for Mike to finish under the 12 hours and earn his buckle. His story is captivating in how it mirrors his leadership. The first year he competed he trained hard, and finished at 12:42. Out of the buckle, but admirable. He told his wife the next day that he was starting his training for the next race.

That year he trained harder and worked on nutrition. His reward was a 12:39 minute finish. Still out of the Buckle, and frustrated with only a marginal improvement. Again, he told his wife that training for the following year started the next day. And it did. And again, he trained hard, ate well, and still finished out of the buckle.

Mike used his own discovery and analysis to make judgments on where he needed to improve. He realized he needed a coach and hired one. They analyzed his results. He wore a heart monitor and it showed his heart rate of 150-155 beats a minute was consistent throughout the race. For those who have run marathons or have participated in long bouts of physical activity, you know that your muscles build up lactic acid. That can prove very detrimental to your performance. Mike and his coach determined that he was on a strong pace to finish at the 9:30-hour mark for the first 80 miles of the race, but fell off dramatically for the last 20 miles. Each year, he struggled on a dirt road that lead to the last paved road into the finish line. The lactic acids made it almost impossible for him to finish. The road looked flat, but had an incline and he needed to walk his bike up part of the dirt road. His mantra to get through the dirt road to the pavement became “Just get to the road!”

Mike shared the mantra with his kids. One of his daughters called him about a challenge in a class she was taking and she ended the conversation about the class challenge by stating back to Mike, “I know Dad, just get to the road.” It became that engrained in his whole family.

Mike has taken that philosophy to Action Target. He shared that he doesn’t believe in the first 100 days’ metric that has become so popular in politics and business. Instead of driving a hard agenda of change in the first 100 days he listens, observes, asks lots of questions and learns. In fact, he would tell you his first decision at Action Target was to change the chairs in the conference room. Although not very impressive he knew it mattered to employees and sent a message to the employees that details matter. Previous leadership had purchased used chairs off Craigslist at a low price, but they were broken and very uncomfortable. The staff was distracted by them in meetings. Nothing gets accomplished when you are distracted. Mike was building trust with his team.

Mike shared his second “major” business decision was to put in a companywide calendaring software system. It was driven by a need to set a meeting with his staff. His prior experience was with large, well established companies. Small details like using a common calendaring system were already well-established processes in these companies. He asked his assistant how he should set up meetings and she shared that he should send an email to attendees. He did, and 3 people couldn’t make the meeting time. It went back and forth several times on email before they could settle on a time and day that they all could meet. The productivity gain from putting a shared calendar in was small, but extremely helpful. He also created standing meetings and calendarized them annually. There wasn’t any more email tag to set meetings. They became very efficient in sharing information. He set strong expectations of participation. His staff makes the meetings a priority.

The lactic acids were a distraction for Mike in the Leadville 100. He had to overcome that distraction to reach his commitment to finishing under 12 hours and earning the Buckle. He trusted his coach and he trusted himself, and his processes. Mike trained hard, ate the right foods, and monitored his metrics. He and his coach determined if he held his heart rate at 145 beats per minute instead of 155 he would be able to reach his goals. A slight, incremental change, that would provide a huge reward.

In the fourth race, Mike monitored his heart rate and kept it at 145. If it climbed to 150 he simply slowed his pace and dropped his heart rate. He kept at it through a disciplined process. He kept tracking his heart rate (discovery) and made decisions (judgment) on when to push and when to slow down his pace. He trusted his process and pushed forward (trust). Mike knew he was psychically capable. He had the talent and strength. He has trained physically, and mentally. He was ready to ride. He was ready to use his talent in the most efficient way possible to reach his commitment that he had made to himself.

When he reached the dirt road, he said to himself, “Just get to the road”, referring to the paved road into the finish line. He said it over, and over again. Then he realized that he was passing people in a stretch that he had to walk in past races. He began to say it out loud. “Just get to the road!” Then he started to shout it, “Just get to the road!” Looking back on it, he is certain others thought he was crazy, but he succeeded. He made it to the road and cruised into the finish, earning his buckle with a couple hours to spare.

The set up for the interview with Mike was meant to capture inflection points in his life and how relationships had impacted those moments. My intent was to share specifics of his story to point to one or two of the inputs that had helped him. When he shared the story of “Just get to the Road!” I knew I had to change the narrative of the article. He used all inputs in his personal life, as well as his business life. I realized that there is no difference. What Mike does in his non-work life is the same as he does in his work life. His commitments are as strong in his non-work life and to himself, as they are to his business life.

Action Target continues to grow based on a great team of people under Mike Birch’s brilliant but humble leadership. When they make a commitment, they accomplish it. “Just get to the road!”

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