The price you pay for an Olympic-caliber career

July 26, 2012: 10:48 AM ET

Today's business world is so competitive that those who reach the very top must focus "all-in" or lose out to their rivals, much in the same way as Olympic hopefuls.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis

FORTUNE -- Building a world-class career requires superhuman dedication, persistence, and raw talent, as we can see in the life stories of athletes gathered for the London Olympics -- and in the resumes of many Fortune 100 chief executives.

Those who reach Olympic levels of success in sports and in business share one other common quality: both groups of people have paid a major price in other parts of their lives for pursuing one aim with a single-minded focus for years or even decades.

"It's really, really difficult to be an Olympic champion or a super-achiever in the workplace without some kind of sacrifice on the personal front," says Kevin Sheridan, author of Building a Magnetic Culture and a senior vice president at Avatar HR Solutions in Chicago.

The question of what price top leaders pay for success arose in the discussion of a recent Atlantic Magazine cover story titled "Why Women Still Can't Have It All" as well as the coverage of new Yahoo (YHOO) CEO Marissa Mayer, whose first baby is due just months after she takes the helm. But it's not just women who struggle to balance their career goals and personal responsibilities in our always-on work culture.

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Some male executives may appear to be free to travel and devote themselves to work exclusively, but later pay a price in their crumbling relationships with spouses and children, notes George Bradt, a consultant and author of The New Leader's 100 Day Action Plan. And regardless of your gender, every human being requires a certain amount of sleep, exercise, and downtime to have a truly healthy lifestyle.

"In the big companies, the people that I've seen absolutely devoted their lives to get to the top," Bradt says. "There are the explicit tradeoffs and the implicit tradeoffs, but the gate on everybody is time. You cannot expand the time."

Today's business world is so competitive that those who reach the very top must focus "all-in" or lose out to their rivals, much in the same way as Olympic hopefuls. If you think of the four areas of life identified by the recently deceased author Stephen R. Covey -- physical, social/emotional, mental, and spiritual -- business executives spend a disproportionate amount of time on the mental, just as athletes overly develop their physical skills.

In a recent BPI Group CEO survey, executives said they struggled to achieve work-life balance and felt both their relationships and health were neglected. "I do see this as a reflection on what's going on in corporate America these days," says Duncan Ferguson, a managing director at the Chicago talent management consulting firm. "There are sometimes things you need to sacrifice."

Olympic athletes recognize the tradeoffs as early as childhood. Steve Siebold, author of 177 Mental Toughness Secrets of The World Class, remembers when his tennis training schedule kept him from joining the neighborhood kids tooling around on their bikes.

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"You give up a regular life. You're not going to live like a normal person" as an Olympian-in-training, Siebold says. " It's an extreme life."

Close friends and family members who understand the importance of discipline and share the athlete's goals become a cocoon protecting his or her time and mental state from outside influences, he notes, much like the inner circle of a top-level CEO.

But if the athlete's family members don't truly share the dream, and resent the time that training takes away from family life, it can lead to broken homes. "I've seen it work really well with families and I've seen people get divorced and the kids are angry," Siebold says.

The solution: recognizing that you're asking your family to pay a price and taking every opportunity to bolster the neglected areas of your life, whether it's relationships or health. Identify and commit to those work priorities that are truly mandatory, but have the courage to put work on the shelf when it's not urgent. Maybe that's a decision to leave work every day at 5:30 p.m. for a family dinner, like Facebook (FBCOO Sheryl Sandberg does, or to bring your kids along for Olympic training, like U.S. volleyball player Keri Walsh.

Indeed, as more top-level executives acknowledge the need for family time and the benefit of occasionally turning off work, workplace culture may grow more flexible. But until and unless that day comes, business executives who reach for the top would do well to build some level of understanding with their family members and rejuvenate themselves however they can.

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Wendy Boglioli, an Olympic gold and bronze medalist in swimming, feels fortunate that her husband supported her Olympic goal -- and was often the one to kick her out of bed when early morning practices seemed impossible.

"If I hadn't had him in my life, I don't think I would've made the Olympic team," says Boglioli, now a spokesperson for Genworth Financial. "As an Olympic athlete, you give up an awful lot…. You have to be pretty darn selfish about how you spend your time."

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About This Author
Katherine Reynolds Lewis
Katherine Reynolds Lewis
Contributor, Fortune

Katherine Reynolds Lewis is an award-winning Washington D.C.-based journalist specializing in finance, work, and family issues. She has written for publications including the Fiscal Times, Money, MSN, the New York Times, Parade, Slate, USA Today magazines, and the Washington Post Magazine. Previously, she worked as a national correspondent for Newhouse News Service and reported for Bloomberg News in Washington. She began her career in New York at the Bond Buyer, after graduating from Harvard College with an A.B. in physics. She is active in the Asian American Journalists Association and serves as founding co-chair of the AAJA Digital Group.

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