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Not just a race: How competing in an Ironman made this woman a better entrepreneur

(Allyson Chisnall after completing the Ironman. Photo credit: Christian Lee)

Allyson Chisnall is driven, detail-oriented and a goal-setter. She’s a certified financial planner but she’s also a triathlete — an Ironman, in fact.

Every five years, Chisnall sets a big personal goal. When she turned 40, she earned a degree. At 45 she lost weight. After watching a friend do an Ironman competition in August 2012, she decided that for her 50th birthday she was going to do one, too.

When she committed to this goal, she had never done a triathlon. “I remember looking at [the participants] and thinking, ‘they look just like me. If they can do this, I can do this,’” she says.

Allyson Chisnall in her office.

She had three years to ready herself to complete the 226-kilometre race. At the time, she was running her own tax and bookkeeping business and she felt that being an entrepreneur would help her in her training. She knew the importance of setting smart goals and she was naturally driven and motivated, like most entrepreneurs are.

“I knew I needed a plan. I think that is where my business [experience] helped my Ironman,” she explains. “But that’s where it stopped. Everything else, the Ironman has taught me about being a business owner.”

Heading into this journey, Chisnall didn’t realize the profound impact that training for an event of this magnitude would have on her and her work life.

Letting go of 100 per cent

“I used to see things in black and white,” she says. “I’ve learned there is grey in the middle.”

She used to think that if she didn’t hit 100 per cent of her targets in business it meant failure. Training taught her that there are good days and bad days, and you need to take them all in stride.

“You might have to pivot, but that’s okay,” she explains. “Sometimes you learn more through things that don’t go right than those that go as you expect them to.”

New competitor mentality

Although she still has her accounting and bookkeeping business, Chisnall is in the communications industry now as a partner, operations director and CFO of MediaStyle, a digital communications agency in Ottawa.

Her industry can be very competitive, but she doesn’t look at it with an us-against-them mentality. She credits her teamwork-positive outlook to being involved in sports and training. “We should support each other and help those who are struggling. I want others to be successful. We can learn from everyone.”

Chisnall says doing the Ironman and her continued involvement in running and triathlons has:

  • Given her perspective.
  • Made her more resilient.
  • Given her confidence.
  • Taught her how to prioritize.

These are all important qualities for someone running a business.

Know when to delegate

“I was training up to 25 hours a week. You learn how to juggle things, you learn how to prioritize and learn how to let go of stuff that just doesn’t matter,” she says.

“When I had my own business [full time], I did all of it. I didn’t hire anyone to do my marketing, I did my own bookkeeping. When you have so many competing priorities, you learn very quickly what you have to do and what you can have other people do,” she says.

“I find a lot of small business owners are very reluctant to hire people in the beginning because it costs. But if you don’t, it has a cost in another way. It would have been better for me to hire someone to do some administrative tasks so I could focus on the key tasks.”

Not every small business owner can — or wants to — do an Ironman. But for Chisnall, setting the race as a personal goal — and then reaching it — has made her a better businessperson and leader.

Note: This writer was so motivated by Chisnall that after speaking with her, she immediately started training for a triathlon. April is making her debut in the triathlon circuit on August 20, 2017.