Serena Williams' Trainer Spills 7 Work-Life Secrets

02/02/2015 11:48 am ET | Updated Apr 04, 2015

Seven years ago, I saw a guy doing a plank on two medicine balls. I was pretty impressed... until he started doing pushups. (The plank was his version of active rest.)

I didn't find out until later that this man (Abdul Sillah) is one of Serena Williams' private trainers. I also didn't know he's been a professional athlete himself. What I did instinctively recognize, however, was why countless athletes work with Abdul -- from Serena to several of Stanford's leading stars, and a smattering of Silicon Valley executives: With Abdul, we learn lessons that help us win, in work and in life.

Here are seven of those work-life lessons. I hope they'll also help you succeed in yours.

1) See People For Who They Really Are.

I first asked Abdul if we could work together because I wanted to lose 10 pounds. Looking back, I find it funny that I was so dumbfounded by the first program he gave me. He wanted me to do... WHAT?!

But what I didn't realize was that Abdul had instinctively seen me for who I wanted to be: a winner and a hard worker. He also observed that, to get there, I needed to be pushed.

And push he (we?) did. Over the next few months, I lost the weight and kept it off. But what I gained mattered more: a partner.

Potential is cheap. The process of helping each other bring those possibilities to life are priceless -- in our families and friendships, as equally with our bosses and direct reports. To self-asses, stop for a minute and consider the following questions:

  • When you're with others, do you laugh? Do you play?
  • Do you have aspirational discussions?
  • How often do you exchange concrete constructive criticism?

As I've learned with Abdul, such is the paradox of high-potential interactions: They require mutual trust and shared benefit -- and a continuous dialogue that stretches, challenges and coaches. Research shows that what we obsess over, and visualize in detail, produces our future experiences. In other words, our brains experience thoughts and actions in the same way, according to Psychology Today.

2) Loyalty Never Gets A Divorce.

When we first met, I told Abdul there was no way I could wake up to workout at 5 a.m. He capitulated that he'd do it for me. God, I hated him. Every day, 4:35 a.m., on the mother-freaking dot: RINGGGG.

"Good morning! It's a beautiful day!" (I am here to tell you, it was not.)

Loyalty comes easy when people are giggly and well-rested. I've had plenty such moments with Abdul. We've also had many where I'm pissed off, tired, and frustrated... and Abdul's been just as consistent -- even when I can't say the same for myself.

We all have demons to work through, especially when it comes to wanting to succeed. Trying to win requires stepping outside of our comfort zones, and I can personally attest that it can produce immature behavior. When I head that direction, Abdul accepts me, but he doesn't indulge the child that wants to come out. And every time, no matter what, he re-welcomes me when I re-orient around the person I want to be -- someone defined by thoughtfulness, receptivity, other-centeredness, and strength.

There's a reason why studies show loyalty characterizes the most successful friendships, in the same way it drives long-term sales. It may also explain why "customer centricity" (though it's an over-used phrase) now describes the leading modern-day enterprise, according to Ernst & Young. People, like companies, instinctively go and stay where they know their long term success matters.

3) When You Want Results to Yell About, Whisper.

About a year into our friendship, Abdul suggested we start a weekly running group with a few friends. That core group has expanded over the years, as has how often we meet, but one thing remains the same: The challenge, and what it means, and the fact that it's shared.

I can still remember the first day I gave a workout everything I had, and the almost inaudible words when I finished. Soft, soft, almost missed. To this day, permanently in my memory:

"Good job, CR." (That's what he calls me.)

He'd seen the battle I'd just won. We celebrated the victory with a whisper.

On the track, as another member of our running group so succinctly wrote: "Self-doubt is the greatest hurdle." (I highly recommend her Forbes article: "My Secret to Work-Life Balance As An Entrepreneur: Athletics.") Getting your head in gear is the first step to creating happiness and success, not just a bang-up workout. We all doubt ourselves. The question is, how will you respond?

With Abdul, I have learned to explore my own whispers -- and when it's needed, whisper reminders to myself. These internal victories have taught me how to transform self-doubt into daring -- on and off the track.

Which is another way of saying that...

4) Courage Starts in the Mind.

As I've said before, exercise functions as a way for me to look my fear of underperformance dead on, and conquer.

"You can do this, CR."

"Great work out, today. You gave it all you had. You pushed yourself beyond your limit."


These simple phrases soundtrack the moments when I push through booty lock, ignore the howling knots in my quads, and tell my esophagus-meets-stomach that no matter how much bile they churn, breakfast will stay down. They also lend words to something I've learned deeply on that track, that's a priceless affirmation for us all to recite daily:

No matter what happens, I will remain erect. I will continue to be mobile.

What others say to us, and we say to ourselves, impacts everything -- from love relationships to business, from corporate strategy to intra-office politics.

What mantras do you repeat for yourself every day? Those are the messages you'll send your peer group, your team, your spouse. What affirmations do your friends and coworkers create for you? Relationships of all kinds create mutual influence. As a leader, what mantras do you model for your team?

Who we surround ourselves with influences the messages we hear over and over. Both matter.

5) Art Operationalizes Success.

Our little running group loves to tease Abdul about his shoe collection. I swear to God -- I've never seen him wear a pair more than twice. Man knows how to shop a Nike outlet. (Funny enough, now, so do we.)

The joke illustrates an aspect I love about working out with Abdul: He is walking art, and I don't just mean his muscles. There's not a day where his shirt doesn't match his jacket, match his shorts, match his shoes. And if you think his socks might belie the carefully selected color combination, you've got another thought coming.

Abdul embodies a sentiment he recently texted me: "You are the creative force of your life." There's a reason first impressions hinge on seven seconds. It's the same reason that LinkedIn profiles with pictures are seven times more likely to get viewed: Humans are visual. What we see transfers energy. That's something to remember, whether we're sprinting or recovering from a break up.

Many organizations recognize this relationship between inspiration and appearance. For tech firms, serendipitous interaction drives workplace design. Even Starbucks is in the middle of a location renovation. What these brands recognize is that the layout of where we work influences how we work, and shapes the architecture of our results.

How intentionally do you dress yourself? Do you arrange and organize your physical environments -- in leisure and at work -- for optimal productivity and success? Your answer to those questions drive your ability to inspire others and yourself.

6) Storytelling Unlocks, Then Binds.

This last summer, Abdul and I swapped stories about our childhoods, divulging details we've told only a few. It's stabilized me to feel so connected and known, and has impacted much more than my workouts.

The same thing happened on a recent trip to Skyword's headquarters, which my former company joined last summer: A high-performing peer said he'd had similar sensations of self-doubt while onboarding. By sharing, he encouraged me that I also can influence our team, customers, and industry in a big way.

Transparency unifies people and melds groups. It's why studies show collaborative entrepreneurs create more jobs and profit. As humans, we instinctively like to connect and share with others -- particularly with stories. Think about how you learned about the world as a kid. More companies would succeed if they shared their "value propositions" in the ways parents tell fairytales at bedtime. Be mindful: Harnessing the power of storytelling requires both art and science.

We all have unique problem-solving skills. By sharing, together we can transform our current reality with solutions that are completely re-imagined.

7) Sweet Potatoes Are The World's Best Food.

Seriously. (Abdul agrees.) Something this good should not be this good for you: Fiber. Vitamin A. Manganese (an important metal for your metabolism and skin). I put mine in the oven before going to the gym, and look forward to devouring it -- with walnut or hazelnut oil, and Himalayan salt -- the entire time.

Personal indulgences aside, what we eat impacts everything - what we feel, how we think, how we sleep. (It's one of my 3 Life Secrets to Thriving.) Our diets equally influence our creativity, happiness, and attentiveness, and impact everything from marriages to quarterly reports. Is it any wonder, then, that so many companies ensure their workforce has a virtuous mind-body relationship? Cookies and chips are out. Today, grassfed beef champions five of the coolest company cafeterias.

Ask yourself:

  • Do I really know what I'm putting in my body? Dark chocolate-covered acai berries might sound awesome, but the processed "chocolate" probably doesn't justify the antioxidants. Seriously, processed food makes you anxious and sleep less.
  • How effective am I at staying hydrated? Here are 34 ways that water makes you awesome.
  • Would I unlock my true brilliance if I got more sleep? According to Arianna Huffington's TED talk on sleep, we stymie our creativity by being underslept. Wouldn't you prefer to sleep your way to the top?
The sentiment reminds me of a quote Abdul recently shared from Marcus Aurelius: "The secret to all victory lies in the organization of the non-obvious." We put stuff in our mouths so many times each day that we forget how much it matters.

Conclusion

A wise man once wrote, "Intent matters more than technique." I'd argue we can use both to create what we want to live -- careers, companies, romances, art, friendship. That's work-life.