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The arena is where every great story begins. Or is it?

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.” ~Theodore Roosevelt, Citizenship in a Republic

Theodore Roosevelt was right. “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.”

With bold courage, you’ve made the decision to step into the arena. You’re fighting the big fight—determined to do whatever it takes to make the world a better place; to make you a better you. I applaud your fearlessness, your determination and bravery.

I’m curious, though. Who’s in the arena with you? Do you have someone in your corner, ready to challenge you, to help you sharpen your skills and improve your fighting condition?

In my experience, having someone in the arena with you is equally as important as being in the arena itself. But it can’t be just anyone.

Enter your sparring partner.

I hear stories all the time of people looking to mentor or be mentored. I wonder: do they know what a mentor is? Do you?

A mentor is defined as a wise teacher, an experienced or trusted advisor. This. Is. Not. Me.

I have no interest in being a mentor. In fact, the thought of advising someone on what they should do is scary to me.

But I love to spar—to jump in the ring alongside my colleagues and team. You see, I believe that even the greatest of champions need a sparring partner, someone in their life who is committed to their professional success.

Who is that person in your life?

I’ve always associated the word “spar” with words like “fight” or “contend.” Words that, until recently, have been negative in connotation for me, actions to avoid (especially in the workplace). It’s not good to fight, right?

Wrong.

At TSheets, I am part of an executive team that “trusts each other enough to fight.” Admittedly, I happen to be part of something special—a team dynamic that simply does not exist in many companies today. This team culture didn’t happen overnight; it took time and commitment to get there.

With trust and vulnerability as a foundation, we’ve chosen to engage in conflict, to spar with each other, without the intent to injure. And because of this, powerful things have transpired. I’ve experienced the impact of effective sparring, the collision of incessant blows thrown in care. When received with the right attitude, you’re able to grow and perform at a level you never have before.

Not many people get to be part of a team where its members are committed to serving this role. If you’re an executive in your organization, however, you can create the foundation, set the stage for trust and begin to create a safe place for your leaders to spar—to challenge each other in a caring way.

Outside an organization, the formula for sparring success is the same—trust, vulnerability, the right attitude, and care all come into play.

So, what should you look for in a sparring partner?

Here are four things I’ve learned from the spar-ers in my life. These are the characteristics and behaviors you should expect from the person who jumps in the ring with you.

Spar with care. Your sparring partner should care about you deeply. Being in the ring with you means challenging your way of thinking, assumptions, and perceptions, without tiptoeing around your feelings. But there are no wild punches, no broken ribs. The spar-er’s goal is not to hurt you but rather to push you to explore why you believe the things you do. This can be uncomfortable and frustrating. Tears are a possibility; permanent damage is not.

Sparring hard. Yes, the rules of the game are to spar with care. At the same time, however, your sparring partner can’t go light on you. This person cares enough to hit hard, to bring the heat and cause you discomfort. That’s where growth happens: outside your comfort zone. David Spann, the chair of my Vistage group and also a friend and life sparring partner, calls this carefrontation—confronting someone, with care and respect, for the purpose of clarity and growth. While in the ring with your spar-er, you’ll want to run—fake a knockout even. Embrace the dust, sweat and blood. When you go down, get back up. Ask for more and remember why you’re there.

Sparring for YOU. Sparring is about you, not your partner. A true sparring partner has nothing to gain by being in the ring with you. Granted, your sparring partner will grow from the process; that’s natural. But your spar-ers are not in it to make themselves look better or to manipulate you into doing something that benefits them. Being the spar-er requires a commitment to helping the other person develop. It’s about helping you tighten up your game, not helping you win the game for them.

Curiosity. My best sparring partners have asked the toughest questions. One after another. Right hook after right hook. It’s exhausting—and exhilarating. In one of my all-time favorite sparring sessions, my partner offered no advice. He only asked me questions; he was curious. Brilliant, right? Through the process of answering David’s questions, my hands shook, tears rolled down my face, and my heart raced; I felt angry, defensive, and discouraged at times. I was willing to be there, willing to be uncomfortable. I allowed the questions to continue; I refused to close up. After a two hour sparring session, it came—clarity; and it felt so good. David’s curiosity allowed me to explore a world past my circumstances—one not clouded by my own personal fears. A true sparring partner cares enough to force you to do all the talking.

My hope is that you have someone in your life who is willing to get in the ring with you, someone not afraid of being marred by the same dust and sweat and blood that you are.

In an upcoming article, I’ll explore what it means to be on the other side—the side I have the most experience with, my role as the spar-ee. If you’re ready to take on a sparring partner, it’s important to know what to expect and how to approach sparring with the right attitude.

There’s nothing I value more than when a person has a strong, relentless desire to learn, grow and change. The commitment required is not small. The willingness to be open, to look inside yourself is not always fun. And the possibility that you don’t know everything is humbling.

Caution. You’ll need to be prepared to go a full twelve rounds.

Thank you to my sparring partners in business (past and present): Matt Rissell, J.D. Mullin, David Spann, James Banner, Amy Bailey, Bill Ayer, Brandon Zehm, Mario Joy, Kyle Jenke, and Stacy Ennis.

To my Vistage group (aka, the best sparring partners out there): Kylie Holmes, Glen Scott, Jennifer Couch, Dave Haworth, Leslie Major, Paul Aicher, Brian Tuttle, Jay Becker, Scott DiNucci, Eric Strand, Kelly Ryan, Ryan Martin, Jamie McCormick, Greg Donaca, and Chris Raymes—thank you for not going easy on me.

And, to my life sparring partners, Mac Hetherington, Katina Clifford, and Vickie Keaton, thank you for jumping in the arena with me.

A special thank you to Kelly Bistriceanu. You’re the inspiration for this piece. Spar with her and for her, right?

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