I watched the first few hundred boats through the second (Witness/YMCA) weir of the iconic Dusi Canoe Marathon a couple of weeks back. It’s a good place to be — the paddlers are still fresh and full of energy for their three-day journey, and they are close enough together for one to see plenty of action as they shoot through the narrow channel.
I learned some valuable business lessons as I watched from the sidelines.
Steer the boat
The thing about a river race is that the river is going the same way you are. It’s tempting, when things are going well, simply to ‘go with the flow’. The problem, of course, is that, like the economy and your business environment, the river doesn’t care if it smashes into rocks, gently glides around them or spins you around. You and I, whether in business or in a boat, have to flow around.
Knowing your endpoint is critical, but working out the route is just as important. Visionaries are necessary in any business — they keep the end in mind and they keep people focussed. But one also needs detail people — they check for progress, avoid obstacles and protect your assets.
Don’t let go of the boat
The boat is how you get to your destination. It’s your company, your idea, your product. It might need patching up, a rudder fixing or a change of place among the crew but, unless you have developed another talent of walking on water, or swimming 120 kilometres in turbulent waters, don’t let go of the boat. It’s how you will reach your dream. If a paddler drifts too far away from the boat it will end up on the rocks or sail past and be lost. Paddlers fall out sometimes, but visionaries will sometimes get out of the business boat to test the waters in another channel. But if he lets the business go in the process, it either gets a life of its own in the wrong direction or starts to flounder. I have seen good leaders who have stepped out of the boundaries of the business to stretch the company in new directions. But they lost touch, and the managers struggled to catch up, floundering in the process.
Hold onto your paddle
Numerous spectators lined the banks with spare paddles in their hands. Without a paddle you can’t keep steady in rough water. Or pull away on the flat. Your seconds may have a spare, but getting it costs time, and you might not get it when you need it. Like paddles, people can be replaced. But apart from the cost, getting the right people with the right skills just when you need them is not guaranteed. It’s not the paddle that differentiates you from the crowd. It’s how well you use your paddle. What differentiates your business from the rest is not how unique your people are, or how quickly you can replace ones that leave. It is how well you engage with those you have and harness their strengths to better serve your customers.
Keep a repair kit handy
The announcer on duty twice asked whether anyone had a repair kit available while desperate canoeists stood by. It’s not the huge disasters that will get you. There are those, and one takes what precautions one can. But it’s the day-to-day mishaps, the mistakes, the little things. It’s maintenance. Without running repairs to our relationships with employees and customers, to our systems and to our processes, small issues will develop into major crises, way beyond the help of a bit of duct tape or rudder cable.
Know when to portage and when to paddle (keep your eye on the prize)
Most of the top canoeists shoot the Witness weir, but there are those who know their limitations and portage around. They also know what they are aiming at. They are not in the business of shooting weirs; they are in the business of getting to Durban in one piece and finishing the race. I read recently of a team that was looking to create a fleet of drones that would fly over farmlands with sophisticated cameras attached. They could gather invaluable data for farmers on the state of their land and their crops, accurately monitoring water and fertilizer. They focussed on the drones and tried to get funding, but their real business was data. Once they saw that, they also saw the crop dusters — planes that criss cross farmlands all the time spraying crops. It was a simple matter to attach cameras to the planes, setting the business free to focus on its real product, the invaluable data farmers wanted.
Any insights from paddlers or other spectators? Join the conversation.