I was having dinner with a friend Lee Lingo, Director of Kentucky Association of Manufacturers (KAM) and I used the oft-quoted statement “a rising tide lifts all boats”. Lee pointed out an objection to that and offered a slight correction. He said, “a rising tide lifts all SEAWORTHY boats”. Like the post I wrote a few weeks ago about an edit to Zig Ziglar’s quote about failure (“Failure is the line of least resistance”, replacing “Failure” with “Quitting”). I felt this revision deserved a little attention as well.
What does it mean that only “seaworthy” boats can rise with the tide? And is it unfair to label boats as “unseaworthy”? After all, we live in an age of not passing judgment on others. In a perfect, utopian society, wouldn’t all boats be seaworthy? And shouldn’t a boat that’s not seaworthy be granted some type of special dispensation in the case of a rising tide?
I thought of a few examples of a lack of “seaworthiness” when it comes to businesses who may fail to get a lift when the economy or other situations creates a lift:
- Poorly run companies = non-seaworthy boats
- Boats tied to the dock, or are tightly anchored to the sea floor
- Boats that are sinking or have already sunk
Let’s explore each of these.
Poorly Run Companies = Non-Seaworthy Boats
In a perfect world, all companies would be run equally well. But is that the case? Certainly not. Some companies suffer from poor leadership at the top. Others have no vision. Some have no management team to lead the company. These companies are not in a position to take advantage of a rising tide.
Let me give an example. If a company doesn’t have a management team that effectively leads the organization, they will be unable to handle the sudden growth brought on by environmental factors. I once was working for a company that did not allow the management team any real control of the business. Decisions were all made from the top, and the management team was essentially responsible for carrying out the decisions from the top. What happened when the business started to grow? They became a constraint on the business that everything had to flow through the top. They struggled to keep up with customer orders, and projects began to slip.
The interesting thing about this company was that the initial response was a knee-jerk reaction to go in the opposite direction. Suddenly managers were allowed to make decisions on their own. The constraint had been lifted. Or had it? In this situation, because the managers did not have the experience in leading during “normal times”, they were ill-prepared for the stresses that came with the growth. They did not have a firm grasp on the decision criteria. Therefore, the change (albeit maybe where they needed to be) was ineffective because they did not have the experience to lead the company in this way.
Boats Tied to the Dock, or Tightly Anchored to the Sea Floor
When a rising tide comes, you need to be able to rise with it. If a boat is tightly coupled to an immovable object, then it won’t be able to advantage of the rising tide. It reminds me of a story Max Lucado told in his book “Six Hours One Friday”:
“Hurricane David was whirling through the Caribbean.
“On the Miami River, some single guys were trying to figure out the best way to protect their houseboat, really a rustic cabin on a leaky barge, but it was home.
“They bought enough rope to tie up the Queen Mary. They tied their boat to trees, moorings and herself until she looked as if she’d been caught in a spider’s web.
“I [Max Lucado] was reaching the end of my rope in more ways than one, when Phil showed up. Now Phil knew boats. He had ridden out a hurricane for three days in a 10-foot sailboat. He was a living legend. He felt sorry for us, so he came to give some advice and it was sailor-sound.
“Tie her to land and you’ll regret it. Your only hope is to anchor deep,” he said. “Place a few anchors in different locations, leave the rope slack, and pray for the best.”
Rising Tide? Anchor deep
The analogy for businesses is simple. If you want to rise with the tides, you need to be anchored deep, but with enough slack to rise with the tide. So, what does that mean?
- Have clear values that define your parameters. How you work, how you act, how you lead, how you respond to customers.
- Have a clear vision of where you want the company to go.
- Have defined, specific goals that identify what you want to achieve.
With these anchors, your leadership team will know how to lead the organization when the chaos of growth arrives.
With slack to rise:
- Have procedures and systems in place that are flexible enough to allow for growth.
- Grow a team that has the capacity to work longer, harder or smarter during times of rising tides.
- Develop a pipeline of future leaders in the organization that are ready to take the helm of the boat when it needs a new captain.
Boats that are Sinking or Have Already Sunk
This is a little bit of a repeat of the first point. It is amazing how many business leaders want to talk to a coach when what they really need is a liferaft. If your boat is sinking, your business is failing, this is not the time to hope for rising tides. In fact, you need to hope for calm seas so that you can bail some water, repair the damage and get back to a steady state.
Here are a few principles to avoid a sinking ship:
- Know your KPIs (Key Performance Indicators). You should always know what makes your company successful. KPIs are the early warming detectors for businesses. You need to know your KPIs so that you can always be aware of what the future looks like.
- Have enough reserve in the tank. Almost every business goes through ups and downs. Make sure you have enough in your tank (i.e. bank account) to absorb a temporary downturn. How much? It will vary by industry. If your product has a short sales cycle, it may mean having enough to survive for a couple of months. But if your product has a long sales cycle, you might need to have six months or more in reserve (think like Dave Ramsey).
- Develop team members for the future. One of the biggest problems I see is companies that do not develop their team members for future roles. Because of this, key team members leave, and leave the ship undermanned. This causes problems during normal operations and certainly is a source of failure during busier seasons.
Prepare Now for Rising Tides
The best time to prepare for rough waters is when the seas are calm. Any good sailor knows that you make sure your ship is always in good running order so you can handle the rough seas when they come.
As a business coach, I get to work with companies at various stages. But I can say for sure, the best experiences are when companies are performing well, and want to do even better. It is at these times that business owners can build out their team, take on new initiatives and experiment with a variety of growth programs.