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Posted on 05-01-2012
Navigating your business into safe waters: Lessons Learned

Last year, I had the opportunity to sail across the Atlantic Ocean on a 45-foot sloop. As a sailor, this has been a dream of mine for many years. It was indeed an adventure of a lifetime, but I hope not my last.

We participated in the ARC (Atlantic Rally for Cruisers), starting in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria and finishing in Rodney Bay, St Lucia. The crossing took 19 days to complete. As you can imagine, an undertaking of this nature takes a great deal of planning, training and teamwork to accomplish.

The captain, Graham van’t Hoff, made sure the boat was in good condition and well equipped with safety equipment, water maker, satellite phone, navigational equipment, tools, spare parts and all the proper sails needed for the trip. The crew was selected based on prior sailing experience, expertise in needed skills and ability to get along with other crew members for an extended period of time in close quarters.

The trip actually started for us in Faro, Portugal where the boat, Clear Lake II, was moored waiting for the crew to sail her to the starting line in Las Palmas. However, we decided to take a detour to the island of Madeira, a small Portuguese island off the coast of Spain. Besides getting the boat to the starting line, the initial leg of the trip was intended to work out any problems or potential issues that may have come about on the boat or with the crew. We called this portion of the trip the “shakedown cruise.”

The first important skill the crew had to learn on the shakedown cruise was the man overboard recovery procedures. This was practiced several times over the first week of the trip to ensure that if any crew member was accidentally lost overboard, the crew would be able snap to position quickly to rescue the swimming sailor.

As a result of all this preparation, planning, training and crew selection, the ARC was a huge success. The crew became very competent at raising and lowering the sails, navigation and communication. And, overall, everyone enjoyed the trip and each other’s company. There was no significant equipment failure, and we had plenty of food and drink due to our extensive provisioning in Las Palmas. We had only a few patches of bad weather, and, given the experience of the captain and crew, it passed without much notice. We sailed into Rodney Bay, St. Lucia, on Dec. 9 very proud of the accomplishment and just a bit disappointed that the trip was over.

Soon, it was back to work and my not-so-normal routine. However, I can’t help but draw a few comparisons between the trip, my practice and my clients’ businesses. The trip was, in essence, the execution of a well laid plan by an experienced captain and crew. The mission of the trip was clear to everyone: get the boat and crew across the Atlantic Ocean in one piece and have some fun in the process.

How often do we start the year or any long-term endeavor with a half-baked plan in our head that is not documented or fully communicated to the crew (employees)? This trip took two years to plan and prepare for, and most of the planning was done via email. Once I was back home in the office, I could not help but ask myself if I had made a detailed plan of what I was going to do this year and what I want my staff to accomplish.

Beyond the budget, have I mapped out how I plan to bring in new business? Have I really considered what my staff requirements may be if I grow as much as last year? Have I planned my staff training so that it is meaningful to them and the firm? Have I communicated effectively our plan for services and the expected cost with my clients? Am I executing a plan or just doing more of the same things this year as I did last year and expecting a different outcome? These are questions we need to ask ourselves every year if we want to successfully run our business and accomplish the desired results.

At the end of the day, what I remember most about the trip is how much fun we all had. I don’t ever remember thinking the trip was a grind or wishing we were in St Lucia already. We were all so comfortable with what we were doing that we were able to create fun activities to do.

Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to work? If you’re good at what you do and enjoy your work and the team you have assembled, isn’t it supposed to be fun? It occurred to me that my most financially successful clients seem to have fun doing what they do for a living. It’s not a grind at all to them. Maybe at the end of the day, that is reward enough. 

Last but not least, I mentioned that we had a few patches of bad weather and that these patches passed without much notice at all. Sounds good on paper, but the truth is the captain was very comfortable with the boat and his ability to “weather the storm” (pardon the cliché). He never appeared nervous about it, so the crew had no reason to be anxious about the weather.

We are lucky to live in Houston where the economy has not been as bad as other parts of the country. However, for some industries and individuals, business over these last couple of
years has been tough. As a leader of your organization, the way you react to the tough times will impact the way your employees react. If the captain – aka the business owner – doesn’t seem scared, no one else will be scared either.