“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming ‘Wow! What a Ride!’” —Hunter S. Thompson
A UNIVERSAL EXPERIENCE
My Personal Journey
1. I WAS OBSOLETE
I had become obsolete. At least my job felt like it had become obsolete, and since it can be hard to separate our individual selves from our work, the feeling was that I was obsolete and that my job would be much different in the not-so-distant future. I noticed that the market conditions I worked in were also starting to change around me. In the middle of it, it was hard to know what was happening or the true reality of the situation. I felt like I had grown and developed as a professional over the years, holding various organizational roles and receiving an MBA, for example. However, somehow the environment around me had changed almost overnight, and I was left thinking to myself, “What just happened here?”
After having some level of professional success doing the same thing for so long, it was hard to mentally wrap my mind around the change that was happening. It was really easy to fall back on “the basics” during difficult times or stick to “blocking and tackling” when faced with new challenges. But somehow the traditional methods and skills I had built over the years felt wrong—as though they had no impact on what I was doing. It was also hard to make a change when my organization supported “the old way of doing things.” This feeling was not just limited to myself. This change was felt company wide, and as an organization, we really struggled to sell and market our products effectively in this new environment. We developed major marketing and sales initiatives that were well planned, but we were somehow frustrating our customers with what we were doing. They already seemed to have the information and knowledge about our products and services before we rolled out anything new.
AVERSION TO RISK
I knew that I needed to change my mindset about how I approached my role and do something different in response to what was happening around me. However, this process proved to be a lot more challenging given our history of success and also due to the fact that everyone around me was doing the same thing we had always done before. We were using the same strategies, with the same set of skills, but somehow expecting a different or better result. We were beat up mentally and were unwilling to change what we were doing to tackle the risks these new challenges presented. Change was hard because of the risk involved with doing something new. I had to physically stop what I was doing and forget about everything I had done previously that had made me successful because I knew it was no longer going to work. It was risky, but I knew that I had to change in order to move forward or I was going to be left behind.
2. SALES AND MARKETING CHANGED
What was happening? Why was I experiencing this change, and was it specific to my profession, company, or industry? The short answer is no. This was something universal that was happening throughout business and that is continuing to happen as more and more disruption takes place because of technology and changing market conditions. These new conditions have given the customer a new level of buying power. There is more access to information, more social sharing platforms, and more channels for customers to seek out and find new ways to buy. As technology and information-sharing platforms continue to drive the new buying process, the challenge for organizations will be keeping up with the change, staying relevant, and meeting the new demands of consumers. Buyers are no longer relying on an organization to help them make a purchase decision, which means that business leaders will need a new set of skills and a fresh mindset to satisfy customer needs.
The market conditions in which companies are operating have changed, and customers are now in the position of power. Organizations no longer have the ability to dictate a sales and marketing process through a traditional “funnel” system. This one-size-fits-all approach is drowning customers with information and is a turnoff to buying a product or service. Customers want to be intrigued and challenged; they want to discover a new product or service on their own. This new customer-decision journey has been supercharged by technology and information-sharing platforms, and it looks as though there is little to slow down the pace of this rapid change any time soon. In fact, this new decision journey only seems to be evolving and moving faster. New skills and capabilities are needed to keep up with this change as well as the new mindset needed to manage it. This new dynamic with customers has left some companies scratching their heads and baffled by the new conditions, struggling to find success, and scrambling to add new skills and capabilities to keep up.
As a result of these new conditions and the urgent need for new skills, a new relationship with risk has developed. For leadership, there has always been some form of risk involved with business. However, risk was generally something to be avoided, and companies with deep pockets could often bail themselves out of a bad situation if needed. However, the new conditions have changed that dynamic. Risk is now the new norm, and it is also the new path to success. Leaders who are not exploring risk willingly are exposing themselves as well as the organization to the risks associated with not adapting to new conditions. Organizations will need to take on risk and explore change or have the market waves come figuratively crashing down upon their heads.
3. I NEEDED TO CHANGE
A changing landscape was on the horizon, and I realized that in my current situation, it was going to be hard for me to embrace the new conditions, adapt my skills, and feel confident in how I could take on and explore risk. At the time, my questions were, “How could I push for change within my organization and not be seen as someone trying to climb the ladder? How could I innovate within my organization when my company was struggling due to the extreme conditions outside the organization?” Coming up with answers to these questions was difficult, but with the landscape changing as fast as it was, I needed to develop a plan for adapting to the conditions so that I wasn’t slammed by them. There was a sense of urgency, but also some caution, since I really wasn’t sure what the conditions were like, what skills I would need, and how much risk I was willing to take on.
After over fifteen years of professional work, I had built up and developed some sales and marketing skills as well as some good knowledge about the retail and healthcare industries. But I was at a crossroads. I knew I could build from that knowledge and those skills I had acquired, but I knew that in order to stay competitive and advance in my career, I was going to need to learn some new skills. I realized my mindset needed to change, and I needed to take a new approach to how I viewed my own skills and capabilities. I was going to need to abandon some of the skills that were no longer relevant or would hold me back from moving forward. And at the same time, I needed to build new skills that would meet the changes in the conditions that were happening around me. I would have to be more progressive in terms of how I thought about what I could do. I would also need to risk heading in a new direction in order to make this change happen.
CHANGE IN DIRECTION
After developing a plan, I decided to begin my new journey and step out into these new conditions. This change would help me adapt to what was happening in the market. I would learn new skills and capabilities, and I would take on more professional risk than I ever had before. I decided to put myself into harm’s way whenever possible in order to move forward and willingly accept the new challenges regardless of the risk. The new direction would be a way for me to understand the new conditions, learn something new, and minimize the risk of making a major career change. In order to change, I needed this new direction. While I was uncertain about where I was headed or what I was getting myself into, I knew that to change, I needed to do this.
WHAT I DID AND WHAT I LEARNED
1. THE SURF STORY AND THE WORK STORY
My journey in this new direction happened over the course of a few years. During this time, two key experiences shaped how I would answer my questions. These experiences would also provide a valuable lesson and a way for me to approach these kinds of challenges in the future. The first experience happened during a trip to Los Angeles, California and included my first attempt at ocean surfing in Malibu. It’s hard to describe the pain, frustration, and utter failure I felt after my first ocean surfing experience. However, this failure would serve as the starting point for me to think about ways to help manage my professional career, and I would use the lessons from that day to take on even bigger challenges in the future. My first experience at Malibu was humbling, but it taught me about the power of the ocean as well as the principles of surfing, and it also gave me lessons to take into other areas of my life as well.
In addition to experiencing the challenges of surfing, I had a few professional wipeouts that shaped my journey and influenced my decisions for how to manage my professional career. One of these experiences included a failed product launch and a challenging meeting with a top customer at the time. This was my first hint at what changes were to come and became a marker for when my journey really began. What I discovered was that I was not alone in my experiences, and that these changes were widespread—almost a universal sentiment that was reverberating through business, specifically in marketing and sales. This situation was happening regardless of the industry, market, product, or service. Organizations were experiencing a massive shift in how they were marketing and selling products and services, but also in how they solved problems and met the increasing demands of customers in these new conditions.
Both the Surf Story and the Work Story had such similar elements and themes of failure that it was hard not to draw comparisons between them. Each experience offered optimistic expectations about the outcome, but also a discovery that the conditions or realities of the situation were much different than originally planned. In both situations, I discovered that I had a lack of skills in certain areas that I had not planned for and had not anticipated how challenging the conditions would be. Each story contained a certain amount of risk and a chance that the experience might not go as planned. When both stories are viewed in relation to one another, they take on a new dynamic than they would on their own and a new perspective of what went wrong and what I could have done differently.
2. SPORT AND WORK PARALLEL
In both the Surf Story and the Work Story, a parallel can be drawn to how the conditions in each of the respective areas were a major factor for determining someone’s success. Within surfing, the conditions can dictate the success of catching a wave and can also determine whether or not you will walk away alive from the experience. The conditions within surfing are always changing, and surf reporting has made it easier to know whether or not there will be waves. But to truly understand the surf conditions, you need to be physically in the water. In the business world, the conditions can refer to the industry, the market, and also the conditions within an organization. Evaluating the market conditions is important, and there are numerous industry reports, blogs, and market research available to business leaders to gain new knowledge. But again, to know and understand what to do with that information, you need to be active in your market to know what’s going on.
Surfers are constantly trying to improve their skills and abilities to get better at their sport. Surfing is the foundation for all boardsports—a group that also includes skateboarding and snowboarding. The word Progression is used to describe how someone is adding new skills as well as progressing in their sport. The idea of progression is foundational to boardsports and separates surfing from a lot of other recreational activities. The term progression has a lot of meaning for surfers, and it’s more critical to the sport than it would be for others. For business professionals, we think about our skills as being acquired through years of experience and remaining relatively static until we decide to build new ones. Skills that belong to individuals can become organizational capabilities as long as the company retains those employees over time. Surfers tend to hold onto skills, build new ones, and then let them go. In the business world, we cling to our skills and let them define us as individuals and only seek out new ones when we must.
In addition to progressing, surfers are accustomed to risk within their sport, and there is a direct relationship to skills when it comes to exploring risk. The more risk a surfer takes on and explores, the more they can progress and improve. This is true for very few sports. Auto racing, skydiving, and few other sports have an inherent risk that can limit an individual’s success within their sport. But surfing is a risk-driven sport with the surfer’s ability to progress dependent on his or her willingness to explore risk. In the business world, we’re exposed to risk but in a much different way. At times, risk may be financial; at other times, it may be professional. For the most part, however, unless you are a business owner, the amount of risk you are exposed to is actually very small. Most of us are not financially tied to our companies. We can make mistakes and still keep our jobs. And if things don’t work out at one company, there’s a good chance you can find a job at another.
3. WHAT I LEARNED
The Surf Story and the Work Story were two separate yet challenging personal and professional situations. When the stories are looked at together with a bridge between them, a different perspective emerges. In both situations, I faced a set of new and challenging conditions that I had not experienced before. However, I realized that I had to develop some new skills and that I was resistant to this change and my tolerance for risk was also extremely low. I had some previous experience with boardsports but still failed to succeed at my first attempt at surfing. I knew that progression in my career would be a good thing, but I was not sure what next steps to take. I knew that I could not wait for the perfect conditions and that I had to change the way I was going to professionally surf these new conditions. My decision was either to get in the water or to stand on shore, watching the business world roll by me like a giant wave.
In drawing a parallel between these two experiences, I came across a concept that helped me to bridge the two experiences and create a new view. The concept was Lateralization from the method of Lateral Thinking, developed by Edward de Bono. Dr. de Bono is a physician, psychologist, author, inventor, and consultant who originated the term “Lateral Thinking” to use as a technique to help people improve their thinking abilities and creativity skills. The concept is based on using a paradigm shift or an idea, framework, or model from one context in another. I asked myself, “How would a surfer approach these new business challenges? What would they do, even in the face of extreme risk?” To answer these questions, I adopted the mindset of the surfer, knowing that I would have “professional waves” crash down on my head and that I would have to paddle out into the “surf” again. Regardless of the conditions, my skills, or the risks involved, I had to do something different and take on new challenges if I was going to change.
THE NEW CHALLENGE
I decided to use what I learned from surfing in Malibu to change what I did professionally. My goal was to change how I approached my work and how I would look at my sales and marketing skills. The surfer would serve as the example to help me overcome these new challenges I was facing and to develop a process so that every time I experienced a new obstacle or challenge, I could find a way to be successful. As I started to work with this idea, I found that a set of principles existed that I could use as a repeatable process and that this process could help others overcome their own challenges as well. “Be More Like the Surfer” was the mantra stuck in my head. I used it over and over again to solve problems. I learned to use a set of three principles to stoke my professional career and ride the possibilities like a wave. This series will help you to use these principles to embrace new conditions, learn new skills, and take on risk so that you can ride the wave on your own.
THE PURPOSE OF THIS SERIES
1. MANAGE THE CHANGE
CUSTOMER BUYING POWER
This series will help business leaders embrace the change that’s happening within markets, identify new skills to meet new customer demands, and develop a process to test or prototype new marketing and sales strategies. This series and process will also help organizations to manage this change and to understand the needs of their markets better. Customers are now able to leverage content from information-sharing platforms and make more informed buying decisions. They are also able to unbundle products and services to find better deals. Unbundling is a term used to describe how smaller organizations or start-ups are stripping services from larger, more established ones and offering those services in a more economical way. As technology continues to infiltrate markets and more established business models fall to the wayside, smaller and more nimble business models driven by technology will provide consumers with more information, more transparency, and more choice to make buying decisions.
In order to manage this new change within markets, a new mindset will be needed as well—a mindset that is adaptable, can anticipate market shifts, and has the ability to change direction when markets become more challenging. The mindset of the past is based on traditional notions about how products are supposed to be marketed and sold. However, the current business environment has shown us that those long-held beliefs are outdated, or in some situations, completely false to begin with. The way to approach business now is with a progressive mindset focused on change, adaptability, and progressing professional skills to stay ahead in competitive markets. The new mindset is about skill-based progression and embracing these new changes consistently over time—not resting on previous success and fixed skills, but exploring new skills and evolving what you do to improve yourself and your organization.
“Ready, Aim, Fire” was the approach to change in the past. This thinking was how business leaders rolled out anything new and a way to protect themselves and the organization from risk. Now, it’s the inverse. “Fire, Aim, Ready” is the approach for new conditions, pushing a new product or service into a market to test it, refine it, and make it better, working toward a “ready” position to expand and grow. Because changes are happening so rapidly, organizations will need to test and prototype products, ideas, and tactics to stay competitive. Design Thinking has become the standard for product design and development, but this approach has also made its way into other areas of business, including sales and marketing. A design-thinking process will need to be used to test ideas and strategies before they go to market. The surfer uses a similar process to build skills, and you will need to do the same in order to bring new products and services to customers.
2. THE PROCESS
Rigid internal processes, old mindsets, and the fear of failure have hamstrung organizations, forcing them to compete in fast-paced markets with outdated skills and mindsets that were impactful decades ago. If companies don’t change and embrace the new conditions, the livelihood of the organization and the professional will continue to be exposed to these ever-changing conditions. This series provides examples to highlight the changes that are impacting markets and how business leaders can evaluate what’s happening outside their organization. Just as a surfer evaluates the conditions before heading out into the water, sales and marketing leadership will need to constantly examine the conditions before doing anything new. Most organizations first look internally at systems, processes, and people before they consider the external market. They focus on the organization instead of considering what might be changing for their customers. The first step in the Ride the Wave Process is to look outside the organization and into the market conditions, evaluating what has changed, what is new, and what the organization will need to do differently because of these factors.
Evaluating the external conditions will help you to understand the current market and your organization’s place within it. An assessment of the internal skills and capabilities is also necessary to see how your capabilities inside the organization match the new external conditions. Just as a surfer knows the types of skills he or she has and what is possible on a wave, the business leader should know how his or her organizational capabilities align with the market or if a gap needs to be closed. The Ride the Wave Process helps you to think about your capabilities in terms of progression as well as to anticipate what will be needed next. With the goal of building organizational capabilities that are able to ride the waves of change and not put you back on the shore, this process provides an internal assessment and will help you to match the skills of your teams with what is happening in the market.
The external and internal views will provide you with the insight to begin the process of planning your next steps and the actions to be taken. This is not the traditional approach to strategy and setting a comfortable vision for the future, but more about preparing yourself to take on new risk in the short term. For surfers, risk is self-limiting. It’s the main factor that will determine your level of success and if you are able to add new skills and capabilities. As a surfer, if you don’t explore risk, you will not progress within your sport. Within the new conditions that we are experiencing within markets, the same is true for business leadership. If you aren’t willing to explore new strategies or risk, someone else out there likely will. The organizations that are more aggressive, more skilled, and more willing to take on risk will survive and thrive in the new conditions.
3. RIDE THE WAVE
EMBRACE THE CONDITIONS
This series will walk you through the three main challenges we are all facing right now in business and provide you with a process to ride the market waves on your own. After reading this series, you’ll have a better understanding of why markets have changed and what you can do about it in order to be successful. Embracing the conditions or managing the market is the first step to riding the wave. This is not reacting to market changes and being able to match what competition is doing. The process will help you create opportunities that will identify untapped market opportunities so you can lead in markets instead of follow. The process is universal and can be replicated across any industry or market. Regardless of your product or service, you’ll be able to embrace the conditions and ride the wave.
CHANGE YOUR MINDSET
When reading this series and going through the process, you will have a new mindset. You will think differently about your current skills and the new skills you will need to acquire. New skills will seem less mystical, and the journey to acquiring them will be less daunting. This new mindset is built on progression and adding new skills and capabilities over time. It’s not a winner-takes-all approach to skills where you either add them or you don’t, but more about progressively adding skills to move you forward. We cram for tests and we binge exercise to lose weight, but we end up putting the weight back on because the new habits don’t stick and we receive poor results from not studying more often. We all want everything in an instant with no effort or investment. When it doesn’t work out, we assume it wasn’t meant to be, or we ignore or dismiss the goal as not worth pursuing anymore. Instead, the new mindset will help you to understand your gaps and slowly build these new skills over time, and you will remain focused on the journey and progression.
When you decide to ride the wave, the results will bring more clarity around your market and skills. You will feel more confident with your approach to taking on and exploring risk. Risk exploration is the key to the process and riding the wave. Just as surfers need risk to progress in their sport, you will need to take on risk and will be tested again and again before you find success. Employment was once safe, and someone could work the same job for fifty years with little to no disruption to his or her career. In this new market, the average tenure for a marketing manager is forty-four months. The risks associated with employment are now a reality that we must all face. Long- term security from a career and financial incentives that went along with staying with a single employer are gone. The new conditions demand skills that are aligned with new market and new customer demands. As individuals, we must now see risk as part of the new conditions whether we like it or not. Anticipating changes in the market, adding new skills and capabilities, and exploring risk will be the new process for success.
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