The RIDE THE WAVE Series - #8

Marketing and Sales Blog

The RIDE THE WAVE Series – #8

PRINCIPLE II: Adopt A Progression-Based Mindset

“People with a growth mindset believe that they can improve with effort. They outperform those with a fixed mindset, even when they have a lower IQ, because they embrace challenges, treating them as opportunities to learn something new.”

– Travis Bradberry, Author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0





The second principle is to adopt a Progression-Based Mindset toward individual skills and organizational capabilities. Business leaders have a lot to learn from the mindset of the surfer. Understanding how surfers view progression is important since it’s one of the fundamental concepts within their sport. Progression can be defined as forward movement or “progressing” toward something new by making gradual improvements in your abilities and becoming better at what you do. A progression-based mindset is what surfers use to develop their skills and abilities. Surfing is an individual sport, and surfers use progression to push themselves to do more tricks, improve their style, and get better at their sport. Surfers measure and compare themselves to one another in terms of their progression. How a surfer is progressing is the universal way that surfers build new skills and capabilities in comparison to one another. It also refers to how the sport of surfing is progressing as a whole or what surfers are doing to progressively change it.


Surfers at any level have a mindset based on progression and forward movement toward new skills. They are always trying to get better at their sport, regardless of their current skills or abilities. All surfers approach their sport from the standpoint of progression, meaning they are always looking to improve upon what they did previously. This mindset is very different from other sports and radically different from the way most business leaders approach their professional roles. Surfers go out for a session, catch waves, and incrementally try to improve upon what they did each time they ride. Surfers will try to ride a wave longer, try a new cutback or to ride the lip of the wave, and even perform an aerial maneuver. There is an unlimited number of ways to progress a simple trick or move it forward. Tricks can be done forward, backward, regular-foot, goofy-foot, switch, frontside, backside, and the list goes on and on. These technical terms are specific to surfing and show that there is always something new that can be done.


Imagine yourself as the surfer, standing on the beach and thinking about what you will do that is new every time you head out into the ocean. Try to put yourself in the place of a surfer and really embrace the mindset of continuously adding new skills. It’s daunting even to consider how hard this would be in the business world, but surfers not only have to think about what they are already able to do, but also what they need to accomplish next. Progression is about having the mindset and confidence in what you already know, but also about having the motivation or inner drive to do something different than you did before. Progression is not just applied to skills and abilities since surfers also use it to develop new equipment and develop their wave knowledge as well.



In addition to skills and abilities, there are other areas within surfing where progression has made an impact. Each area has progressed the sport of surfing to where it is today, but can also provide insight into ways that marketing and sales professionals could approach new business strategies using progression. The first area is technology and how new platforms have helped to progress the sport by providing surfers with more information about waves and surf conditions. Instead of playing a guessing game and trying to figure out when and where waves might break, surfers are able to use sites such as and forecasting models to predict the occurrence of the waves. Swell reports and forecasting have become more reliable and more accessible to the surfing masses. is now the go-to source for surf conditions around the world, and a single visit to the site will provide you with a report on the surf as well as cameras that allow you to view the waves in real time.


The progression of equipment has allowed surfers to ride bigger waves and in more challenging conditions.  During the birth of surfing, Polynesians that settled in Hawaii used heavy wood boards to ride waves back to shore after fishing. The sport has obviously progressed from a mode of ocean transportation to a recreational sport, and the materials used have changed significantly as well. No longer are boards made of heavy wood, but of Styrofoam and fiberglass that is lighter and more buoyant in the water. The lighter material has also allowed surfers to progress the types of maneuvers they do on their boards. Since the boards are lighter, surfers are able to do more cutbacks, aerials, and lip maneuvers that were never imagined or conceived of on the heavier wood boards years ago. Surfers also added fins that provide more control, leashes that provide an element of safety while in the water, and wetsuits that protect surfers from the cold water   temperatures and harsh ocean conditions, such as reefs, plants, and sea life.


As the technology for predicting waves has improved alongside the equipment, surfers have been able to find and ride bigger and better waves. Technology has progressed surfing toward bigger waves, and the equipment has helped surfers to ride them. As the sport has progressed in terms of technology, equipment, and skills, so has the size of the waves that surfers are now able to ride. In recent years, surfers have pushed toward surfing bigger and bigger waves, with pro Laird Hamilton being seen as the big wave pioneer within the sport. The limiting factor has always been the knowledge of big waves and the equipment used to ride them. With technology enhancements continually affecting equipment, surfers continue to progress toward surfing bigger and more dangerous waves. They have improved their understanding of larger waves and the equipment needed to ride them. As the waves get bigger, the stakes are higher, and the need for new technology and equipment only pushes the progression of the sport further.



When looking to identify with someone in surfing who exemplifies progression in the sport, the obvious choice is Kelly Slater. Slater is the Derek Jeter of surfing, and at forty- four, he is also one of the veterans of the sport, still competing in and winning contests on a regular basis. Slater has won the ASP World Tour a record eleven times over a twenty-five-year span between when he won his first title in 1992 and his final year of competition and planned retirement after the 2017 season. Kelly still competes at the highest level within surfing while being one of the oldest competitors in the sport. Over the years, Slater has remained relevant and progressed in the sport by consistently developing his skills and capabilities over time. His mindset is focused on progression, and he does not rely on what he has accomplished previously to win. Slater believes, “You should improve forever, and it should be the body failing that holds you back. Hopefully we can all add layers and layers to what we already know. I have more power, better body awareness and equipment. If I’m not surfing better I should quit.”


For Slater, his mindset is focused on progression, and it’s obvious from his quote that he understands how to build new skills and capabilities. But for Slater, the first comparison made when compared to his competitors is based on his age. Slater has dispelled any myths about his age and performance by proving his worth against the younger competitors within the sport. His main competitor is John John Florence, who at twenty-four is a rising star and just won his first world surfing title in 2016. He is the most dominant surfer of the new generation of surfers, but Slater has been able to match his technical and aerial abilities through skill progression. Slater continues to build upon his years of experience by adding new tricks. His mindset has allowed him to match capabilities with competitors who are half his age and physically more resilient and to tap into the more progressive aspects of the sport.


In terms of performance, Slater has proven he is one of the best competitors on the planet when it comes to surf contests and has consistently come out on top because of his skills and abilities. Early on in his competitive career, Slater was fueled by the split of his parents and used that aggression in the water to win contests. As Slater has aged, his ability to stay physically healthy has been challenged, but his mindset for competition and performance in contests has not. He sees younger surfers not as competitors, but as contemporaries, and he has developed personal relationships with most of them. His approach is more about healthy competition than about dominance, and Slater now uses the age difference to fuel his performances. He says, “I don’t care what my age is. These are my peers, and I’m surfing against them. If they have a problem that I’m older, then go ahead and beat me.” Slater’s abilities and skills continue to progress and evolve over time. The performances are fueled by his mindset to progress his own skills and to stay relevant in the sport he loves.





When looking at a progression-based mindset from a business perspective, some of the same considerations that a surfer would make in approaching their sport can be true for the marketing and sales professional. The new business challenge for leadership is that there is constant change to markets in the new conditions. Business professionals will need to adapt to changes by adding new skills and determine which skills will be the most relevant to their specific market conditions at the time. Just as Kelly Slater approaches his skill development as a surfer, business leaders will need to evolve and change what they are doing in order to stay current with what’s new by using a new mindset to stay competitive. As the relevant skills and capabilities change, so will an organization’s ability to hold a competitive position in the market. Organizations will need to evolve with market changes to fend off new competition.


In the new conditions, a competitive advantage is estimated to last only six months within a given market. This means that every six months, a different organization will become a market leader, and the advantage that an organization once had will be gone. As technology changes market conditions, advantages will come and go. Competitors will be able to unseat market leaders by unbundling services and offering more specialized services. Organizations that may have owned the entire process related to a transaction will lose their advantage to more nimble players that challenge market leaders for small pieces of the business. New market entrants will be able to capture small pieces of a market, but those pieces will pay off big if they offer innovation and new value that the larger organizations cannot. The competitive advantage that was once held in markets by organizations is switching hands more  often, and organizations will need to change their mindsets toward skills to stay competitive.


With increased competition, the skills needed to meet new customer expectations are changing as well. As organizations try to compete, they also have to meet the new expectations of customers that are buying products and services in a new way. Customers are demanding organizations have new skills to meet those expectations. It’s estimated that more than two thirds  of  sales and  marketing transformations fail, with 70 percent of those failures happening due to a lack of the organization’s ability to adopt new skills and capabilities.2 As the competition increases within markets and as customers demand new skills in how products and services are sold, organizations will need to progress to meet those new demands. A mindset toward progression and new skills is critical to the marketing and sales of an organization. Be more like the surfer and change your mindset about how you will compete (and with what skills) and how you will change to meet the new expectations of customers.



The biggest obstacle for some organizations is not the actual challenge within the market, but the internal struggle to change the collective mindset to meet the new demands. More often than not, this has less to do with the kind of change needed and more to do with the internal obstacles preventing organizations from making a change.  This is especially true when the process involves doing something new or different from what the organization has traditionally done. Most organizations stick with the behaviors or habits of past success and do not make strategic changes when they need to. There has been widespread acceptance of new strategies and technologies available to organizations, but there is still resistance to new ways of doing things. Old habits and fixed mindsets prevail in the face of needed change. Organizations often create internal barriers for themselves that are tough to overcome. These new methods have been available for years, and yet adoption is still a mental challenge for leadership that does not have the right mindset or does not understand the business situation.


Companies are often reluctant to change because they don’t understand the new sales and marketing context they are working in. Companies that do not understand the context lack the information and insight to make significant changes. Without market insight and an internal assessment,  it can be daunting to evaluate what’s needed, and new strategies can seem complex or out of reach. Not understanding the context and having a mindset that is resistant to change can put organizations years behind the market and even further behind competition. Continued resistance causes the divide to become even greater, and that reluctance to change only becomes stronger over time. Organizations then tend to fall back on the old ways of doing things because it’s safe and accepted, focusing on well-established behaviors that the organization and the company’s culture support. The  common response is, “That’s not how we do it here.” As market conditions change, companies that continue to stay on the same course will struggle in the new conditions. The context within the organization will not support new skills and will push organizations to continue to do the wrong things.


Companies that struggle in the new conditions have a reactive mindset versus a proactive mindset when it comes to new skills and capabilities. A reactive approach to new challenges causes companies to take a “wait and see” or “just-in-time” sales and marketing approach. Instead of trying to add new skills to force the business situation to their favor, leaders do not always proactively look for new ways to do things; they wait for their hand to be forced, only making a change when the new strategy has been proven or widely accepted. These organizations have leadership that’s not open to change and has the wrong mindset. When you don’t anticipate what is new and make changes accordingly, you lose momentum and any kind of advantage you once had. A reactive mindset may feel safe, but as new challenges are now encountered in the market more often, organizations that take this approach will struggle to find success.



When a mindset is fixed and not focused on progression, business leaders struggle to adequately react to new market challenges. It becomes easier to adhere to the old way of doing things and to abandon or stray from anything new. Some organizations are not willing to change, and others might be unable to do so because of the barriers created inside the organization that all support the old way of doing things. Organizations become locked into previous methods and don’t change their behaviors, with the biggest challenge for leadership being falling back on the old ways of doing things. Companies that are leading within their markets focus on making significant changes in their strategies and they are able to break away from the past as well as create new ways of doing things. Organizations that are not open to change and that stick with doing what’s known and accepted versus taking the time, effort, and initiative to do something new, struggle and have lackluster results because of this approach.


When leadership within an organization knows that something needs to change, but they do not take the necessary steps to do so, it is simply bad leadership. Leaders are in positions to make strategic changes that will build and grow an organization. Most companies talk about innovation and use it as a tagline for describing how they are different. Most leaders, however, fail to execute on those innovative ideas. If leaders do not have a progressive mindset and do not add new skills and capabilities, they prevent teams from further developing themselves, which stifles the organization’s ability to meet new challenges. When leadership does not invest in new skills or capabilities for themselves or the organization, the inability to progress prevents them from solving the external challenges as well. If leadership lacks the understanding of the business situation or the new context the organization is working in, this can hamper the collective mindset of teams and create bad results in the short and long term.


Falling back on the old way of doing things and then not stepping up to leadership challenges is a forms of self- protection. The perception of the risk involved with something new can hinder progression and force leaders to make decisions in their own best interest and not in terms of what is needed for the organization. Leaders often make decisions that benefit them personally in the form of career longevity, pay increases, and holding positions of stature, before making decisions that benefit the organization. But self-protectionism hurts the organization, hurts the business, and does nothing to help the most important group of people in the equation— the customers. Doing things the old way, not displaying leadership during important transformative decisions, and protecting one’s own self-interests are the results of not having a progression-based mindset. The organizations and leaders that do decide to adopt a new mindset and learn new skills or organizational capabilities will follow in the path of the surfer and benefit from this new approach.





With a competitive advantage typically only lasting six months within a market, companies need to be building new skills and capabilities that allow the organization to evolve with changes in the market. Leaders need to adopt a mindset based on progression and adding new individual skills, but also thinking holistically about what kinds of capabilities they want to add within the organization. Surfers have a growth mindset when it comes to their skills. They are constantly trying to evolve what they can do on a board, and they use a process based on skill progression. For organizational leadership, this new mindset will be critical to overcoming the new challenges we are facing and will be needed to support new strategies. For sales and marketing leaders, a progression-based mindset could be a powerful way of thinking about new initiatives and a new way to tackle market challenges.


According to recent studies, more than two thirds of organizational transformations within sales and marketing failed, with over 70 percent of those failures being due to leadership’s inability to adopt new behaviors completely. This pattern is a result of leadership underestimating the effort required to make significant changes and not having the proper training or support in place to guide teams through the process. In order to compete in the new market conditions, leadership within organizations will need to regularly invest in training and development to support new skills and capabilities. Leadership will need to create a long-term plan around how the new skills will be built into the organization over time. Training and development have become less of a priority in recent years with organizations preferring to poach top talent instead of developing it in-house. However, in order to keep valued employees from leaving the organization, training initiatives will need to be aligned with the current new skills and demands of the market.


Identifying new skills is important to the change management process, but so is creating the vision and the plan for how to develop these skills. Developing new skills will require planning and change management strategies to find success. Organizations will need to make the new initiatives a priority, plan for the change, and manage the process, using milestones to track and assess progress. Marketing and sales processes will need to be aligned with the new skills being developed and become part of the culture within the organization. The new skills will need to be supported through corporate messaging and mantras that align with the new way of conducting business. Managing the change will need to be backed by compensation plans, incentives, and rewards. Individual development plans and performance reviews will need to model the new skills and objectives. Organizations will need to incentivize teams not only to change their behavior related to their specific roles within the organization, but also to change their mindset in how they see themselves in their roles.



Organizations that invest in new skills and capabilities have better results. Of the companies that upgrade sales and marketing capabilities successfully, 90 percent of them deliver above market growth, with 30 percent of those companies having greater revenue than the average company within their sector.3 Adopting the right mindset and adding new skills or capabilities not only benefits the individual, but also drives bottom-line growth for the organization. Successful organizations start with an internal assessment that reveals the opportunities within teams and areas needing improvement. They also determine which capabilities are having an impact and should be targeted with additional resources. Progression- based organizations view sales and marketing as an investment and not as an expense. They invest in sales and marketing planning tools, software, and training as they identify the new skills that are needed inside the organization.


As new sales and marketing skills are needed to align organizations with the new way that customers buy, leadership will have to organize functional areas to support this change. If you think back to my car buying experience, the salesperson I worked with had to adapt to the way I wanted to buy. Since I had done my research in advance through my own self-driven customer journey, this person became more of a product concierge than someone there to sell me something. As markets continue to evolve and change, sales and marketing roles will evolve as well. For organizations, the sales and marketing focus will be on creating an experience for the customer rather than selling your product. Leadership will need to bundle functional areas together and map out the entire customer journey from end to end. The benefit is that organizations will be more aligned with the market and the customer. There’s also less transactional pressure, and the organization can focus on educating the customer about the product or service as well as creating a unique buying experience as a concierge.


Organizations that have been successful in the new conditions all focus on acquiring new skills and capabilities, but they focus on using them to drive improved results. Successful organizations have leadership that acquires new skills for themselves, but they also adopt needed capabilities for their organizations. They make acquiring those new skills or capabilities an investment and part of the organization’s culture. To ensure that they are on track and consistent with the new initiatives, they schedule the change and plan for it. The successful organizations do not try to do too much. They have a narrow focus on what they need and a good understanding of where the organization is in the development process, meaning that they do not try to do things too far outside the organization’s capabilities. They develop the needed capabilities in the right sequence and use performance measurements or incentives tied to the new methods to drive results.



After working within organizations for fifteen years, I had experienced the luxuries of having multiple functional teams developing strategies and creating resources to help me do my job. But as I started to explore sales and marketing work on my own, there was only so much time and effort I could dedicate to new strategies and initiatives. As someone responsible for developing and also executing new sales and marketing tactics for my own business, I had to make decisions on how and where I would spend my time. When I launched my marketing and sales firm in 2014, I focused on the activities that would hopefully bring me the most return from my efforts. Outbound activities were the easiest way to start since they were predominately customer facing, but they also provided you with an immediate sense of success or failure. The outbound activities I used included industry events, seminars, networking meetings, distributing business cards or marketing materials, mailing postcards, and making cold-calls on potential clients.


After a full year of focusing on only outbound activities, I was worn out, loathed networking events, and generally had a bad taste in my mouth from the entire experience—not just from the thousands of stamps I was licking for those postcards I put in the mail, but from putting in a ton of effort and not making the dent in the market I was hoping for. I felt like I was pushing a rock uphill, barefoot, and in the rain. The hill was slippery, and I was exerting a lot of effort, but I was experiencing constant slip-ups and little to no forward movement. With nothing else to lose and wanting to expand on my skills and capabilities, I decided to do more inbound marketing activities instead. The inbound tactics I used focused on developing a website and social media presence, using analytics to measure engagement, writing on a company blog, using an email marketing system, creating content and videos, and self-publishing a book. I had little to no experience with any of these things, but I knew that I had to start developing these skills for the future and that they would ultimately help my business.


Thinking about my approach to building these new skills, I realized I had to use what I learned from the surfer. I had to embrace what was happening in the market conditions and change my mindset from having static “outbound” skills to building “inbound” skills that were based on progression.  I knew it would be a risk to try and build these skills, but I used the principles of the surfer as the process to help me begin. The process started with acquiring some basic knowledge of what the new inbound tactics would do for my business, a plan for me to start experimenting with it, and then testing it live to see what would work and what would not. Moving from the old way to the new way was hard. But after two years, I had a website, blog, presence on social media platforms, a completed set of videos, and a self- published book. I knew that going forward, my skills could never again be static and that if I continued to leverage a mindset based on progression, I would be able to adapt and evolve with the changing market conditions.


Homayoun Hatami, Kevin McLellan, Candace Lun Plotkin, and Patrick Schulze, “Six Steps to Transform Your Marketing and Sales Capabilities,” McKinsey Quarterly, March 2015,


Bart Delmulle, Brett Grehan, and Vikas Sagar, “Building Marketing and Sales Capabilities to Beat the Market,” McKinsey Quarterly, March 2015,


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Excerpts taken from: RIDE THE WAVE: How To Embrace Change And Create A Powerful New Relationship With Risk


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