Can This Canoe Be Saved?
The scene is an executive meeting. The characters sitting around the table are the best team of people I’ve ever worked with — they have the highest core competencies and know the business we are in, which unfortunately, is darned unusual. I “sat” on the table inside the black telephone that looked like a spaceship, patched in from Califormia. I had already learned the OZ-like power of the black box by then.
As a company we were fighting the uphill battle of trying to reverse a decline. We were determined not only to show a profit in six months, but to buy our way out of the bank covenants that were tying our hands.
The company ran on a direct mail model much like Landsâ¢ End. The market was schools and educational institutions. The question on the table that day was whether to make one huge catalog drop for the most important fall release or to hold back some money and do a second release in January. Some of us suspected that if fall didn’t work, there wouldn’t be a January. The owners were looking for progress.
I was new to direct mail and in the spaceship on the table, so I walked around my backyard listening in. The longer I walked, the more the conversation went deeper into what had gone wrong in the past. The history was informative as background for the decision. But an hour later, the discussion was still on the history.
I was in California. I had run out of backyard to explore.
“Excuse me,” I said. They had forgotten about me in the spaceship again. I measured my words and spoke with some urgency. “When you’re in a canoe and about to go over a waterfall, NOW is NOT the time to discuss WHO DROPPED THE PADDLE.”
I still smile to think of the Director who answered with a laugh, “Is it a BIG waterfall?”
“YES, . . . and there are LIONS and TIGERS below it, WAITING at the bottom!”
That meeting became known in company folklore as “The Famous Canoe Analogy.”
The President called me an hour later to say thank you for stopping the history telling. The story still comes up when we get together.
Sometimes the obvious is the hardest thing to see, especially when we are a part of it. In this case they had forgotten Basic Business Rule # 6:
Focusing on the past can’t fix the future. Focusing on the future might.
We had decided to put all of our strength into that fall catalogue. We made that decision in 10 minutes flat. The decision paid off. We won the bet. We finished the year with 3% growth in an industry that was showing 3% growth, after our own company had suffered three years of 10% decline.
That was also the day that my favorite CFO decided that I talk best in stories and sound bytes. He still doesn’t know I write much better than I talk. (A girl has to have some secrets from a CFO.)
–ME “Liz” Strauss
Check out the Perfect Virtual Manager on the Work with Liz!! page in the sidebar.
Business Rule 5: Never Underestimate the Power of a Voice on the Telephone
Business Rule 4: You Know Your Truth Ã¢â¬â Listen to Yourself
Business Rule 3: In PRM, the First Test Always Outweighs the Final