It was the unlikeliest of places to learn some profound business lessons. Niederhorn is one of the local mountains easily reached from Interlaken via the Postal Bus and a Cable Car. It was a sparklingly clear day, so Barbara and I decided to go for a 3 hour walk along one of the trails.
The bus was packed with people heading up there, many carrying their own toboggans. We finally made it to the top and saw a place you could hire toboggans for $10. You could pick them up here and deposit them at the end of the 3 hour trail.
We’d talked about going tobogganing with some other friends, but it hadn’t eventuated, so I said, what the hell, let’s do it. “It’ll be dangerous”, said Barbara. “Be prepared to have some spills”. And so the fun, and the lessons began.
If you look at the picture, you’ll see these things are pretty lean when it comes to things to hang onto. Think Billy Cart on skis. You steer and brake with your feet. And these things can pick up speed very, very quickly and hurtle down the track (about 15 feet wide, with lots of turns, snow drifts, bumps, and even places you end up airborne) at up to 35km/hr. Steer the wrong way you end up tumbling down the mountain, the other way into the cliff face.
So we got on. Barbara in front doing the steering and braking, and me behind her. We took off, gathered speed and before I knew it, I was off, rolling in the snow at speed. I picked myself up, found copious quantities of snow down my back (I hadn’t followed Barbara’s advice to completely zip up my ski jacket), shrugged off the slightly twisted ankle and got on again. So the first parallel to business. Be prepared. The ride will get bumpy and you’re likely to come off. And you have to learn from it and get on again.
After a couple more spills, Barbara encouraged me to have a go by myself down a shorter, gentler stretch of the trail. It’s not hard once you get the hang of it – the biggest danger being overconfidence. So we hopped on together and started to go faster. And you guessed it, often lost control and came off. Sometimes quite savagely. Anyone who rides a mountain bike will know exactly what I’m talking about. Our only saving grace was padded clothing and snow (and we didn’t crash into any walls).
Interspersed with the exhilaration were long stretches of tedium where we had to pull the toboggan uphill or along long flat bits of the trail. And it’s during some of those stretches we thought of the parallels between tobogganing and business. Both involve an element of risk. Ours here was purely physical. (Most of our friends thought we were mad when we told them about what we’d done.)
In business your risks range from financial to emotional and everything in between. There will be times of tedium where you seem to be pulling a weight behind you uphill and putting one foot in front of the other. And there will be moments of exhilaration and sometimes pure terror as you realise things are getting out of control.
One of the side effects of having both of us on the one toboggan was the combined weight added a whole level of complexity. More weight meant we were slower to start (you have to push with your legs while sitting on the thing – not easy), and then suddenly find yourself gathering *LOTS* of momentum and speed.
It was a very fine line between control and a very hairy experience. There were plenty of times when even with our combined feet digging into the ice (and shouts of, “BRAKE! BRAKE!”, “I AM! I AM!”) we just couldn’t slow down enough, hit a bump and went flying off.
It’s the same with business. Small and nimble means you can be responsive to market conditions and react quickly. The more monolithic you are, the less you’re able to respond. Kodak filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the US is a classic example of this. In the space of 10 years the world has gone from film to digital. Poof goes your market!
And the other side of gaining too much momentum? You find yourself growing too fast and lose the ability to keep servicing your clients properly. Net result is not good for you or your clients. We finally made it back down the mountain and all in all, it was one of the best days we’ve had in years.
Life (and business) is about getting out of your comfort zone, trying new stuff and taking risks. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
And the final lesson? You need a good coach. Someone who knows the lay of the land and can guide you, encourage you and push you until you can do it for yourself. I would never have contemplated doing this without Barbara’s guidance, skill and support. Mind you, it’s 35 years since she last tobogganed, but muscle memory is a wonderful thing. And it’s the same in business. We all need guidance, encouragement and to be pushed out of our comfort zone. Which is exactly where coaching comes in.