Lessons From Skiing Can Keep Your Company From Going Downhill

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Business and Skiing – Speed, Challenges and THRILLS!

Managing a business reminds me of skiing.  In skiing, as in business, you are going as fast as you can, avoiding obstacles and drop-offs, there is risk, the terrain and conditions are always changing, and the more timely the application of the right actions and reactions, the smoother the ride.

Years ago I skied with two fabulous skiers.  They were both members of the elite PSIA National Demo Team. I would watch them ski a tricky section of a slope to get insights on just how I could more efficiently and elegantly get past that rough patch.  Often they did not make the same movements, nor employ the same strategy, yet they both made those trick sections look so easy and effortless.  Mike was tall and thin and Bruce was shorter and powerfully built, so for each of them to control their descent down the mountain balancing such different cargo on top of their skis required different movements.

Imitation is Great…If the Imitator is Like the Model
The classic approach to teaching and learning to ski was to observe a new movement by a better skier and then go try it yourself, and VOILA!  Tragically that movement or action only works at a given speed, inclination, turn radius and snow condition.  In other situations the same action might lead to a disaster.  An important change to this flawed approach to ski teaching and learning came along when a big-thinking Austrian named Horst Abraham (who is now a renowned business consultant and business school faculty) realized that all of the skier actions could be grouped into a few easily identifiable and trainable skills.  If the skill tool box was sufficiently developed the body would apply the action with the right force and timing for the situation creating the perfect turn for the conditions.  Separating the complex skier movement into its component skill sets allowed skiing professionals to analyze and understand the endless variations of actions more clearly, and helped them to develop those skills in their students.

Just as aping the movements of other skiers can lead one astray, the mere replication of the actions of successful companies may not lead to the same success for another company. It is similar to watching Bruce versus Mike go down the hill.  Is your business the same size, does it serve the same customer, do you have the same market position and brand equity as the one you are observing?  Probably not.  It is even harder when trying to choose the best action for early stage companies developing new technologies, because there are few comparable precedents.

When in Balance, the Descent Looks Effortless and Graceful
While one individual can have all the strength, skill and experience to pilot a pair of skis through the toughest terrain, no individual can do it alone in business.  The demands are just too great; technology is constantly changing, customer needs evolve and the details of budgeting for and running operations are too much for one person to handle.  Therefore, create a management team with at least one senior member from each one of the following three business functions: 1) R&D and manufacturing; 2) sales and marketing; and, 3) operations and finance in order to harness three major skill sets of business.

Skiers who have a deficiency of one or more skills have to compensate by expending excess effort in an uncoordinated overuse of their other competences.  If they make it safely down the hill, they burn up lots of energy getting there, and it certainly is not a vision of pure grace.  Watching companies lurch from one avoidable crisis to another is the best indication that there is an imbalance of business skills.

Examples of companies that do not have a balance of critical skills and a culture of cooperation are all too common.  Consider the example of a company started by a core of technologists or scientists.  The team may be brilliant, hard-working, demanding, and capable of solving the toughest technical development problems.   But, the technology still needs a plan and financing to be translated into a sellable product, brought to buyers and sold for a profit.   The technology team will need the help of competent marketing and management professionals to complete the project.

Trust and Confidence on Known Terrain.  Caution if Conditions Change
If the team has a sufficiently developed reservoir of business skills and they are allowed the freedom to analyze, plan and react, will the right action be chosen at the right time to achieve the desired outcome?  It is no guarantee of success. Having the best and the brightest team, possessing all of the required business skills is not sufficient if there is not mutual respect for their skills and willingness to collaborate. If your company is a start-up, and does not have senior person in these roles, you should seek mentors or board advisors to fill the void for the short-term.

Create a culture of multifunctional teamwork from the beginning, and you will be better able to negotiate the tough terrain and changing conditions of business.  Make sure you have a team with the necessary skills – R&D and manufacturing, sales and marketing, operations and finance – that are empowered to question and challenge each other to arrive at realistic goals and a workable plan.  Finally, give the team adequate resources and the freedom to achieve the business objectives.  It is much easier to create a well balanced and highly functional team culture from the beginning, as a start up.  The reward for building a strong multifunctional management team can be the difference between a success and a crash.

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About the Author:

Dave Bertoni is a strategic marketing professional with extensive senior management experience in multi-national corporate as well as startup environments. In the last 25-years he has brought over a dozen technical products to domestic and international markets, as well as forming and funding three high-tech startups. He helps medical technology and high tech firms to uncover new opportunities, establish clear goals, overcome difficult business challenges and achieve sales and margin targets.
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