Building the right boat:

How leadership teams can better navigate the tides


Published on: September 2019

Written by: Suzanne Bates

In 1963 in Frankfurt, John F. Kennedy said famously about economic development, “A rising tide lifts all the boats.” On the face of it, an undeniable axiom; however, one that doesn’t account for the distinct advantages of one boat over another.

Looking out over the Old City harbor on a trip to Dubrovnik, I was amazed at the array of boats all sizes built for various purposes, moving in rather perilous proximity. Massive cruise ships seven or eight stories high towered over nearby commercial schooners, which dwarfed the tour boats, which in turn could swamp the recreational kayaks.

While the rising tide lifts them all, this flow barely improves the view for the kayaker, bobbing just above the Morlock deck where the cruise ship stores its cables. Meanwhile on the big ship’s top deck, whether the tide ebbs or flows, they glory in the sights, barely registering a change in circumstance.

For leadership teams who must navigate through ups and downs of business, it begs the question, what kind of boat are you building? Are you drawing up and executing the blueprint for a bigger boat? Or do you spend most of your time looking for the bucket to bail out the kayak?

Growth is imperative, yet too many teams spend too little time working on the bigger picture to make growth possible. If your days are spent thinking about the big boat’s wakes coming at you, you may manage to avoid getting swamped, but you won’t ever find yourself surrounded by the security of the bigger boat.

No team wants to get caught up in the day to day, it just happens. The sheer number of challenges in front of you can crowd out time and energy for strategic thinking and discussion.

This is precisely why you must carve out time, or nothing will change. You must build a boat that is seaworthy and able to weather everything from economic downturns, to shifts in customer habits, innovations in technology, competitor moves and other surprises.

We’ve found most teams need to spend far more time talking about the future. Your precious time is limited, so you must be disciplined in your focus. If you are unsatisfied with progress, chances are that one problem is hidden in plain sight – on your meeting agenda. What gets discussed, gets done. You need to schedule a discussion about the design and performance of the bigger boat.

One approach is to delegate more of the tactical work to others. Another is to differentiate the types of meetings you have. Our own leadership team meets monthly to assess and move forward on strategic questions, and then weekly, as a subgroup, to coordinate initiatives and tactical matters. What happens in one type of meeting informs the other.

This structure enables our team to achieve greater balance and confidence we are spending our time well. Operational issues are dealt with quickly and there’s guaranteed time to be strategic.

When your team meets, consider doing the following:

  • Remember your time together is valuable and act accordingly
  • Make time on the agenda for visionary conversations and strategic discussions
  • Routinely evaluate where you are, where you want to be, and the delta to overcome
  • Create separate meetings to handle the strategic and the operational
  • Be mindful of what is allowed on your strategy meeting agenda

There are other tactics that can help keep the team focused on strategy. For example, send information in advance so your meetings aren’t spent “reporting out.” Provide data on decisions you want the team to consider well in advance, so everyone has time for independent critical thinking. Assess the urgency and importance of issues before you put them on the agenda. Ask yourselves whether some would be better handled outside the main meeting, or by a smaller group.

There are advantages to any size boat. Smaller can make you more agile. It can be fun to steer the kayak into an alcove, and you never know what you’ll discover. Explore, innovate, and experiment to uncover options for future growth. Just be sure to keep your paddles in the water, evaluate quickly and make “go, no-go” decisions. As the tide goes in and out, keep working on the bigger boat blueprint.

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