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A Lesson So Powerful It Can't Be Forgotten

By Greg Harris

How Skiing is Like Managing a Business

Greg's Corner The day you stop learning is the day you probably die. I learn all the time, but it's the remembering part that I struggle with! I forgot most of what I learned as a teenager in the 70s, but I do remember an important set of lessons from snow skiing that apply to business every day.

I can't quite describe the feeling I get standing at the top of a difficult ski hill. I've been skiing since I was five years old and generally speaking, I have little trouble getting down 95% of the slopes. But the double black diamond is not like other runs. To this day it gives me pause.

The double black diamond, unlike any other hill, looks more like a "cliff" than a "slope" and, inconveniently, is littered with massive bumps called moguls. One slip could send you reeling down the entire mountain while your gear is scattered (we call that a "yard sale"). These hills typically have a chairlift on them, which means you have an audience — likely more interested in your failure
than your success.

I've learned that navigating both business and the double black diamond run requires a similar strategy.

Let's look at the various elements.

  • Strategic Planning You can't plan too far ahead on a double black diamond. The secret is to keep your knees bent and be prepared to react quickly. Business is the same way. While planning is good, it's more important to be quick to react.
  • Obstacles The best laid plans are often interrupted by unplanned obstacles. In skiing you want to manage your speed by making lots of turns. In business you want to constantly test different strategies and see what works best to avoid obstacles.
  • Implementation You can plan your skiing turns all you want, but making the turns as you planned is a different story. Many mistakenly think that strategy is the key to business. Often a successful implementation is ten times more important than the strategy.
  • Failure Falling on a double black diamond is, to say the least, discouraging (and wet and cold and painful). You might think that adding an extra dose of caution is the best failsafe against failure. Not true. You need to take risk on the hill but not too much. Too much caution can be just as dangerous. Playing it safe in business often means you are blinded to opportunity. Sometimes you can make more progress by learning from failures than avoiding mistakes.
  • Exhaustion The amount of effort required to stay upright and in control is incredible. The legs and lungs both burn in unison. The pain is distracting and the probability of mistakes increases. I'm not a believer in 60-hour work weeks because in my experience, the longer the work week, the worse the quality of the work. I believe in quality before quantity.
So why bother with the double black diamonds? Before the descent, I like to take a few moments standing at the top to allow a small level of panic to slowly build. The challenge is so intense that I can only manage one or two of these runs a day. But the thrill of accomplishment (if I survive unscathed) is unlike anything I've ever experienced.

To face death and conquer it is quite empowering. Facing the challenge of business is equally thrilling and I wouldn't change my job for anything.

So let's review the business lessons so far. It's difficult to plan for the long term, and short term planning is more important anyway. Flawless execution is the most important success factor. It's a mistake to take no risk and if you don't fail every once in a while, you've missed an important learning lesson. Finally, at every turn there is someone praying for your next misstep. Rest up and play it smart. I'll see you on the hill.