Valuable lessons for business and life, can come from many places. Including the office or even the open seas!
And Bob Roitblat knows what it's like to be in-charge, as a company leader or the skipper of a boat in a yacht race. Both require extreme focus, a strong desire to win and the willingness to prepare for the unexpected or even uncontrollable.
As a speaker, author and self-proclaimed, "purveyor of fine ideas and experience," Roitblat is ready to help you successfully reach your goals, even when confronted by relentless obstacles or "enemies."
Jeff Blackman: How'd you get involved with yacht racing?
Bob Roitblat: It began during a meeting with an attorney whose office was decorated with a sailing motif. When I asked if he sailed, he said, "No. I race!" Since I have a need for speed, that got my attention. The conversation quickly turned to racing and he invited me to a day of race practice. At the end, the team captain handed me their schedule and said, "Don't be late." I showed up and kept coming back.
JB: How is sailing a metaphor for business?
BR: Both share common, fundamental elements: a team of people using speed, tactics, strategy, timing and multiple resources to reach a destination and achieve a goal while facing a fleet of opponents.
The environment each operates in, is constantly changing—the physical environment of wind, waves and weather, the competitive environment, and the economic, regulatory and technological environments.
Both the business-executive and boat-skipper must exercise choice and control over some elements and adjust to those over which they have no control. Effective executives, like effective skippers, anticipate when conditions are about to change. The leader best able to anticipate changing conditions and effectively adjust—is the one who comes out ahead.
JB: What's the biggest challenge of sailing?
BR: The same as operating a business: the first is finding good people with compatible attitudes and traits, plus a high level of skill for the role. Next, is collecting and interpreting forecasts—wind and weather for sailing, market and economic for business. The third is execution: knowing when to stick to your strategy or alter it.
JB: What has been your greatest victory, and what did you learn from it?
BR: Selling a company I had founded 13 years earlier. It was a long, tough struggle at times and also very rewarding on many levels. When you stick to your values and are flexible with your timetable, anything is possible.
JB: What was your biggest sailing mistake, and what did you learn from it?
BR: Failing to inspect the mainsail on the boat I was racing on during the Fastnet. It's a race from England to Ireland and back, and one of the four premier yacht races in the world. By skipping this important step—by assuming it's working and it'll continue to work—we had to withdraw from the race because a small, unnoticed tear became a large irreparable rip. I learned when you short-circuit the preparation process—you short-circuit the results.
JB: While sailing, you have no control over the elements, so what's the best way to prepare for the uncontrollable?
BR: Planning for specific likely events is relatively easy. But as Yehezkel Dror put it, there's "at any given moment a high probability of low probability events occurring. In other words, surprise dominates."
The challenge then is planning for multiple low probability events that, if any occur, will have a high impact. There are four different yet simultaneous areas to prepare: Safety, Leading indicators and weak signals, Practice, and Knowing your limits.
Onboard the boat, we carry fire extinguishers, spare parts, tools, a first-aid kit, emergency locator beacons and many other safety devices to cover a broad array of unforeseen events.
There are often leading indicators and weak signals that foretell uncontrollable events. We may not be able to control the event, but we can decide how we’ll respond to it.
While sailing, a leading indicator is the sky darkening and clouds building. So we prepare for the wet conditions likely to occur. Even if there are no storms forecast. If I were running an OEM parts business that supplied auto makers, I'd look at automobile sales volume as a leading indicator.
An example of weak signals while sailing include unexpected wave action or barometric pressure changing at an unexpected rate. Neither of these is immediately obvious. We have to look for them. But they do tell us something unexpected is in our future.
Weak business signals include changes in the unemployment rate or changes in the Dollar's value. Changes to either of these numbers signal a future change in our economy, which eventually will impact every business.
Instead of merely reacting to events as they occur, we practice how we'll respond to events if they do occur. Boats work best when the water stays on the outside. Many things could happen that cause water to make its way into the boat. It doesn't matter what the cause is. When more than a small amount of water gets inside the boat, we have electrical and manual pumps to get the water out. We have practice drills on pump usage and life rafts if the pumps prove inadequate.
If someone falls off the boat, it's a major event. We use safety harnesses to keep people on the boat and practice man overboard drills to retrieve anyone who ends up in the water.
A business could have a fire-suppression system, for example, and practice fire drills in the event of a fire from any cause.
The last way we prepare for uncontrollable events, is that we know our limits. We want to be self-sufficient but that doesn't always work out. If the situation gets to the point where we can no longer handle it, we'll ask for help. On the boat that help may be to withdraw from the race and seek shelter in port or ask for help from another vessel or the Coast Guard. Businesses can also seek help when the situation is over their heads. That help could come from a consultant or the courts.
JB: How can speed and tactics work for or against you?
BR: Speed alone won't win the race if the wrong strategic choice is made, or if the boat or business sails in the wrong direction. And perfect strategy and tactics can't overcome slow speed. Winning requires a mastery of all these elements: preparation, strategy, agility, speed and tactics.
JB: Sailing and business can have "disruptions." Yet you encourage one, to disrupt. How come?
BR: Committing to generating and adding value to one's customers, will always serve a company well. Yet clinging to one's products or services, will not.
No one wants to abandon a service or product-line that's currently profitable. It takes immense effort to overcome the inertia of, "That's the way we've always done it." But if you don't abandon your "golden goose" on your timetable, somebody else will kill it on their timetable.
It's better to be the disrupter than the disrupted—even if the business has to disrupt itself before anyone else has a chance. Innovation involves not only generating new ideas, but also letting go of existing ones.
A business disrupts itself by practicing Proactive Obsolescence, by replacing its own successful products or services with fundamentally new solutions that provide a significant leap in customer value. And then doing it, again and again.
For more of Bob's ideas, to help you again and again, please head to: http://www.roitblat.com/