An Alaskan seafood company provided me with my first real business management experience and its owner, Doris, with my first experience working for a risk taker and industry innovator. I’ve shared some of the many lessons I learned from her previously (An Alaskan mother, an Alaskan entrepreneur). Last week I shared a little known story of how she hired former Vietnam pilots to fly old DC-3s, 4s, and 6s from the Arizona desert to Alaska so fresh fish could be flown to places like Cook Inlet where there was no glut of fish. If you didn’t get a chance to read Lessons I learned from a risk taker – Part 1, it’s well worth a few minutes of your time, if for no other reason than you’ll have a good story to tell the next time you enjoy a salmon dinner.
Time and again, Doris proved to be a master risk taker. Though it wasn’t always easy, working for her taught me countless lessons that have helped me throughout my life and particularly in my work with BAM (Business As Mission) businesses. I’ll pass on these nine to you, in hopes that you can learn from them as well:
- Tolerance: Entrepreneurs think outside the box. Doris’ ideas were uncomfortable to me as a manager and to the finance people who continuously watched the bottom line. This was another scary idea from Doris. One day I asked where Doris was and she was on a plane for the capitol to talk to the Governor. Wow, I thought, I could have used that money to hire someone to fix an ailing compressor. I either had to learn tolerance for her risk tolerance or get out. As hard as it was, I decided to stay.
- Comfort with chaos: As Lewis Carroll said, “Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” That was Doris. It irritated me. I wondered where the money would come from. I wondered where it went. All this was not my comfort level. Again I had to learn to accept difference and be comfortable with chaos.
- Adaptability: As a manager I had a plan. I had goals for the shift, for the fish from the first sight of them as they surfaced from the boats in the brailers, to the semi-trailers that hauled the frozen fish away to faraway places like Norway and Japan. I scheduled breaks for the guys and knew how to put shifts together. Now I was called to the office to think about something new. I had to be patient and learn to adapt.
- Communication: I had to learn that sometimes risk-taking entrepreneurs need people like me and I need the courage to ask questions and make comments. That means advanced levels of communication because risk-takers sometimes have their mind made up before you first hear about the idea. It might be too late for my comments but I needed to learn how to do it appropriately and in a timely manner.
- Togetherness: In the business world we cannot afford a “we-them” approach as we aim toward common goals. I had to try to get along with Doris, not only as my mother-in-law, but as my boss, and as a person taking risks which sometimes seemed impossible. Some were unreasonable, but when we saw success, I learned to say “you were right – congratulations Doris.”
- Acceptance of failure: Not all of Doris’ big ideas were successes; in fact many were not; not unlike big industry in America. Remember the Ford Edsel, New Coke, and Apple Lisa. According to a recent Wall Street study, it is normal for 40% of new product launches to flop. While working with Doris in Alaska’s fish industry I learned that risk-takers accept failure, and I needed to understand that.
- There is always another day: With all the things that cause discomfort in working with an entrepreneur who takes risks easily, it can be easy to lose sleep. Maybe it was working the long days and nights, but I eventually learned to sleep and not worry about it and try to develop strategies for learning things like tolerance, adaptability, togetherness, communication, and acceptance of how a risk-taker operates.
- It is all about the customer: Managers can get myopic about the details of operation but it is important to keep the big picture in mind. Doris often thought about the value of salmon to the customer – its nutritional value and lofty goals like “feeding the world”. It was all about good food and healthy people. It was about the customer.
- Leadership: Doris was a leader and I learned that leaders lead, set direction and inspire followers. I wanted to be a leader too so I watched, listened and learned so that even though I had the innate qualities of a manager, I could learn leadership qualities, see the big picture and drive toward satisfying customer needs, better product quality and employee development. I started to learn to do the right thing and not just to do things right, as Warren Bennis reminds us (“Leaders are people who do the right thing; managers are people who do things right.”)
Larry Sharp, Director of Training, IBEC Ventures