When the Tide Goes Out

I was returning from a walk recently with my dogs Buddy Baker and Eddie when Hank came charging at us. Hank, my neighbor’s dog, is about 2 feet tall, 120 pounds, and looks like one of those battering rams police use to break down doors but with little alligator legs attached. Those little legs were moving fast, and he clearly was not coming in peace, so Buddy Baker prepared for battle.

They met in mid-air over the sidewalk and it was on, I mean really on. By the time it was over Buddy Baker was bleeding from his eye, Hank was laid out on the ground trying to catch his breath, and I was bleeding from two holes in my thigh which took the brunt of Hank’s second charge. And how did John, Hank’s owner, and I deal with the situation? We laughed it off and chatted for 20 minutes about his upcoming trip to Colorado.

How could we disregard such a blatant breach of suburban etiquette, and why was I so patient and understanding? It’s not because I’m patient and understanding, I’m neither; it is because there’s a global pandemic going on, and when people are scared and losing their lives and suffering financially, who am I to get twisted up about a guy leaving his dog off his leash? We’ve been riding a high tide in our country for a long time and maybe we’ve become a little entitled, wanting everything to be just right. The tide is rolling out swiftly, and in the face of real tragedy I’ve realized that I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to manage trivial things, even as I neglected important things like my relationship with my neighbor John.

The same thing has happened in our businesses – we’ve been riding a high tide for so long that we’ve convinced ourselves we can do everything, and in the pursuit of “everything” we’ve neglected some critical things. Warren Buffet famously said, “It’s only when the tide goes out that you learn who has been swimming naked.” As I’ve helped business owners work through this crisis, I’ve seen three areas where a lot of us are naked. Please don’t wait for another crisis to get focused on:

  1. Relationships. Businesses with open, honest, trusting relationships are feeling the benefit of them now; their people are willing contributors to the solutions pulling them through the crisis. In business without strong, trusting relationships, their people are a constant source of issues and distraction. I love systems and I get paid for helping people implement them, but please hear me when I say the system is not the goal. The system simply sets the stage for relationships to develop, and it’s the relationships that carry your business.
  2. Safety. It’s not just for construction companies anymore; regardless of what you do, you need a safety program. It’s tempting to see safety like insurance – a big commitment of time  and money that you only need if something bad happens. I encourage you to look at it differently. Employees that know they are in a safe environment and know their employer cares enough about them to make it safe, are happier and more productive. That benefit is immediate and powerful, even if nothing bad ever happens.
  3. The Balance Sheet. It’s easy to invest all your cash and take on debt to grow your business when you know every year will be an up year, and that’s exactly what a lot of you did. Now it’s coming back to bite you in the rear, and businesses with strong balance sheets are the ones doing the biting. They are operating without the fire drills and stress that come with cash flow issues, and they will be the big winners coming out of this crisis. We could argue all day long whether debt is good or bad, but I’ve never heard a business owner lament the fact that they were too conservative with their balance sheet.

The pandemic sucks but if it forces us to refocus on what is truly important, some good will come from it. As a leader you can make that happen. What’s your first step?