“It’s a wonderful feeling whether you catch a wave or not. You’re out there, you’re part of nature, you’re sitting in the ocean, looking at the land. Most other times, it’s the other way around. There’s something about it that gives you a different perspective on life. It’s a wonderful metaphor, catching a wave, for how you can look at other challenges in your life.”
– Jeff Bridges, Academy Award Winning Actor
WHAT I LEARNED ABOUT SURFERS
1. EMBRACE THE CONDITIONS
SURFERS USE TECHNOLOGY
There are three things that I learned from watching the surfers in Malibu. The first lesson is how surfers embrace the changing conditions. Surfers don’t have a universal field, court, or rink in which they practice their sport. The size of the waves, depth of the water, and the conditions they surf in are always different and always changing. Trying to manage the changing conditions from surf spot to surf spot can be challenging. Fortunately, new technology has made the conditions more manageable for surfers. Using technology to track weather and waves has become a standard practice in surfing. Professionals use surf reports to find out where waves are breaking and can use hyperaccurate reports about whether or not there will be waves. Surf reports have revolutionized the sport, giving surfers the ability to travel the world and make the most of conditions that might otherwise have been missed without the capabilities of new technology.
SURFERS GET OUT THERE
The second lesson is that surfers embrace the conditions and get out there and into the water. Even with technology to predict waves, the surfer still needs to be in the water in a position to catch a wave. Surfers paddle out regardless of the current conditions. Surfers scan the horizon and watch for waves to build and break just offshore. Surfers are always in the line-up and put themselves where the action is—not by waiting for waves from the shore. This situation is unique and different from most sports where the conditions and environmental elements are always the same. You know there will always be a goal, net, or hoop at the other end of the field or court and that the other team will show up to play the game. With surfing, you need to be willing to get out there, even if the conditions are not perfect. For surfers, it’s about understanding the conditions, knowing how the ocean works, and having the patience for waves to make their way to shore.
SURFERS ARE PATIENT
The final thing that surfers do to embrace the conditions is wait. Surfers are patient, and they will wait for hours to catch waves. Surfers wait in the cold ocean water, paddle in challenging conditions, and wait for the next opportunity to catch a wave. Surfers may wait for hours to catch a five-second ride to shore. This infrequency tests their patience, physical abilities, and mental fortitude to sit in the water for that long without having success. They have developed the patience necessary to wait for waves by focusing on preparing for opportunities to catch their wave and not just any wave that rolls toward shore. Surfers are patient when they wait, but they are also patient in how they pick and choose opportunities to catch waves. They wait patiently for a wave that fits their abilities and offers the best ride that their skills and abilities can handle.
2. MINDSET FOR NEW SKILLS
SURFERS UNDERSTAND PROGRESSION
The second lesson is that surfers have a progression-based mindset and understand the importance of adding new skills. The mindset of surfers and how they approach the sport is founded on progression or an approach to acquiring and learning new skills. Progression is commonly defined as progress or forward movement, but surfers apply this word to how they acquire and learn new skills. Progression is also fundamental to all boardsports, including skateboarding, snowboarding, and wakeboarding, but has its roots in surfing. Surfers understand that progression is important for always trying to improve upon what they are doing. They are always trying to do a trick better or to add to what they have done before. For example, when surfers began to do aerial maneuvers on waves, the sport “progressed” in terms of what was possible because surfers were able to catch air, add grabs, and learn new tricks by progressing the sport through aerial maneuvers.
THE SURFER MINDSET
Surfers have what’s called a “progression-based” mindset. Progression is also a major part of the surf culture and how surfers think about improving themselves within their sport. With a progression-based mindset, surfers are always improving upon what they did previously as well as improving their skills and capabilities. This type of mindset is different and novel to surfing. Athletes in other sports acquire and master a skill, then usually stop there. Surfers build skills progressively in order to acquire new ones, and they use this mindset to keep motivating themselves to improve. Progression is also integrated into surf contests and one of the ways that judges pick winners. Judges look at how surfers are progressing their tricks from heat to heat and who is doing the most progressive maneuvers on their boards wave after wave. Surfers push themselves using a progression-based mindset, but the context within surfing also supports progression within the sport.
Surfers acquire and then build upon their current skills. They are continually building upon what they have done before and use the accomplishment of acquiring a new skill as a launching point for learning something new. Few sports and few athletes progress this way, but for surfers, it’s important to the long- term success of their sport. Today’s surfers don’t surf the way the pros did even ten years ago. The boards are now smaller and lighter, and the technology is better, which has helped surfers to progress the sport toward bigger waves. Breaks that were once thought to be too sketchy are now being ridden. The popularity of surfing has exploded, gone mainstream, and will be an Olympic sport in 2020. The sport is popular because it attracts participants who want to learn, progress, and continually accomplish something new in their sport.
3. USE RISK AS A COMPASS
SURFERS EXPECT RISK
The third lesson is the willingness to explore and take on risk. Surfers expose themselves to a tremendous amount of risk. Beyond the basic physical injuries that can happen as a result of an athletic sport, surfers face another set of risks that are even more hazardous. They can become injured just like any other athlete and blow out a knee, pick up nicks and scrapes, as well as experience head injuries or concussions from their sport. However, a surfer must face another level of life-threatening risks. The ocean boasts more predators than any other environment on the planet. Surfers willingly put themselves in harm’s way by attempting to paddle into these untamed conditions and face threats from animals that mistake them for an easy snack. Sharks are the most menacing risk that any surfer will face in the ocean. Including personal injury and natural predators, surfers expect the risks and use them to push them in the right direction.
SURFERS EXPLORE RISK
Surfers not only expect risk, but they also explore it. In some cases, they try to exploit it. Take big wave surfing as an example. Surfers seek out, hunt for, and find the biggest waves on the planet to test their abilities. With smaller waves come more style, trick progression, and skill, but with big wave surfing it’s about paddling into and charging massive waves. Conditions that any other normal, non-surfing person would try to avoid at all costs, surfers explore with pleasure. Surfers continually pursue larger, more challenging waves to progress their skills and abilities. With ever-increasing wave size providing a ladder of progression, surfers challenge themselves every time they try to tackle a bigger, more massive wave. Surfers build new skills each and every time they ride a wave, and they explore new risks in order to improve. There is a lot of intent behind their actions, and this intentional exposure to risk sets them apart from athletes in other disciplines.
SURFERS RISK TO PROGRESS
Surfers always expect risk to be associated with riding waves. Surfers need to explore risk and pursue it if they want to progress in their sport. Much of what surfers do outside of the sport in terms of training and preparation is designed to lower the risks and make progression possible. Surfers train on land to become stronger, training muscles that are needed for when a wave breaks. For the surfer, risk and progression go hand in hand. You can’t have one without the other. In order to become better and progress in surfing, you have to be comfortable with risk, know how to explore it, and do so willingly. Surfers open themselves up to the risks that are inherent in the conditions and explore risk with the expectation that they will survive whatever the ocean can throw at them to live and surf another day. Risk is part of the process that leads toward the path of progression and helps the surfer get better at what they do.
WHAT I LEARNED ABOUT SALES AND MARKETING
1. CUSTOMER POWER
CUSTOMERS HAVE THE POWER
Just as the surfer faces the challenges from the ever- changing ocean conditions, the business leader constantly needs to add new skills and explore new risk in order to succeed in new conditions. The days of relying on past skills and abilities are over, and a new approach is needed. The advent of new technology within sales and marketing has given customers buying power, and organizations are no longer in control of the buying process. They no longer have the power they had even just a few years ago. Technology and information-sharing platforms have put customers in the driver’s seat and armed them with vast amounts of information that they can now use to make purchase decisions. The barriers to knowledge have been lowered, and anyone with a smartphone can find information about a product or service, shop for the best deal, and ultimately circumvent a traditional marketing and sales process to buy.
THE CUSTOMER’S NEW JOURNEY
The decision journey for customers to make a purchase decision is different. In the past, the process to market and sell a product or service to a buyer was linear from marketing to sales. It was described as a “funnel” where a top-down approach would push information to customers through channels. Organizations would systematically move potential customers through a purchase decision in a very strategic and organized way. In the current conditions, however, customers can jump into the process anywhere along that path and take themselves on a self-guided journey to make a purchase decision. Customers no longer rely on anyone from an organization until much later in the process, with the role of sales becoming more concierge than salesman or woman. This new journey has put organizations in a tough position since they are now responsible for educating customers and moving them through a unique process to make a decision.
This new journey has also created a new set of expectations from customers. They have the power to shop for products and services on multiple platforms to find the best deals and are no longer forced to buy from a single source. Customers have access to more information and want greater transparency in terms of cost and price. They expect more control in the buying process and are leveraging this kind of information to make better purchase decisions, which has put pressure on sellers to offer the best deal up front. Customers have a better understanding of the buying process and are finding ways to unbundle services and find exactly what they want. Rather than going to a traditional brick-and-mortar bank to set up a payment service for a business, customers can now find companies that offer software platforms at a fraction of the cost. The expectations of customers have changed, and organizations need to adapt accordingly.
2. NEED FOR NEW SKILLS
ORGANIZATIONS AND SKILLS
Along my journey, I noticed that the organizations that had been around the longest were the most tied to the old way of doing things. Newer companies that have formed within the last three to five years were able to build their organizations with the latest technology and newest software, and they also leveraged some of the latest trends. Companies that were built on traditional sales and marketing skills had the hardest time acquiring new organizational capabilities. Organizations were in a challenging spot because if they lacked certain skills, they needed to hire new employees and staff to add those skills in- house. However, leadership struggled to develop those skills into organizational capabilities and cycled through employees with those skills, instead of developing them to remain at the organization long term. Organizations, just like employees, need to think about their skills as fluid and ever-changing— just like the conditions they are working in. It can be an uphill battle if organizational leadership doesn’t understand the new conditions or chooses to ignore the challenges and just hope that things will improve.
ORGANIZATIONS AND MINDSET
In order to make changes and develop new skills, the collective mindset of the organization has to be open to what’s needed for the organization, but also to what’s new and changing markets. Some organizations have a resistance mindset or an aversion to anything new. New can be expensive to an organization and can even cost someone a job if not executed correctly. The organizations that were struggling were all locked into a mindset of the past and relying on previous success, not thinking about what was next or how they could better solve their customers’ problems. They were locked into a mentality where change was not encouraged or supported by the organization, and that made it hard for the organization to progress or move forward. Organizations that had a hard time with the new challenges also experienced frustration among their team members who saw the need for change and wanted to make improvements but were forced to “toe the company line” due to the organization’s fixed mindset.
ORGANIZATIONS AND PROGRESSION
Companies that did not add new skills and capabilities on a consistent basis all had employees that suffered as a result. Teams did not feel challenged or were “held back” from making more strategic decisions. Organizations that did not change their mindset or meet the new challenges all had customers that suffered as well. Offering the same product or service the same way, year after year, and not evolving or progressing how that product or service solves problems for clients makes it hard for consumers to connect with what an organization is offering. Markets change, and customers’ needs change as well. The need for new organizational skills and a new mindset will force organizations to rethink how they are connecting with their customers. Customers are changing and evolving, adapting to new technology, and living their lives in new ways. If a product offering is not progressing to match the needs of customers or the way customers now buy, companies will struggle to find success.
3. RISK AND UNEXPECTED RESULTS
ORGANIZATIONS AND RISK
The organizations that did not take the time to understand the new conditions and the new way that customers buy struggled to find success and had unintended or unexpected results. They were not willing to risk learning about the new dynamics in their markets and were not willing to risk the time to figure out new solutions to these challenges. Companies that struggled continued to use the same strategies that worked in markets years ago and failed to adapt to the new conditions, not realizing that what they were doing was not going to work in the new conditions and that the results would not be what was expected. For organizations, this was damaging and also hurt the psyche of the marketer or sales professional doing the work. Organizations were not taking the time to ask customers questions about how they were finding out about their products and what considerations they were making when it came to making a final purchase decision. The companies that were not willing to risk doing something new were hurt the most and struggled to produce results because of this resistance.
ORGANIZATIONS AND SKILLS
The companies that did not understand the conditions or try to develop their skills and capabilities to meet the demands of the new conditions struggled to find sales and marketing success. Organizations that did find success were continually evaluating individual skills and organizational capabilities on a regular basis. Challenges and obstacles became impassable when teams were not staffed with the right talent and expertise for the new conditions. Companies that did not add new training or development programs to build new skills found that results were hard to predict and did not meet organizational expectations. Companies that did not add new skills or take risks in order to change fell behind the market and competition. The companies that did succeed, however, added new skills and had results that met or exceeded expectations. It was clear that the organizations that took risks in order to change had the best results.
ORGANIZATIONS AVOID RISK
The organizations that did not understand the new conditions and did not add new skills put leadership in the position of playing defense instead of offense. The mindset or mentality was focused on risk aversion or an aversion to anything outside the comfort zone of the organization. Leadership had built up a tolerance to change, and preserving the status quo became the new norm. Aversion to risk had become part of company culture, and new ideas or innovations were met with the classic, “We’ve never done that before,” or, “That’s not how we do it here.” The organizations where leadership had this approach to risk tended to “play it safe” and avoided anything that might upset the status quo within the organization, even if it meant achieving poor results. The organizations that struggled had no incentives to change, and maintaining the status quo was the measurement of success. For leadership at these organizations, trying to overcome the new challenges was like a shock to the organizational system, with marketing and sales bearing the brunt of this crushing blow.
A UNIVERSAL JOURNEY
1. UNIVERSAL EXPERIENCE
We have all experienced challenges in our personal and professional lives—like I experienced while surfing and trying to navigate the new business conditions. Often there are challenges we did not expect. We are not prepared, and we end up experiencing frustration because of the results. We experience failure trying to overcome a new challenge, but where we make errors is in using what worked for us in the past. I would guess that this happens quite frequently and that most people are caught off guard when it comes to taking on some of life’s most unexpected challenges. This is a universal experience that we have all encountered before. We are blindsided by an unexpected challenge or change, and it leaves us wondering, “What just happened? How did I not see this coming?” The failure is personal, but it’s an experience that’s universal, and we can all relate to it. Think of an experience when you wanted to make a change or do something new. There is a good chance that what you experienced was not what you planned for, and you most likely encountered some kind of mental or physical obstacle that was hard to overcome.
CHALLENGES AND OBSTACLES
We will continue to experience new challenges in the business world. There will always be challenges or obstacles, and as the rate of change increases with technology and information- sharing platforms, we are opening ourselves up to more and more of these situations. Instead of experiencing a life or job change once in a career or once in a lifetime, the rate will exponentially grow, and we will be faced with challenges and obstacles more frequently than ever before. It’s hard to predict how often we will experience this type of change, but estimates have marketers experiencing job changes every forty-four months, which means that every three and a half years, a marketer will have a new role professionally. It used to be that business professionals would not have a single change within their careers, but the reality within business is that changes will happen more often and will be more disruptive to our lives.
Now and in the future, we will all be looking for ways to manage these new challenges better and will try not be wiped out by them. We will need new ways to manage changes and to prepare ourselves for market waves and new strategies to feel confident in the decisions that we’re making. Since the challenges and obstacles are universal, so is the journey that we all go through when we have these experiences. But how we solve these challenges for ourselves and for theorganizations we work for is a different story. Since there is a shared experience with new challenges, there is no reason why there can’t be a shared process for overcoming them as well. Up until now, there has not been a model or process to manage these new changes or a method to help individuals manage, survive, and also thrive in them.
2. UNIVERSAL CHALLENGES
Now that we are all on this new journey to overcome business challenges, we need a way to approach them without suffering major setbacks and also a repeatable process that we can consistently use over time. Organizations that have not yet experienced the challenges soon will; it’s just a matter of time. This is a universal change within business and a universal experience that we will all need to embrace. We will need to embrace new market changes, identify new skills, and manage new risk on a regular basis. Customers are experiencing a new journey in how they search, shop for, and make purchase decisions for products and services. We are both experiencing these changes together, just from different perspectives. In order for organizations to manage the new conditions better, the first step will be aligning with the customer’s new decision journey.
In order to meet the customer demands of this new journey, a close look at current skills is necessary as well as a process to evaluate which new skills will be the most helpful. The days of basking in previous successes or relying on skills of the past are over. Organizations and leaders will need to consistently assess how they are marketing and selling products and if they are offering services in a way that meets the needs of customers. Skills and capabilities will need to evolve, but so will the mindset around the process of adding them as well. Adopting a progression-based mindset toward skills and capabilities will be needed since skills are no longer static but in a constant flux within organizations. This is another universal experience that we all share—trying to get better at what we do. There has not been a process that encourages this kind of mindset in order to meet the demands of our new business environment. Traditional development methods tend to focus on “playing to our strengths,” but what’s needed to meet the new demands is far different and much more demanding.
With the new challenges and the need for new skills comes risk. Risk is now a universal experience that we will all share in what we do professionally. In the past, business professionals have remained immune from risk because of the insulation a lot of organizations provide. Companies that have good products or services, along with the support of talented employees, have been insulated from change and have had little to no disruptions in their markets. But as customers continue to drive market changes, organizations that were once insulated could be exposed to new threats and challenges that they have not experienced before. In order to meet the new challenges and overcome them, organizations will need to step out into the new conditions, armed with new skills, and also take a new approach to risk. In the new conditions, business leaders will have to keep putting themselves in harm’s way to overcome challenges and succeed.
3. UNIVERSAL PRINCIPLES
EMBRACE THE CONDITIONS
As business leaders, we all share the experiences of what it’s like in the new market conditions. There’s a need for a new mindset around skills and also a need for a new relationship with risk. Having a universal process not only makes sense but is necessary if we want to survive wave after wave of new change, but also ride some of those waves successfully back into shore. The comparison of surfers to business professionals helps make sense of the new challenges, but it also provides us with a way to use surfing principles as a new business process for success. There’s not another sport where the conditions are as challenging, where a specific mindset around skills is needed, or where the consequences for failure are as severe. Surfing is a good analogy for the way business leaders will need to approach sales and marketing in the future. It also provides us with a set of principles that leadership can use to guide their organizations through the process of finding success in changing markets by using the natural momentum or waves within markets to overcome new challenges.
Traditionally, we have thought of our individual skills and organizational capabilities as fixed. Meaning, we acquired new ones through years of experience on the job and focused on that one set of skills and mastering them before adding new ones. In the new conditions, leadership will need to think about skills as progression-based and not fixed. Teams will not only need to develop a set of skills and adapt to the changing conditions, but also continue to develop those skills over time. The new mindset that leadership needs to have is that the organization needs to change as the market changes. A marketer or sales professional will need to change with the customers to meet their specific needs and solve their problems as they change as well. The surfer can serve as the new model of the mindset needed, and the idea of progression-based skills will be necessary in the new conditions.
RISK AS A COMPASS
As leaders progress their skills and capabilities, risk will be a constant factor in their failure or success. In the new conditions, failure will happen more often and more consistently. Actual moments of defined success will happen less and less—more like a progression of small successes over time and smaller gains as a result of focused effort versus big wins. Sales and marketing leaders will need to use risk as a compass. Meaning they will need to push in the direction of new challenges in order to be successful. The conditions are calling for it, and the organizations that encourage the exploration of risk will be successful because of it. Up until this point, there has not been a process that explores risk as the gateway to business success. However, what makes this approach different is that it’s about intentionally exposing yourself to risk in order to progress. Just like the surfer who paddles out into the waves each and every day, the business leader will need to make peace with risk and face it more and more to find success.
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