Lessons I Learned from Snow Skiing that Apply to Business

I have loved skiing ever since I first started 40 years ago. When I first started I thought the aim was to go straight down the mountain as fast as you could; however, a broken leg soon cured that misconception. Still today I see many people bragging about how they skied down this difficult run or the other, but having seen them on the slopes I realize that they are getting down with little style or ability, and gravity is the main contributor. While they have survived, the chance of doing this repeatedly is small. In business as in skiing, the key is to be able to do the successful things repeatedly.

Continuously adjust to changing conditions

Looking at great skiers, they move effortlessly down the mountain. All you see is the fluidity of their movement and their rhythm. What you never notice is the changing slope of the mountain and changing snow. When watching lesser skiers, you can tell when the conditions change – in the moguls, their rhythm abandons them and on ice they flail around. Thus the differentiating factor better a good skier and an average skier, in my opinion, is the ability to adjust continuously to the changing conditions below your feet.

In the corporate world those companies that can maintain the company’s performance through the continuous changing and challenging business and economic conditions are the great ones. They appear to make it effortless in their performance, but it is not, it requires great skill and the ability to anticipate and react to changing conditions. Coca Cola, well known as the largest provider of a number of soft drinks and beverages, manages to maintain its market leadership in Japan where there are over 7,000 different soft drinks and over 1,000 new products are launched every year. Coca Cola maintains that leadership by continuously introducing new products and adjusting to the changing conditions and tastes of it consumers.

Upper body is still, the skier looks ahead and the legs adjust and absorb.

Watch skiers as they ski the moguls, they are looking 2 to 3 turns ahead (remember where your eyes go your body follows) down the mountain. Their upper bodies are relatively still, while their legs are moving like pistons, absorbing and extending through the moguls as they guide their skies.

To me, the upper body is the strategy of the company, still focused ahead on the goals and plotting the best course ahead to achieve them. The legs are corporate tactics that are required by the environment to realize the strategy. Like the business environment, the mountain is never constant; success requires continually adjusting to the changing conditions by changing and adjusting tactics to reach the corporate strategic goals.

When skiing moguls, if you sit back on your skis, you lose the ability to steer the skis and so lose control and will crash. Often the solutions when you do start to sit back has been described as effectively throwing your body down the mountain so that your center of gravity will pass your feet and you can regain control of the skis and steer them. Companies often “sit back” and then are in trouble as the industry changes and they have no ability to change direction with it. An example of this, I would describe as Apple prior to Steve Job’s return. The company was sitting back not controlling its direction in the industry. To save it, it had to throw itself ahead and gain control of its direction in the industry.

“If there is no snow on your ski jacket you are not improving”

Phil Maher, the great US skier once told me this, and I have always appreciated it. What is meant by this statement is:

  • If you don’t have snow on your ski jacket you haven’t fallen.
  • If you haven’t fallen you are not pushing yourself outside your comfort zone; and
  •  If you don’t push yourself outside your comfort zone you are not growing.

The same is true of companies, if you don’t take risks you cannot succeed. Many writers have covered the thesis that the opposite of success is not failure, but not succeeding. Strategies that make companies successful are the same strategies that make them failures it just depends on how the future unfolds (See “The Strategy Paradox” by Michael E. Raynor). The tradeoff is that most strategies are built on specific beliefs about an unpredictable future, but current strategic approaches force leaders to commit to an inflexible strategy regardless of how the future might unfold. Thus success or failure is often up to chance. To be successful you have to commit to a strategy that has risk, but at the same time be flexible and adaptable. Regardless, there are times when the company will “fall”. If the company cannot fall, it must play it safe so as not to fail; however, nor can it cannot succeed, it just exists in constant state of mediocrity leading to a slow demise.

Many companies and management teams play it safe as they will still receive their compensation but not face risk. A recent McKinsey article suggested that companies should innovate more but behavioral bias is stopping them and they are too risk adverse (http://bit.ly/oC5XyU). Taking risk implies there will be failure, but often that growth and sometimes the failure can take the company in a new direction which was not anticipated leading to greater success. However, failing to take on risk stops the organization and its management growing. When they stop growing they lose the ability to adjust to change effectively and the ability to take risk, as behavior, is weaned out of the company. At time like that many companies try to buy their way out of trouble, acquiring new technologies and clients at excessive multiples which often just delays the death spiral. That is because the risk taking culture and learning through growth has gone, and so while the company adds products and clients, the underlying behavior doesn’t change so the decline continues.

Copyright 2011 Marc Borrelli