Lessons I Learned from Waterskiing that Apply to Business


A champion skier once told me a few things that have stuck with me:

  • slalom skiing is very easy, you set your position, accelerate across the wake, slow the ski down turn around the buoy and repeat six times;
  • a dedicated ski boat’s V8 engine will always beat you in a tug of war no matter how strong you are; and
  • where your eyes go, your body will follow.

How does these relate to business?

Something that is repeatable

First, many things in business appear “easy” and repeatable, but to succeed you have to do them well. However, not everything is as easy as it appears; many hours of practice have been done so that it looks effortless. Watch Steve Jobs give a presentation – it seems effortless, few or no slides, no notes and he captivates the audience. Why? Because he practices each presentation until he gets right and appearing effortless.  Many sports pros believe that you need to do something 10,000 times to be able to do it effortlessly. To quote an old golfer:

“The more I practice, the luckier I get.”  Garry Player

Many top sportsmen claim that when they reach a certain point of proficiency, time seems to slow down. This because the body and brain are so in tune with what is being done, the brain has the ability to take in other outside stimuli. Therefore practice the things you want to do well until they are second nature and you can see what else is happening in the market, rather than just focusing on those things that have to be done.

Furthermore, not only do you have to do something exceeding well through practice, but you have to be able to do all the steps of the process as well. Using the skiing example above, if you cannot slow the ski down, it becomes irrelevant on well you can set your position and cross the wake as you will end up coming into the buoy later and later as you go down the course, and eventually not be able to complete it. You have to do all the steps well, and it is better to do all of them at a good level of proficiency rather than one exceedingly well but the rest mediocrely. To quote the old adage, “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link!” I once worked with a company that had one of the best Merger and Acquisitions due diligence teams I had ever come across and they knew all there was to know about the target; however, their integration process was very weak. As a result, few of their deals ever realized the expected benefits.

In the current business environment, corporations have downsized and let many of the employees go, giving more work to the remaining employees. What is becoming apparent is that current corporate employees are overwhelmed with the load of work they have, they don’t have time to look up and see what is happening in the market around them or think strategically. As a result, the company’s ability to anticipate and adjust to changes is diminished and one can expect them to face much larger problems in the future

Don’t fight a battle you cannot win.

It is true, you cannot beat the boat in a tug of war, so don’t try. The success in skiing comes from setting the right position and using the acceleration as the boat pulls you to increase your angle of attack to the next boy. If your position is not set or you get pulled out of position, you cannot pull your way back. Thus understand the power the boat has and use it efficiently to achieve your goals. In business, understand what variables you can and can’t influence, and focus on the ones you can influence. If your competitor has developed a production process which produces the product for a price you cannot match, don’t tie your company in knots trying to match that price. Rather develop a sustainable competitive advantage that takes price out of the equation and focus on that. The best example I have seen of this is a local wealth management firm which differentiates itself not on it performance (since most wealth management companies have similar performance) but on tying financial goals to life goals. In this case their competitors have a hard time competing as financial performance is has been removed from the equation.

Look where you want to go

Finally, this lesson I have found applies across all sports. When trick skiing or jumping look up not down otherwise you will find your body quickly heading down into the water. In slalom skiing you need to look ahead of the buoys since you want to start turning before you reach them. If you look directly at them, you will ski right up to them and then be out of position to turn. In business, you need to look at the end goal at all times. There are many things that will arise during the course of business which are very important and require a response; however, look at them and determine their relevance to the company and its end goals. The best way that I have found to do this is as follows:

  • Does this item impact our sustainable competitive advantage (“SCA”). An SCA are those activities which provide high value to the customer and a strong ability to beat competitors. If the item doesn’t impact the SCA, it may be important, but it is not essential;
  • Will our client’s care about its resolution? If not, the again its importance is diminished and it moves further down the list; and
  • What impact will it make on our goals or Key Performance Indicators? This helps us rank it among all the other priorities.

Thus practice, practice, practice is the key. Keep practicing all steps of your processes until the firm very proficient at all of them.  Know what battles you can win and where you can’t change the dynamic that removes your weakness from the equation. Finally focus on where you want to go, and don’t get distracted by the daily issues that arise.