EVERYTHING I EVER NEEDED TO KNOW ABOUT BUSINESS I LEARNED RIDING MOTORCYCLES
By Anita Ward, President, Operation HOPE
When I was 12 I drove my first motorcycle into a tree at the bottom of State Road hill. Bruised and embarrassed I stared up at the sky through rustling leaves laughing in the wind.
Undeterred, I returned to the top of the hill and tried again. A few hours later I was hooked on the sound, the feel, and the Steve McQueen-rebelliousness that only a motorcycle can deliver. I drove that Honda 50, a few dirt bikes and my Dad’s Sportster in the Pennsylvania woods and the Las Vegas desert until boys, heels, college, and cars transformed my passion for motorcycles into memories of younger years.
I rediscovered my past and my passion in the form of a Harley-Davidson FXR2. Custom metallic red paint, faded purple letters, lots of chrome, and 1340 cc’s restored my attitude and my youth. The responses to my new bike were predictable. My friends worried about my mid-life crisis and my fantasies of Jesse James. My Italian mother cried about my responsibilities and my four-year-old son. But my Dad – he was great – he fired up his Buell and planned our rides.
To appease my Mother, to silence my critics, and to avoid any lurking trees, I enrolled in a two-day Motorcycle Safety Foundation Course (MSF). As fate would have it that weekend proved to be more than a reduction on my insurance premium. It was a two-day Ivy League business practicum. A V-twin engine and a Safety instructor provided leadership lessons that I will never forget … respond tactically and execute strategically using five best practices represented by the acronym, SIPDE.
Who said leadership and management training can’t be fun?
The first practice for safe riding is to constantly Scan (S) the landscape and horizon. The rider learns to keep looking around, never focusing on an object for more than 2 seconds. Look ahead. Look to the side. Look in your mirror. Keep looking. Focus on the imminent, on threats that loom in the next 4 seconds. At the same time, always look beyond the immediate to avoid any approaching dangers. A biker is focused on the now, but is always scanning 12 to 14 seconds in front of his current position.
The practice of constant Scanning is an important business concept to master. Effective leaders concentrate on the equivalent “next 4 seconds” in business, but continually look ahead, around, beside and behind. In the immediate, they scan the competitive threats, avoid near-term adversities and deal with tactical issues. For the future, they scan well in front of their present position. Great leaders scrutinize the business landscape ahead of them, identify hidden threats and capture strategic opportunities as they appear.
Scanning, whether you are a biker or a leader, must be outwardly focused and broad enough to encompass the entire field of vision. There are many tragic examples of companies that have failed to scan. They fixated on the near-term, on boosting next quarter earnings, or on reducing expenses exclusively. A rider sacrifices his limbs and life; a business sacrifices its long-term viability.
After Scanning, a rider must identify (I) – pick out both threats and opportunities. Things happen fast on the road. Cars that weren’t visible a few seconds ago suddenly appear. Street conditions unexpectedly present their own dangers: gravel, potholes, and slick spots. Even the changing weather can be a threat. Every good rider must identify an opportunity – an alternate route to circumvent any impending obstacle or danger.
In business, there are many examples of companies that failed to identify threats. Retailers ignored the onslaught of Amazon. Traditional restaurateurs failed to identify the success of fast food chains and self-service. The education, music and publishing industries failed to identify the impact of the Internet. Without identification and a flexible response, companies lose the financial, intellectual and emotional resources necessary to combat an unanticipated threat.
Change always presents new threats and opportunities to all businesses: digitization, globalization, individualism, speed, and shifts in demographics. Identifying threats must be balanced with identifying opportunities; defender strategies need the counterbalance of attacker strategies. The effective leader, like the safe biker, must have an alternative roadmap for navigating around impending dangers.
The third best practice, Predict (P), may be the most difficult because it requires both data and intuition. In a matter of seconds, a motorcyclist must assess the impact of identified threats and opportunities. The biker has to predict correctly what will happen, or face the pavement (literally) if a danger is ignored. Riding day-to-day reinforced this lesson for me. By constantly scanning the landscape and identifying the threats, I am better able to predict a driver who decides to change lanes without looking, as easily as I can see the reckless Fast and Furious wannabes. Sometimes, I don’t even see the danger, but I intuitively know it is there. Relying on the intuition that comes with experience, especially when there is no data to support it, is the most important lesson I learned.
Predicting also means searching for factors that might lead to trouble. One of my favorite rides is in Maui where the twists and turns in the road make for wonderful biking and incredible panoramas. It’s also a ride where many variables combine to create a bit of risk: a rented Harley that needs getting used to, tourists on unfamiliar roads rushing to get to the rainforest, dramatic turns at 90 degrees where nothing can be seen coming around that corner, sharp cliffs without barriers, and my own love of Hawaii, its lush landscape and beautiful rainbows. Predicting these risks and managing them amidst all of the distractions is critical to a safe ride.
Incorrect business predictions have similar results. A leader can find himself on the pavement too if an identified risk is ignored, or predicted inaccurately. Time, money, credibility, and trust are lost when the leader fails to predict. Leaders need to sense changes and shifts on the horizon. They need to dismiss their assumptions, recognize emerging patterns and develop strategies to shape their companies to leverage those shifts in business realities.
Prediction is difficult. How many of our industries underestimated the impact of international markets … missed the reliance on relationships … didn’t see the shift to multiple supply chains and the distribution of innovation? Are we prepared for new relationships, cultures and societies? Have we identified the threats and opportunities? Have we predicted the outcomes? Measurement systems and a deliberate process for using them are fundamental to prediction. However, the prediction cannot be abdicated to a system, which in itself can be flawed. The leader must rely on intuition and experience to complement the measurements and data. Scenarios must be evaluated and tested quickly to enable a company to move forward.
After scanning, identifying and predicting, a biker must then Decide (D) what course to choose to avoid the threat, or to seize the opportunity. My actions on the bike are similar to my actions as a leader. Sometimes I decide to slow down in order to avoid a threat. Other times, my choice is to accelerate, follow the crowd, or employ the “Maui strategy” … pull over, wait and enjoy the view.
Deciding means transcending old habits and choosing the appropriate course for the situation. For many years I always chose to speed up, no matter what the context. If a crazy pit bull emerged from the trees, I accelerated. If the rain cloud broke, I accelerated. If a patch of gravel appeared, I accelerated. When that 1969 Yenko Camaro tried to pass me, I accelerated. Doing it faster replaced doing it differently for me.
Many executives believe in this acceleration strategy too. Unfortunately, they are doing the same things, only faster. Even after cautiously scanning, identifying and predicting, deciding can be compromised. Daily temptations can distract from a long-term plan, and short-term excuses can supplant strategic decisions. Businesses decide to sacrifice a little quality to earn more cash, and compromise their strategy, values and brand in the process. While I remain addicted to speed, I now realize that decisiveness is best complemented by flexibility and responsiveness to changing conditions.
Peter Drucker once advised business leaders to use decision making as an opportunity to communicate. With every decision, a leader makes clear his direction, values, and mission. MSF advises safe bikers to do the same. They need to be visible, always making it apparent to other drivers where they are and what they are going to do. With each decision, a biker is saying, “here I am”. With each decision, an executive is saying, “here’s where we are going”.
Most leaders have little trouble figuring out what to do. The challenge is doing it. Execute (E) is the fifth MSF practice. After making the decision, a safe biker acts based on the threats and opportunities. The conditions on a motorcycle are often life and death; execution requires courage. On a curving road with no visibility, solid execution can save your life. There is no time to rethink and over-analyze your decision. A good motorcyclist reduces risk factors by thinking (S I) before acting, and by considering (P) the consequences of actions. Mental preparation helps. Risks on the road can’t be eliminated, but they can be managed.
Thousands of business books and careers have been dedicated to finding the Holy Grail of execution when all this time the Motorcycle Safety Foundation had the answer. At the end of the second day, it was time to test my newly acquired skills. I had scanned, identified and predicted everything on my course test, and decided to make the turn. At that moment, something came toward me. I wobbled. I hesitated. I nearly laid my bike down. But, in fractions of a second my logic kicked in, and I found the courage to remain committed to my decision. I executed as planned. It was just a distraction.
It was then that my epiphany occurred: everything I ever needed to know about being effective in business I learned riding motorcycles.
Execution in business was no different than what I had just experienced. Leaders are tested continuously. What is the mission? The strategy? Is there alignment? Are the plans developed? What are the risks? The contingencies? In the midst of these questions and challenges, a leader must execute. The most formidable obstacle to strategic execution is courage. Many leaders lack the courage to stay the course, remain committed and follow through on a strategy. Other agendas emerge as distractions and lacking the courage of his convictions, the leader waivers. Decisions languish and brilliant strategies remain unexecuted plans.
After two days of intense instruction, I no longer drive into trees and I always look toward where I want to go. I’ve given up on Jesse James, but I still hold out hope for a certain man to ride with me in Maui. Friends continue to worry about my “crisis” and my inconceivable obsession with the FXR2. Empirically I know that taking the course made me a safer biker. Intuitively I know that taking the course made me a better leader. Most importantly, taking the course reminded me of the adventure, the journey, and a shared leadership path.