You know you’re having a good day when you can get away at lunch to work on your golf swing. You know it’s a great day when you’re hitting high and straight. One day a couple of weeks ago was such a day for me; it was about time. It was already May, and I’d spent very little time on the range or links. My game isn’t so robust that it survives the hiatus well. I was complaining to my husband about how I can’t believe how difficult it is to hit my newly re-engineered (thanks, coach…) swing consistently. I mean, I worked hard all summer last year nailing a consistent handicap. His comment was merely, “Well, you haven’t really been playing much have you?” No joke! But I expected a little more muscle memory of the things I was doing right before! And, I HAD been on the range half a dozen times since my last lesson!
Muscle Memory. It’s a real godsend when you have it: a bear when you don’t. As my coach pointed out, the changes she made require learning new muscle AND mental memory. Executive leadership is like that. By the time we get to the C-Suite, we’ve carved deep grooves of experience-based competencies and habits that help us do our job. The problem is, some of those deep grooves are ruts. We are not completely unaware of those bad imprints and the need to erase them. It’s just that we work on them during spurts when we feel it necessary. Kind of like my golf swing and summer. We get out of practice. So how do we reduce the risk of the inevitable backtracking? In golf we have the practice range. In business there is no such thing. Or is there?
There are a few tools that are good proxies for the range. One: Slow Down. I’ve really worked on slowing down my back swing. In fact, I sometimes stop it just to see if everything is aligned before swinging down and forward. It’s not easy, but it’s possible to slow down during the business day, and there are tools to help with that. An alarm. An app. A calendar modification. Every few years I realize the power of this and deploy one or more of these tools. Two: Look in the Mirror. The second practice tip my pro has insisted upon is standing in front of a full length mirror while I swing. It is humbling. My knees really did that? The mirror helps us see what we can’t. Journaling is a very good mirror. It’s incredibly valuable to write about what’s working and what’s not. It doesn’t even have to be lengthy. My father kept all sorts of journals. Sometimes he just wrote a line or two about his day spent running a business, leading a bank board and running City Council meetings. Psychologists tell us that the process of physically writing impacts our brain in remarkable, behavior-modifying ways. More interestingly, perhaps powerfully, is reviewing what we have read in the past. It is a quick personalized refresher of your past practices. You’ll be surprised that you can read a year-old journal and find you were struggling with some of the same things you face today. The good news is that you also read about how you worked your way out of those challenges.
Three: Engage a mentor/coach. A regularly scheduled session with someone whose job is to keep you getting better and better forces you to slow down or stop. That person is the mirror reflecting your practices: what you said you would do, what you did, and how it went. That person can be an expert in what you do for a living; leading and governing organizations in a way that drives measurable performance.
Yes that was a good day. I found a quick way to get in 20 minutes of hitting balls in the middle of the day, and it’s working. But I will continue to stick with the mirror and the golf coach.
Several years ago I was walking down the street in Westport with a friend and passed a cigar bar that was overflowing with suits home from the City. My friend said, “If only I could figure out a way to short this.” He was right. Only the markets didn’t figure out until a decade later just how unsustainable these excesses were. Is it the fault of irresponsible banks, or irresponsible consumers and home buyers, or a Fed that veered from its charter into preserving market stability? It matters not. We who run and advise businesses must manage around the wreckage that is volatility.
So, how do we do that? The markets and the weather have reached new heights of volatility that confound even the best fund managers and meteorologists. We do that by realizing that volatility is the one thing we can count on. We must give up the illusion of our own predicting ability prowess. It’s no coincidence that quarterly earning estimates are becoming a thing of the past. Or that so many companies have gone private… to the place where business decisions can be made outside the spotlight of a street who excels at spreadsheets but can fail to appreciate what it takes to operationalize plans.
We who run and advise businesses must execute on plans presuming volatility at every turn. We must build in flexibility at every chance we can get. Presumed volatility must become a part of our enterprise risk management. It must become the way we manage every line item on the P&L. I call this going long volatility. Or shorting predictability.