Creating Buoyant Organizations

Creating Buoyant Organizations

Lessons from lifeguards on knowing risks before jumping in.

few months ago, a 59-year-old man and his wife were walking their dog along a California beach when suddenly a rogue wave pulled the woman into the ocean. The man rescued his wife, but meanwhile, the dog was swept into the water. So the man went back and successfully rescued the dog, but he couldn’t get back to shore safely. The waves overtook him, and the Coast Guard found his body three hours later. His wife and dog survived, however, thanks to his heroic efforts.

When I talked about this event with a former lifeguard, I learned that, tragically, situations like this happen often, which is why lifeguards are trained to assess the risks involved when attempting to rescue a drowning person before jumping in to save them. For example, if the person is in a pool, lifeguards generally are supposed to throw in a floatation device or use a hook instead of jumping in to grab the struggling person. If the person is in a lake or the ocean where a hook or flotation device won’t reach, lifeguards are trained to minimize the risk that the drowning person could pull them under.

It’s a little like a leader, star product or division, or company that’s drowning, going under. For a myriad of reasons, a CEO might have trouble leading, a historically successful product or division may see declining revenue, or an entire company might be caught in a death spiral.

Usually, the first reaction is to jump into the water to save the victim without properly assessing the situation. Sometimes boards of directors chalk up a CEO’s poor performance to bad luck or changing market conditions that are out of the CEO’s control. When it’s a favorite product or division, more resources are usually pumped into it in a last-ditch effort at resuscitation. And when the whole company is drowning, the one(s) with the most to lose will sacrifice almost everything—all available company resources, personal finances, time away from family, emotional well-being—to rescue their “dog.”

Markets Are Dynamic; Nothing Lasts Forever

The odds are against long track records of success. Strategies burn out. New competition pops up to challenge the leaders. Technology becomes obsolete. Success breeds comfort and complacency.

So don’t get caught off-guard and react with a knee-jerk response at the first sign of drowning. Rather, anticipate that failure will eventually come your way—and be prepared for it. I’ve seen too many situations where panic dominated the decision-making. A bonus: When you anticipate surprises, your organization also will be less likely to hide bad news, distort the truth, or cover up with financial shell games. Denying that a drowning product, division, or leader exists can be fatal. Facing the first sign of trouble when a leader, for example, may be in over his head, and then dealing with it head-on, offers the best chance of resuscitation.

Build Organizational Buoyance

Just as lifeguards are trained to use equipment and techniques to save a drowning person, business leaders can use tools and techniques to create buoyancy within their corporate culture. I’m talking about values that are bigger than individual needs or aspirations, such as accountability, teamwork, collaboration, and an action-oriented outlook: “So we’ve hit a rough spot, but we will survive. Drowning is not an option!” When the leaders purposefully build culture, processes, and systems that support collaboration, respect, and commitment, they can respond with calm buoyancy instead of panic when surprise hits.

Live to Talk About It

Think about how young children learn to swim. I’ve watched my grandchildren happily paddle around the shallow area of the pool until one day they go a little too far. Their head goes under and they quickly learn how to kick their legs and move their hands and arms. No matter how many times parents tell their young children to stay away from the deeper area, it seems that every child has to learn the hard way before they understand.

Adults, it seems, have the same trouble. We don’t learn nearly as much from success or lessons in business school as we learn from our own mistakes and failures. One of the most successful CEOs in recent history, A.G. Lafley, former CEO of Procter & Gamble, was recently interviewed by Harvard Business Review. It was a fascinating article, but what stood out was his remark about failure. He said that his failures were “all part of my growth and development.” His viewpoint was that learning from failure is like Darwin’s theories on evolution—when you stop learning, you stop developing and you stop growing. “That’s the end of a leader,” he says.

So before you risk it all, take a step back and ask yourself and others involved to reflect on what can be learned. Sometimes it may be that we give ourselves too much credit when success was really due to events or market forces beyond our control. Sometimes our brilliance makes us think we don’t need to change anything, ever. And sometimes success makes us not ask tough questions or take appropriate precautions—such as “No Diving: Shallow Water”!

Freud is said to have explained the difference between fear and anxiety by noting that anxiety is when you irrationally react to a stick, thinking it is a dangerous snake, while fear is when you react appropriately to a dangerous snake. In other words, anxiety is dysfunctional but healthy fear causes you to be aware of dangerous situations. Appropriate fear of failure means we anticipate trouble, create buoyancy, and learn from mistakes. Viewing failure as a normal part of doing business and developing the right perspective to handle surprises will help increase the odds of living to tell about it.

Mark W. Sheffert ( is founder, chairman and CEO of Manchester Companies, Inc., a Minneapolis-based performance improvement, board governance, and litigation advisory firm.