Life isn’t always a beach
by Sarah VanDervort
Last weekend, I attempted wake boarding for the first time. While I am comfortable kayaking, paddle boarding, boogie boarding, and even surfing, I have never engaged in water activities behind a moving boat beyond just hanging on. I have never water skied. My parents did not have a boat or, more preferably, have friends that had a boat. But I have good core strength and am willing to try new things. So when we went out on the boat with some friends, and he asked if I was going to try wake boarding, I said sure. I got a little concerned because the person I watched doing it appeared to be an expert and rode the board with his left foot front. For surfers and skaters, this is normal placement. But I am goofy footed – so I ride my surfboard with my right foot front. I voiced my concern to our friend who reassured me that his whole family was goofy footed and that it didn’t matter for wake boarding. I put on a PFD (safety first), strapped myself into the boots on the board, and fell backwards into the water. Our friend gave me some quick instructions, I got sense of what my body was doing in relation to the board, grabbed a hold of the rope, and waited for the boat to start moving.
I failed at wake boarding the first try. I failed in the same fashion the second try. I failed a little bit better the third, fourth, and sixth tries, and I failed the best the fifth try, getting my feet under me and technically getting “up.” I got back in the boat. I watched the expert again, and realized that in trying to stay “loose,” I let my arms straighten with the rope. Unfortunately, I did not get back into the water, and I’ve been left with the sense that I know what I want to try next to try to be successful, but I have not had the opportunity. I also have not watched the videos that documented my failures, although I want to. I have been told they aren’t close enough for me to evaluate my posture or stance, but I bet they’re funny, — and if I can’t laugh at myself being flipped and flopped through the water strapped to a rigid board, then I have bigger problems than not being able to wake board.
Reflecting on this exercise during the couple of days my forearms were ridiculously sore, I was reminded of how frequently managers and supervisors fail to truly incorporate a new leadership concept into their daily practice. People want to improve; people want to try new things to make themselves successful. They attend training or conferences or watch speakers and they take back things they want to try. They make a conscious effort – daily journaling as a productivity exercise, getting out of their office and talking to their employees, or shutting down their Outlook and really focusing on their work. Oftentimes, forays into new and unchartered territory at work fails the first time we try it. We watch managers try something and it not go the way they expected. We watch them try again with a similar result. We watch them try again, — but then they get caught back up in the whirlwind of activity through an urgent email from their boss or awkward responses from their employees. And they don’t pick it back up. They rate the experience – and thus the method – a failure and revert to their status quo behaviors. Rather than assessing the failure to their incorporation, they assess it to the entire method because it wasn’t easy or didn’t seem natural the very first time they tried.
If management and leadership courses were graded the way a finance course might be graded, would managers give up so easily? If they treated those softer skills with the diligence they apply to learning a new software program or about a new way to deliver their service, would they write the newly learned method off? Imagine if we applied this approach to implementing new technology? “Well, there were a few errors in the first run, so we are going to scrap the idea of a wireless data solution.” Imagine if we applied the same approach to a crying baby? “Well, it still cried after a bottle, a diaper, and a snuggle, so I’m just going to return it.” It sounds comical, — and I know that most managers get caught up in the day to day routine of their work and don’t make a conscious decision to abandon the newly learned idea, — but that is what happens. Change requires conscious effort, day in and day out. When we work to implement changes in the way we interact with our work and our employees, it requires us to evaluate the various ways and times we fail and try to make adjustments to make it work.
When our leadership or management style is out of sync with our employees’ needs, it is up to us to change rather than expecting our employees to just deal with it. If we repeatedly cancel meetings with our direct reports because of “fires” that seem to take over our calendars, we are letting the urgent deliver the message that we do not prioritize our employees as important. When we are unable to build relationships with our employees because we’re always in our offices on calls or reviewing reports, we have no way of knowing what they are thinking or what concerns may be getting in the way of their productivity. When we spend the time we actually make for our employees constantly looking at each email, text, or phone call, our distraction reminds them they are not the most important thing we have going on right then. This is why management and leadership training exists and why people can make so much money going from company to company selling different ways to improve leadership and bring “sanity” to the workplace. These speakers, writers, and consultants will always have an audience until people give the same diligence to incorporating what they’ve learned about leadership and interpersonal relationships as they do more concrete skills or techniques. This is a huge cultural shift for most companies, because I haven’t met an executive who would be accepting of the response “I had my Outlook shut down and my phone turned off because I was meeting with an employee” if they had a little emergency that didn’t get an immediate response… but when a company brings in training for their leaders to help them become better leaders, they must also commit to the space for the leaders to incorporate the learnings.
I don’t like failure. It’s been hard to incorporate leadership and productivity tips into my day-to-day routine, and I fail on a regular basis, but then I try to turn the page and try again. Some things truly are not my style and do not prove helpful. Others, just require me to adjust my approach and try again. I’ve been antsy to try wake boarding again, — I need to see what adjustment I will need to make if I keep my arms bent while I get pulled into or across the water. I probably won’t master wake boarding, but I know I will continue to try until I fail so spectacularly that I become YouTube famous or until I can get up and ride the wake for at least a few seconds. Failure when you’re doing something new is expected, — but we can’t just sit in the boat enjoying a beer and wondering what would happen if you tried again, — we must strap ourselves in and fall backwards into the water again.