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Learn to recognize when it’s time to stretch yourself

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We made our reservations almost a year ago. It’s our destination for drinking in the grandeur and mountainous beauty of the most photographed sight in America, Grand Teton and Mount Moran in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.

Multiple generations of our family have traveled to the Tetons and the nearby city of Jackson Hole for 40 — yes, 40 — years. With boats moored on a glistening Jackson Lake in the foreground, sitting on the deck outside our rented cabin and watching the sun set behind the mountains is tranquility at its best. Although we have vacationed in several places over the years, visiting the Tetons has become a tradition and our ultimate comfort zone getaway.

When it comes to vacations or favorite places to go boating, many people have comfort zones and family traditions. Depending on the situation, traditions and comfort zones can be cherished or challenged. There’s the rub. When should cherishing end and challenge begin? When do comfort zones change from reliable options to change resistance?

Let’s apply the same thought to your management program and the market approach you’re using today. Are you stuck in your comfort zone? Have you been doing the same things year after year and wondering why you may not be growing your success as much as the other guy? Or worse, are you failing to question whether what you’re doing will merely hold revenue steady instead of helping you realize new sales gains?

Traditional actions can be rich with a soothing sense of familiarity. On the flip side, too much comfort holds you back and makes it hard to move forward. How can you tell the difference and know when to shift? How much challenge should you include in the mix to inspire sales expansion? Let’s explore a few strategies.

• Comfort zones and traditions to cherish: Pull out your favorite lakeside or seashore photo and think about when you first experienced the fun of water recreation. Estimates are that 80 percent of current boaters were exposed to boating as a child. On the inverse side, 80 percent of people who are not water recreation fans did not have access to it as a youngster.

The comfort zone associated with family boating, fishing or water sports is a huge positive in the parable of passing it on to the next generation. Targeting multigenerational boating preferences generates expanded revenue opportunities, as does providing family-friendly marinas and offering youth programs for fishing, sailing, water skiing and the like to lock in an evolving market at an early age.

Producing a database of youngsters engaged in these programs can be used to solidify interest and fill the pipeline for future sales, cultivating today’s boating kids as tomorrow’s paying customers. Knowing when tradition is part of a great management strategy is when it creates a continuous revenue rattle in the cash register, yet isn’t the only strategy you have. “The best men in all ages keep classic traditions alive,” said the philosopher and novelist George Santayana.

• Comfort zones to challenge: When things are terrific in your professional and personal life it’s easy to think the ride will last forever. Spoiler alert: It won’t. Reality bites. For managers who think success from their business traditions will solely sustain them for the long haul it’s time to wake up and smell the sea water.

Enter the S-curve, or Sigmoid curve. Have you heard of it? The Sigmoid curve (from “The Age of Paradox,” by Charles Handy) indicates how change affects product life cycles and also applies to anything where results and performance are tracked over time, including the measurement of change in your career or business.

On the S-curve (an S laid on its side on a graph) progress often starts slowly, followed by a point at which results begin to take off (the curve goes up), then growth reaches its limit and an inevitable decline begins to occur (the curve goes down). The key is to avoid the tough times associated with a declining curve and start innovating — taking on risks and challenges and breaking away from tradition — before the decline starts. To produce the opportunity for constant growth, managers must deliberately start a new curve before the first one runs out of steam.

What’s tricky is knowing when to start the new curve. Yes, it’s hard work. Here is also the paradox of change. The paradox is the art of knowing when to move to new technology, target a new market or use a new management approach for future growth when current success is telling you the opposite — namely, don’t change. (If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!)

Managers must continuously determine when to start the second curve while aggressively nurturing current revenue streams. Think of technology companies constantly bringing innovations to market — They know the S-curve inside out — or McDonald’s repeatedly challenging its standard menu by adding berry smoothies and lattes and arranging the periodic reappearance of the McRib sandwich. Yum!

Aging boating boomers represent a spot on the Sigmoid curve that points to a need for managers to make marketing and innovation shifts. Consider what Abraham Maslow, the American psychologist who developed the hierarchy of needs, had to say: “One can choose to go back toward safety or forward toward growth. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again.”

• Balancing comfort and discomfort: As a manager, how do you know how much tradition to keep while deciding how much challenge to take on? The balancing act includes managing the Sigmoid curve and keeping a keen eye on the market. Revisiting our Teton trip for a minute, the approach is similar to what we did while taking a hike on Signal Mountain. All of the trails were clearly marked with “Be Bear Aware” signs.

Although bears don’t appear every day, the awareness message meant constantly watching our inner and outer flanks and knowing how to react, should a bear encounter occur. The same ideas hold true for managing comfort zones and challenges. Keep watching what you’re already doing (inner flanks and comfort zone) while continuously scanning for growth and your next marketing shift (outer flanks and challenge).

What’s another way to tell whether you’re properly balancing comfort and risk? “If you’re feeling too comfortable most of the time you’re not challenging yourself enough” (Mary Elston). Hiking footnote: No bears were sighted, which was OK with us.

Comfort zones and challenges have their place in healthy, forward-looking management strategies. Managers in the boating industry must strategize and capture related short-term and long-range revenue opportunities. Just as visiting the Tetons is a tradition my family has handed down to the next generation, cross-generational sharing is also taking place in water recreation.

It’s a great idea to maintain some traditional revenue-generating methods while challenging yourself to search for new approaches — innovations that may involve change, taking calculated risks and pulling you out of your comfort zone. Every manager must make these ongoing shifts to continue moving ahead.

Why bother? You know the answer: If you’re not moving forward, you must be standing still.

Mary Elston has spent more than 20 years in management in the transportation, consulting and technology industries. She is a member of the National Speakers Association and author of the book, “Master Your Middle Management Universe, How to Succeed with Moga Moga Management Using 3 Easy Steps.” Contact her at

This article originally appeared in the August 2013 issue.



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