Moving Through Chaos

What we learn about ourselves during crises is critical to an organization’s long-term growth
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I have been in the marine industry for more than three decades. So far, 2020 has been about as crazy a year as I can remember: the Covid-19 pandemic, massive social unrest and, as I write this, a Saharan dust storm approaching my home state of Florida. And it’s hurricane season. All we need now is an alien invasion.

Despite good May and June retail sales, our industry has had it particularly tough with Covid-19. The National Marine Manufacturers Association reports that 81 percent of marine businesses have been hurt, with estimated economic loss for our industry at more than $20 billion.

There was no playbook for a pandemic, so we have been writing it as we go. Lessons from history are important, but sometimes it is hard to know what lessons to apply to an event we have not previously experienced. Fortunately, we have a collegial industry and many of us have been working to help one another; business rivalries have been pushed aside for the industry’s greater good.

During a time like this, a leader’s first job is to do what is necessary to save the ship. Most leaders get this, so they have been trying to do that while being empathetic to concerns of employees, dealers, vendors and, of course, customers. Some have had to make tough decisions in this very tough year.

What may be less intuitive to many leaders is understanding that a crisis is a huge opportunity to improve. Our team has seen 2020 as an opportunity to reset and make several years’ worth of changes in a short time. As most smart companies have done, we have used the crisis to make changes in our organization and cost structure that will benefit our company for the long term.

During the Great Recession about a decade ago, we made changes to our company that resulted in nine straight record years of growth and profitability. While we would never ask for it, a crisis is an opportunity to improve.

Also, as leaders, we have all been reminded that it is critical to have a great team we can count on. At Correct Craft, our employees are almost all better at their jobs than I could ever be. Investing in a great team when things are good really pays off when things are tough.

We have seen who the fighter pilots are on our team. We have learned who moves toward the problem, who runs from the problem, and who freezes. We have learned who sees crisis as bigger than themselves and who sees themselves as bigger than the crisis. We have figured out who views it as an opportunity to make the company better — much better.

Most important, as leaders, we have learned a lot about ourselves. We have learned whether we can motivate and energize in a crisis, whether we can provide clarity and reassurance, and whether we can be empathetic at a time when many people are concerned.

It is great to learn these things, but it is much more important and valuable to apply these learnings to make our organizations and us better. Looking forward, it is critical that we use what we have learned to improve and ensure that we don’t need to learn the lessons again.

Know that Crisis will Come

One of the biggest mistakes I have seen people make over the years is to assume that because the economic environment is great, it will stay that way. Crisis is a regularly occurring event. World War I, the Spanish Flu that killed up to 50 million people, the stock market crash, the Great Depression, World War II, pandemics of the 1950s and ’60s, social unrest in the ’60s, inflation, the oil embargo, sky-high interest rates, the first Gulf War, Y2K, 9/11, the Great Recession and, finally, 2020 all make it hard to find a decade in the past century without a major crisis. Yet somehow, it is easy for leaders to think this time it’s different. It is never different. We need to be prepared, always, for challenges.

Have a Crisis Plan

More than a year ago, we started developing an economic downturn plan with a financial model to help us understand how we needed to react when the next recession occurred. We didn’t expect a pandemic, but the plan we developed was useful when Covid-19 struck. Our plan helped us react quickly instead of trying to figure out what we needed to do.

Think Ahead

As leaders, we always need to be looking out on the horizon to prepare our companies for the future. This skill comes naturally to some leaders and is challenging for others. Leaders who are enamored with details often have a hard time looking years ahead, creating a blind spot that can be a big risk for their organizations. Leaders who are not wired to look forward usually also have a hard time delegating that responsibility because to them, it seems like the kind of thing the leader should do. Leaders who are not naturally wired to look out into the future, but who also have the self-awareness to realize the shortcoming, take the necessary steps to ensure that someone in their organization has a forward-thinking perspective.

Expect Big Changes

In the next 10 years, we will see more changes than we have in our industry up to this point. The changes will primarily be technology driven, and will affect all areas of our businesses. The changes will create great abundance, but also will cause great disruption. There will be boating companies, but not the same ones we have today; most companies will have a difficult, almost impossible time making the required changes. All of today’s boating companies have the opportunity to adjust, but most won’t because we get trapped by our own thinking. Leaders who do not consistently feel like they are outside their comfort zone should beware. They may not see the tsunami of change coming their way.

Throughout my career, I have seen that crisis and change provide the best leaders an extraordinary opportunity to move their organizations forward. The best leaders embrace these situations and take their companies to new heights. That is the way forward. 

This article originally appeared in the August 2020 issue.

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