Keep an eye on the horizon for changes that could impact your business

About 20 years ago, my family went on a houseboating trip with my in-laws to Lake Powell. If you aren’t familiar with Lake Powell, it’s a reservoir on the Colorado River that spans the borders of Arizona and Utah. It’s an incredibly beautiful, almost surreal landscape of crystal-clear water against a red-rocked, desert canyon reminiscent of every Western you’ve seen. It is visually stunning, very hot and very dry.

Our first afternoon on the houseboat was windy, and we were having difficulty finding a place to tie up for the night. Finally, we found an imperfect but good enough spot, and my father-in-law, husband and his brother proceeded to get stakes into the ground. As my father-in-law worked to drive a stake into the dusty, sandy soil deep enough to hold, I noticed a tumbleweed about 100 yards away. It was caught in the wind, bouncing up into the air and falling gently down, bouncing a few feet before being caught on a gust, spinning back up into the air. As I watched it, I swept my eyes from the tumbleweed to my father-in-law and then back again. There was a straight line between him and this tumbleweed.

Yelling, “Look out!” seemed silly, as this thing was lazily bouncing through the air a football field away. So, I went back into the cabin of the boat to do whatever I was doing. About 10 minutes later, I hear this scream, “Argggh!” and in walks my father-in-law, bleeding from his arm and hand.

“Oh my God! What happened?” I asked.

“A tumbleweed got me.”

This oft-repeated family story gets funnier with each retelling. But recently, I’ve realized it’s also an apt metaphor for so much of what we face as business leaders. There are tumbleweeds everywhere, and the question often isn’t if you will be hit, but when. Some tumbleweeds are so big they demand attention, as they may represent an existential threat. Among them: Four generations in the workforce with wildly divergent work habits, communication styles and motivations, technology evolving faster than our ability to adapt or leverage effectively, wage pressure and the rising cost of benefits, and the widening skills gap.

We know these issues exist and we know they are headed right toward us. Yet we can’t run our businesses solving problems that have evolved over decades, problems that we don’t know when or how they will affect our business. So, what can we do?

We can start by watching their progress. You can’t solve every problem immediately, nor should you try to. Some issues need to emerge specifically to determine solutions. But you can plan your reaction using “what-if” scenarios. Just like with my father-in-law, I could’ve yelled “Watch out!” when the tumbleweed was 50 yards away, but it would have been better to keep an eye on it and plan a reaction if it maintained its trajectory.

We can also measure the distance. Does this particular tumbleweed hit in the next six months, or do we have three years? The more time you have, the more incremental your pivot can be.

Finally, scan the horizon. Some issues won’t impact your business for years, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t already affected other industries. Pay attention to how other businesses are responding to inform your own strategy.

We can learn to identify threats from a distance, make small moves to decrease the likelihood of a direct impact and integrate what we identify into our strategic plans. We can be aware.

Or we can get hit by a tumbleweed, and trust me, it will leave a mark.

Jennifer Ake-Marriott is President & CEO of Redmond Waltz – an industrial repair company in Cleveland’s St. Clair-Superior neighborhood.

Jennifer Ake-Marriott

President & CEO


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