What has it felt like to manage a business through the pandemic? I’ve been asked once or twice.
I am not sure I have ever been able to accurately describe it. I am still not sure I can. Collectively, as an industry, we have all rallied together and supported one another and so we continue to share stories and experiences along the journey. It has helped.
Currently in hotel quarantine and with time to ponder, I thought I might sit down and put some thoughts together about it. I enjoy the process of writing. It has been therapeutic to me. It continues to help me shape my approach, personally and professionally, to achieve some clarity in thought. I like to document how I think and sometimes, perhaps most importantly, it enables me to establish a position and then communicate it clearly and honestly to my staff.
I am a big believer in the power of storytelling as a tool for communication. I have an analogy for how I would describe the challenge of running a business like mine, in the current landscape. It is surfing. We aren’t all surfers, including me, but most of us Australians have spent a little bit of time around a surf beach I reckon. As a young boy I spent hours and hours in the surf. Many of our weekends and most of our family holidays were spent by the beach and in the surf. I have never been much of a standup surfer, more a bodyboarder (lazy man surfing), but either way I have learnt to watch and read the surf.
I remember reading somewhere, when describing business, how important it is to know when you are on the right wave. To capitalise on it, enjoy it in the moment, rather than looking for another one. This description feels really tangible to me. I feel like I have always been a reasonable surfer (in a business sense) and have managed to ride a few nice waves. However, when I look back, have I truly stood up and enjoyed the wave in the moment, rather than look out the back for the next wave. Not always.
When I think about the past 17 months in several industries, but certainly events, there haven’t been too many waves. A good day in the surf, like a good period in business, is where there are plenty of waves, more than there are surfers I reckon. You can catch a wave, enjoy it, and then know that when you turn and paddle back out, there will be another one shortly after. Even if there isn’t, the water is warm, the sun is out and you can enjoy the time between sets.
Right now, the water is cold, and there we are, bobbing around in the ocean, whilst the sharks circle, trying to read the swell and position ourselves for the next wave. Sometimes aimlessly, but in a bid to keep warm, we paddle around. Then we get a bit tired, so we go back to bobbing around. Then, suddenly, there is some movement. A potential wave. You scramble onto your board frantically, and you paddle to where you think you might be able to catch the wave. It is small, you already know that. On better days you know you wouldn’t even bother paddling for it. But today, in messy, choppy, on-shore conditions, you have to try and grab what you can get. The swell sort of begins to grow, it looks promising, you turn toward the shore, back to the wave, and paddle and kick like mad, you put your head down and grit your teeth, throwing everything you have at it. The wave continues to roll and then the promise turns to despair, again, as you roll off the back of it. You watch the wave carry on to the beach and in hindsight you wonder why you spent so much energy trying to attack a wave which was barely there. Another opportunity proves fruitless. It’s a desperate day.
Despite the poor conditions there are plenty of surfers in the water here at your break. Usually they are at another beach enjoying their own break, but when the waves aren’t breaking elsewhere, they are here. You look each other in the eye, weary and a bit tired, a half-grin through chattering teeth, the wetsuit not quite sheltering you from the cold like it usually does. You are both surfers, so you have an inherent understanding, and an enthusiasm for what you do and love. But it’s competitive, because the conditions are near impossible to read. There is little to no consistency and you want to ensure that, somehow, when that wave comes, you can catch it.
After a long session without reward, you are growing tired. The cold is setting in. Even on the cold days, usually, you have mates you are surfing with. The conditions might not always be perfect but whilst you bob around, you can tell the stories of the big wave days, which keep you warm, and motivated. But many of them have given it away. They have moved to another beach, or to another sport or pastime. Some have suffered a fate more grim.
In the water I have never been much of a swimmer, in terms of speed. But I have stamina, strength and a decent set of lungs. As a swimmer I make a good survivor. It’s a relevant way to describe my business sitting in the surf. It has been built to survive. I have always been quite capable of reading the waves and I have a surfboard which is generally good for most conditions. I have been able to position myself for the right wave, or to choose to miss a wave because it would close out. I also generally choose wisely when I pull out of a wave, recognising an impending wipeout.
In the current conditions it is near impossible to read the surf. It doesn’t matter what surfboard you are using – short, long, fast, slow. And my patience, like my wetsuit… is wearing thin. On a good day surfing, like being on events, it can be exhilarating. Without the waves, you question the purpose. I like the water but it might be time to put the surfboard away for a while and try and find some warmer water.