by Larry Sharp
I was recently driving through Tucson, Arizona and decided to go out of my way and visit the famed airplane graveyard in the desert. Hundreds of planes are parked there because it is a safe, dry place. Many will never fly again but many are still very useful; it is just that there is no market for them.
The scene reminded me of my mother-in-law who was the first person I met who was a true entrepreneur, one characteristic of which is having a high tolerance for taking risks. I had taken a job in a fish processing plant which she owned. I quickly learned the ‘ins’ and ‘outs’ of fish processing in Alaska and the ‘ins’ and ‘outs’ of working with a risk taker.
First a little background on the salmon industry in Alaska. The salmon return to their streams to spawn on a God-given cycle and they return at different times throughout the summer. So when they come to Cook Inlet, the fishermen are ready for the summer’s catch; similarly when they come to Bristol Bay, or to the Copper River area or to the Yukon River. The trick is that no one knows when that time is.
The net result of all this is that the processing plants (such as the one we operated) have a feast or famine situation. There are either so many fish we can’t keep up processing 24/7; or we are sitting around waiting for the fish, paying stand-by crews to do nothing.
An innovator comes up with a novel workable idea; and the entrepreneur makes it happen.
I don’t know who thought of the idea, but I know that Doris made it happen.
The novel idea was to fly fish by airplane from an area with a glut of fish to an area waiting for fish to process. So if Bristol Bay had too many fish to handle, why not fly them by the plane load to Cook Inlet where the plants were waiting for their fish. Then when Cook Inlet is glutted, fly their fish to the plants in Bristol Bay which are winding down their operations. A novel and gutsy idea!
Many things needed to happen. Many things could go wrong. But Doris looked at this challenge the way she always looked at such challenges with a “why not? not “why?” perspective. She made some phone calls to the Arizona desert and discovered that DC-3s, 4s, and 6s where sitting there still operable. She also knew the Vietnam war was winding down and young pilots who had returned, were still itching to fly.
So she made it happen – hiring pilots, paying licensing fees, leasing planes, renting tarmac space at small airports, buying fish totes and bringing it all to Alaska. People thought she was crazy. I was one of them. However, not only was it profitable for our company, but she set the stage for an industry of flying fish which continues to this day.
This Alaskan seafood company provided me with my first real business management experience and its owner, Doris, with my first experience working for a risk taker and industry innovator.
Time and again, Doris proved to be a master risk taker. Though it wasn’t always easy, working for her taught me countless lessons that have helped me throughout my life and particularly in my work with BAM (Business as Mission) businesses. I’ll pass on these nine to you, in hopes that you can learn from them as well:
Entrepreneurs think outside the box. Doris’ ideas were uncomfortable to me as a manager and to the finance people who continuously watched the financial bottom line. This was another scary idea from Doris. One day I asked where Doris was and she was on a plane for the capitol to talk to the Governor. Wow, I thought, I could have used that money to hire someone to fix an ailing compressor. I either had to learn tolerance for her risk tolerance or get out. As hard as it was, I decided to stay.
2. Comfort with chaos
As Lewis Carroll said, “Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” That was Doris. It irritated me. I wondered where the money would come from. I wondered where it went. All this was not my comfort level. Again, I had to learn to accept difference and be comfortable with chaos.
As a manager I had a plan. I had goals for the shift, for the fish from the first sight of them as they surfaced from the boats in the brailers, to the semi-trailers that hauled the frozen fish away to faraway places like Norway and Japan. I scheduled breaks for the guys and knew how to put shifts together. Now I was called to the office to think about something new. I had to be patient and learn to adapt.
I had to learn that sometimes risk-taking entrepreneurs need people like me and I need the courage to ask questions and make comments. That means advanced levels of communication because risk-takers sometimes have their mind made up before you first hear about the idea. It might be too late for my comments, but I needed to learn how to do it appropriately and in a timely manner.
In the business world we cannot afford a “we-them” approach as we aim toward common goals. I had to try to get along with Doris, not only as my mother-in-law, but as my boss, and as a person taking risks which sometimes seemed impossible. Some were unreasonable, but when we saw success, I learned to say, “you were right – congratulations Doris.”
6. Acceptance of failure
Not all of Doris’ big ideas were successes; in fact, many were not; not unlike big industry in America. Remember the Ford Edsel, New Coke, and Apple Lisa. According to a recent Wall Street study, it is normal for 40% of new product launches to flop. While working with Doris in Alaska’s fish industry I learned that risk-takers accept failure, and I needed to understand that.
7. There is always another day
With all the things that cause discomfort in working with an entrepreneur who takes risks easily, it can be easy to lose sleep. Maybe it was working the long days and nights, but I eventually learned to sleep and not worry about it and try to develop strategies for learning things like tolerance, adaptability, togetherness, communication, and acceptance of how a risk-taker operates.
8. It is all about the customer
Managers can get myopic about the details of operation, but it is important to keep the big picture in mind. Doris often thought about the value of salmon to the customer – its nutritional value and lofty goals like “feeding the world”. It was all about good food and healthy people. It was about the customer.
Doris was a leader and I learned that leaders lead, set direction and inspire followers. I wanted to be a leader, too, so I watched, listened and learned so that even though I had the innate qualities of a manager, I could learn leadership qualities, see the big picture and drive toward satisfying customer needs, improve product quality and employee development. I started to learn to do the right thing and not just to do things right, as Warren Bennis reminds us “Leaders are people who do the right thing; managers are people who do things right.”.
Larry Sharp is the Founder and current Director of Strategic Training and Partnerships of a Business for Transformation (BAM, B4t) consulting firm, International Business and Education Consultants (www.ibecventures.com). Larry served 21 years in Brazil and then 20 years as Crossworld VP of Operations and as Vice President of Business Partnerships. He is currently a VP Emeritus and consultant with Crossworld. Since 2007 he has devoted energies toward Business as Mission (BAM) and currently is a consultant on BAM and education themes. Larry travels within North America speaking and teaching in conferences, colleges and churches on themes related to Business As Mission (BAM, B4t) and missions. His travels abroad relate to BAM, crisis preparation and management, and team building.