Lifeguarding and Firefighting

I took a kayaking trip this weekend on a lake near my house and an old lesson popped into my head. While I was working at NeoTactix, we had little firemen bobble-heads with our pictures on them. It was an allusion to the fact that we were always fighting fires in our client companies. I remember asking for a new bobble-head in addition to my fireman. I asked for a lifeguard.

I was a lifeguard when I was younger and the lessons that I learned training there were unforgettable. As a lifeguard, you don’t just react to problems, you scan your water and look for potential problems. You are taught all sorts of strategies to minimize mistakes and keep everyone safe. While at work, I applied the skills I learned as a lifeguard to protect our clients from things I could see on the horizon.

Lifeguards overlap the areas they are watching so that there’s always a second pair of eyes on any given situation. This worked very well for us when we adopted this strategy. For example, if I had a press release I was working on, I made sure to always run it by the managing partners to ensure I got everything right before publishing it. Another example was to watch companies in our portfolio that could indicate problems for the other companies that were our clients. Because each of our clients were minding their daily business like they were supposed to, they couldn’t always look up and see trends that could affect them. Part of our job was to see these things coming and warn (or save) them if needed.

Lifeguards constantly scan the waters without focusing on one particular area. When you are sitting up in the tower, it can be easy to focus on just one person or a group of people. It’s called tunnel vision. The safest thing to do is to look for typical problem signs, make a quick head count, and move on to the next group of people. This lesson translates to business really well. As a CEO, you have a bunch of things you have to worry about. Payroll, internal initiatives, investors, competition, and growing the company are just some of the huge tasks you have to take on. Making sure you give each their due attention is important or you become reactionary and will never get to focus on looking forward for your business.

Lifeguards ignore unneeded distractions and maintain constant focus. If you’ve ever seen a lifeguard at the beach, they always have their eyes on the water. They will walk up their towers backwards to stay facing the water. People will come up to talk to them and they’ll rarely look at them, instead focusing on watching the water. It’s not that they are trying to be rude, but that they are focusing on their job, not someone who just wants to chat about Baywatch. In business life, there is plenty to keep you distracted from doing your real job. Surfing the internet can waste whole days of productivity. Worse yet, spending your whole day on something that _seems_ productive like rearranging the office furniture can make you feel like you are doing something good, but is usually just a way to procrastinate on something more important that could be done. When you learn to control the time you spend on unneeded activities, all sorts of time opens up and you’ll find much more time to run your business.

Lifeguards cover each other’s water when an emergency comes up. Emergencies happen; it’s a fact of lifeguarding as well as business. This is a hard lesson for some businesses to learn, especially in cyclical situations like cashflow or business development. Lifeguards typically have a phone they pick up or button they push to signal the other lifeguards that an emergency is happening in their water and they are taking care of it. The other lifeguards immediately respond by calling for backup and covering the lifeguard’s water while they are making a save. Some businesses will see emergency situations and rally their employees to help fight the fire. While this is good, they often leave other parts of the business unattended. That’s a quick way to becoming a firefighter and only reacting to your business instead of acting to control your business.

Lifeguards and firefighters have their place in business. Both serve useful functions, but if you have more lifeguards, hopefully you won’t need so many firefighers.

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