Keep Paddling – The Change Will be Worth It

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Change is hard, not impossible

We spent a week on the island of St. John in the Virgin Islands. My wife and I were celebrating our 35th anniversary. Those who have met me know that I look far too young to have been married that long. That’s what happens when you marry at the age of 10.

Sitting on a hill overlooking Cruz Bay and the island of St. Thomas, our rented house was spectacular. Each day ended with a glass of wine watching the sunset and waiting for the stars to fill the skies. Mornings began with the sound of birds, the smell of fresh coffee and the sight of sailboats setting out for another day on the water.

I was relaxed, tanned, rested. I wanted the owner of the house to adopt me so that I could come back whenever I wanted.

During the day we walked through markets and snorkeled in bays. Halfway through the week I tried something new. My son had spent a week in Mexico and while there had learned how to paddleboard. He encouraged me to try it, saying that it was “easy” and a great workout. I did so at Cinnamon Bay.

For those who don’t know, a paddleboard is an oversized surfboard, slightly smaller but much more buoyant than a garage door. In Stand-up Paddleboarding (SUP) the rider stands on the board and propels himself with a long – are you ready for this – paddle! The Hawaiians have their own name for Stand-up Paddleboarding: “Ku Hoe He’e Nalu” which literally means, “If we make it look easy we can make a lot of money from tourists who will try to do this.”

After renting my board I learned that Cinnamon Bay is a popular place to go windsurfing – another fun sport similar to sailing without a boat. People come there because of its strong winds and rolling surf. First time paddleboarders – I discovered – should avoid both wind and surf and look for a bathtub.

My instructor gave me a five minute lesson on the beach. She offered to hold my sunglasses and hat. I thanked her, but declined. Two minutes later I was in the water and on my own, lying on the top of my board. As instructed I started to stand. Two seconds later I was back in the water – sans sunglasses – with a nose full of salt.

I spent the next hour pulling myself on the board, standing up, and falling back into the water. Frustrated and tired, I was ready to quit when I saw a very young girl – probably pre-teen – taking her first lesson. With just a slight hesitation she pulled herself on the board, stood up and started paddling. She would have gone on for a long time if I hadn’t pushed her over.

It was then my instructor called from the shore with another bit of advice; something that would have been helpful earlier. “It’s easier if you go down-wind,” she said, pointing to the part of the beach that was upwind.

By then I had learned how to balance on my knees and paddle. From the shore, I looked like an overweight “Oompa Loompa;” those vertically challenged workers at Willy Wonka’s factory. After about 200 yards I turned the board around and – very carefully – went into a catcher’s crouch, keeping my center of gravity (aka “butt”) low. Slowly, I stood and with the wind at my back gently placed the paddle into the water, making my first tentative stroke.

I made it back. I tipped my hat to the instructor who was cheering from the shore. I stuck out my tongue at the girl who stayed out of my way. Then, still standing, I dragged my paddle and made the turn back into the wind. Four laps later, I was a SUPr – a Stand-up Paddleboarder.

That’s right; I board!

Change is hard

Until then, paddleboarding looked easy. The day before I watched two SUPrs paddle across the bay. From where I sat – in the sun on the sand – it didn’t look very hard.

Initially, that’s how many of us view something new. From the firm setting of our successful business or practice, going in a new direction or taking on a new business model looks easy. In reality, it is not. Nor is it impossible. Particularly when we apply the lessons of a first time SUPr.

1.    Be Committed

Recently the Charles Schwab Corporation asked 210 financial advisers for their views on moving to a fee-based practice. Lately a growing number of advisers have stopped charging clients a commission and instead receive an agreed upon fee to manage their client’s investments. One-half of the respondents find the idea appealing. Doing so would increase their firm’s revenue. It would also – many believe – enable them to provide a greater level of personal service to their clients.

Even so, most (61%) admitted that the time and effort needed to make this transition worked against them. In other words: the winds could prove to be too strong and the waves too high to move into a new, more satisfying business model.

After my first frustrating hour in Cinnamon Bay, I was ready to quit. By then I had learned how to fall into the water without losing my baseball cap, climb on board, and paddle from my knees (which is sort of like mountain biking with training wheels). I was tired; discouraged. Looking out I saw my instructor effortlessly guide her board across the waves. I then made the conscious decision to keep trying. Somehow – from somewhere –with renewed hope and determination I slowly stood. And promptly fell back into the ocean! Even so, I was committed to embrace something new.

Not long ago I had a client who made the same decision. He owns a large, growing financial firm. Over the past twenty years he has earned a number of industry awards. Still, in order to stay successful he knows he has to fully embrace a new practice model.

We took a systematic and systemic approach. First, we agreed to completely change the structure and practice of the firm in three years. Then we created the necessary structure, systems and processes to support the new model. We changed the rules, effectively nullifying a reward system that had been in place for years. We established a new client service model, business development strategy, compensation plan; all while the firm continued to do business. It felt like changing the tires on a race car – while the car was still in the race.

The owner became discouraged. The headwinds of staff resistance and uncertainty were tiresome. Unexpected waves of unforeseen consequences were worrisome. Even so, he remained convinced that he was going in the right direction. And as a result reaffirmed his commitment to embrace something new.

Compare this to another financial firm. They too, have been in business for over twenty years and are held in high regard. The owner wants to reduce the firm’s dependency on part of his practice that is declining. He wants to increase the number of local clients. He wants to build another part of the firm.

I’m not convinced they will be able to pull it off.

The practice looks successful. The people in the practice have learned to do their jobs well. For them to change would mean to rely less on the skills learned and developed over years (sunk costs) while taking on the skills needed to stay relevant (opportunity costs). As this takes place, their compensation plan will have to change to better support the new direction.

So far, no one – in this case the owner – has not been willing to lead the team in the new direction. As a result, they continue to lose clients and are having a hard time bringing on new ones.

They talk about change, but without the commitment.

2.    Find a Way

“It’s easier to learn if you go down-wind,” my instructor said. But to go down-wind I had to first make my way up-wind, Oompa-Loompa-like, on my knees.

Here’s an important observation: if you aren’t willing to find a way to overcome resistance, then don’t try to something new. You’ll fail. Every time.

When starting a change process, I frequently create what can best be described as a “wind chart” that anticipates possible points of resistance. I’ll ask the owner about his or her habits, thought patterns, leadership trends that work against and for the new direction. I identify the skills that will be needed and the habits that will need to be broken to support the change.

In the first firm, the owner was hooked on the emotional “high” experienced when he made a sale. Advisers did the same. This was the culture they created, and now this culture had to change and take on a new set of rules and scorekeeping and rewards.

Firmly committed, the owner is overcoming each point of resistance and is starting to feel as though the wind is starting to shift. His staff is becoming comfortable and competent with the new expectations. His clients appreciate the attention they now receive. Even his family senses he is more relaxed. He could still get wet, but if he does I’m pretty certain he’ll get up and keep paddling.

Lacking a strong commitment, the second firm is having trouble overcoming resistance.

Hell, let’s be honest. They are running from it!

Too often conversations are ended in frustration (splash). When new ideas are presented they are frequently challenged and when challenged are frequently withdrawn (kerplunk). After another disappointing meeting, everyone returns to their offices, to their habits and to what they know.

In the end, they keep going back to the sand on the beach, having been unwilling – unable? – to overcome the headwinds and find momentum.

3.    Learn to Trust

While learning how to paddleboard I watched the young girl I mentioned earlier (NOTE: I did NOT push her over … I only did so in my mind). She did things differently than me. When I tried to stand I watched the waves, anticipating when they would hit my board. Then, concentrating on not falling I fought for control.

Not her. She just stood up. And when she did, her body’s natural instincts kept her standing.

Heading downwind I decided to do the same. I looked past and not at the waves. I stopped thinking about not falling. In fact, I stopped thinking about anything and instead simply stood. The more I relaxed the more confident I became. As Margaret Wheatley would observe in her book, Leadership and the New Science, my body was “self-organizing” to the changes in my environment, helping me to stand.

Eventually that’s what happens. With the direction set and consistently reinforced, initial resistance gives way to acceptance. Over time, acceptance allows us to adopt the changes that, up to now, we have been fighting. Before long the organization has adapted itself to the new we’ve embraced.

My client’s firm is starting to naturally respond around the new business model. I hope that one day the second will do same. But I’m doubtful.

Embracing the new can be hard.

A new business model. A new structure. New leaders. New partners. New initiatives.

A new interest in stand-up paddleboarding.

Hard but possible.

Possible if you have a strong commitment. One that echoes the line from the movie, Apollo 13, “Failure is not an option.”  Firmly committed, you’ll find the will to confront the numerous “winds” of resistance, knowing that in time the momentum will shift in your favor. And with this shift you will relax. When you do your staff, your clients, your heart will make room for the new thing you have embraced.

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