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Plotting a course in treacherous waters

It has been said that a rising tide raises all ships, regardless of their condition or the skill of the crew. The same can be said in business. When the economy is booming, it is easier and more forgiving to run a business and lead your people. And yet, a falling tide lowers all ships. In a low tide, there are more obstacles to navigate, and the water is much shallower. It takes a great deal of skill to pilot a ship through a rocky shoal, and many a ship have sunk, due to the inability or lack of attention of their captains.

Where we all find ourselves now is in the midst of a falling tide. The only things we know for sure is that we can’t stop the water from fall- ing to whatever level it needs to, and eventually the tide will rise. So instead of concentrating on the external things we can’t control, we need to concentrate on the internal things we can. What is the state of our ship? Is it lean and mean? Is it efficient so that it rides high in the water, or is it top-heavy with expenses or unneeded ballast, and rides low and slow in the water?

Last year, our company took a good hard look at all of our operations and asked our- selves, “What do we want to be to our customers?” Half of our locations were small, rural lumberyards that had small staffs and that had to sell everything they could to everyone just not to lose money. The other half of our company was located in larger markets and geared toward the builder. We had a heritage in our smaller yards, but the larger yards were making all the money and carrying the smaller yards. Plus, the smaller yards were distracting our attention away from where the majority of our business was. So, we made the decision to close all of the smaller yards at once to concentrate on our larger operations.

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With the tide now running out, I have no doubt that many of those smaller ships would be run aground or sinking. We were lucky that we did not have the pressure of the current crisis hanging over us when we had to make those decisions. Now is the time to take the hard look at any sacred cows that have always been spared because of company heritage or because they have always been there.

The other area to examine is within. As captain of the ship, you need to recognize that the waters are significantly more dangerous with the water being low. While you may feel the need to stay in your cabin, holding meetings, analyzing data, or worse, distracting yourself with make-work or the internet; the truth is, you are needed more behind the wheel, navigating the ship. Having gone through our industry’s Great Recession at a large company, I can remember the days spent on seemingly endless phone conferences and meetings, re- questing data and wanting to know what we were doing, while finding little time, or, in some cases, little inclination to actually go out and pilot the ship’s course. The “paralysis by analysis” that our owners and leadership imparted on us had them suddenly scrutinizing minute parts of our business to which they normally didn’t pay attention. We spent more time rear- ranging deck chairs than we did scanning the horizon for rocks or icebergs.

So where do you find yourself in the midst of this crisis? Are you in your office reading about PPP loans and COVID-19 cases, or are you out talking to customers? Are you demanding more and more information, hoping the spreadsheet will give you all the answers, or are you making decisions and course-correcting as needed? Remember the quote, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” Right now you have less time to decide and less of a margin of error.

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I would love to say that I have all the answers and that I have never made any of the mistakes or poor decisions I describe above. The truth is, it is from my own mistakes and poor decisions that I get all of my material to write this column, and because I continue to make mistakes, I will have subject matter for years to come. The most important thing is to realize that you can look at your actions, or inactions, and make the decision to change. Leadership is about resolve, and if you resolve to grab that wheel and take command of your ship, no doubt you will be able to steer it through the rocky waters ahead.

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