I went whitewater rafting down the Kern River this week with my husband and friends. (That’s me, underwater, at the front of the boat.) We had our choice of several guides, and we all agreed the guy with the grey hair looked like he had more experience than anyone else.
We were correct. Our guide, Joe, had been a whitewater guide for twenty years. He had knowledge, experience, and a passion for his work.
Joe’s approach was completely different than that of the less experienced guides. He started with the basics: front paddle, back paddle, right and left turns, and the term brace, which means to lean in and hang on for dear life. We got really good at that one!
The other guides also went through the basics at the start of the trip, but what separated Joe from the pack is what he did once we were on the river. Before each set of rapids, Joe had us pull over into an eddy—or, as we liked to call it, a parking spot. Each time we did this, we spent at least five minutes in the eddy before going into the rapids.
First, Joe studied the water, making note of obstacles and how the water was flowing—or not flowing—around them. He looked for holes, logs, and anything else that might be a hazard for our boat. Joe had a plan in place for each section of rapids.
Then he focused on us. He went over all of his original instructions and had us practice each maneuver. He emphasized that when he yelled “Stop!” he meant it, and we needed to lift our paddles out of the water.
As we were going over these details, we watched the boats with the less experienced guides go by without stopping. Most were paddling full speed into the rapids without pausing at all. We saw many of them tip over, get stuck, or experience what’s known as unscheduled swimmers—the term used for people who fall out of the boat. Fortunately, nobody got hurt, but there were some close calls.
In contrast, our boat moved slowly and quite gracefully through the raging water as we followed Joe’s directions as closely as we could. Each time, we took the safest route—which, by the way, was usually the most fun as well. None of our crew fell out of the boat, nor did we hit any rocks. The boat stayed flat in the water just like it was supposed to. Joe was master of the river and we were a high performing team.
So what lessons for organizations can you take from whitewater rafting with a skilled guide? Here are a few:
- When you are looking for a guide or mentor, look for the person with the most expertise. They may not be someone you necessarily would choose for a friend, but you can learn from them. Remember that with age often comes wisdom (okay, not always) so don’t discount the ones with grey hair.
- Take time to plan and practice before you get into the whitewater. Be clear on your roles, your communication plan, and your purpose—ours was to be safe and have fun. This can be time consuming, but in the end it will help you move more quickly through the challenges. Also, be sure to have more than one contingency plan in place before you begin.
- Train your team on the knowledge and skills they need to safely navigate the whitewater, then reinforce often. Many times, training becomes a check-off-the-box activity without any reinforcement. This also takes time, but it will make the process flow much easier.
- Give yourself permission to hurry less and plan more. It is not always easy to stop action, but it is well worth the effort.
- Enjoy the whitewater! You always have a choice in whether to feel stressed or exhilarated. Why not choose the latter as often as you can?
About the Author
Kathleen Martin is a senior consulting partner with The Ken Blanchard Companies. You can read Martin’s posts as a part of Coaching Tuesday here at Blanchard LeaderChat for ideas, research, and inspirations from the world of executive coaching.