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Four “Fast-Follower” Best Practices Learned on Lake Austin

Texas started opening back up last week.
Our business hasn’t – on purpose.
Four “Fast-Follower” Best Practices learned on Lake Austin.

Here in Texas, our Governor started re-opening the state last week. He gave direction to various business enterprises on recommended occupancy rates and social distancing requirements as we emerge into an economy that needs to recover from Covid-19.
I’ve given the managers of our local businesses very clear direction. Don’t be the first businesses to re-open. Instead, I want us to be “fast-followers.” Let me explain.

I’m a slalom water-skier. Years ago, I told my wife I dreamed of us living near a lake where I could waterski in the morning and still be in the office before 9 am. Seven years ago that dream came true, and today our 25-year-old ski boat sits in our driveway 7 short blocks from Lake Austin.

As a result, this time of year you will often find me early weekday mornings being pulled at 32 miles an hour 60 feet behind our boat. While I’m not very good, skiing remains exhilarating and challenging for me.

One of the things that makes it challenging is the lake we ski on. Lake Austin is a narrow lake – it’s actually a river that was dammed up in the 1940s. As a result, Lake Austin is not very wide. When you add in just a few other boats and even a mild wind, the water can get choppy. I’m always watching ahead to see what kind of waves and rollers I’m going to face.
The key to skiing on Lake Austin is to watch carefully the boat pulling you to see what kind of water you’re going to be encountering 60 feet later.

The leadership concept of “fast-following” shares the same perspective. How do you and I move forward in a way that anticipates the future as well as possible? By being keen observers as we follow closely others who have gone before.

1. Find examples you can learn from
While certain people are wired to want to go first, often the best ideas come second. Apple didn’t invent the graphical user interface or the smartphone. What Apple did was take good ideas and make them great ideas.

I have a waterskiing friend who used to teach lessons for a living. He’s wired as a teacher, and has taught several of my friends to ski behind our old boat. His favorite approach is to have more than one student with him at a time so he can explain to the student in the boat what is happening as they watch together the student at the end of the ski rope.
As our businesses begin to emerge from an eight-week lockdown, we are looking closely at other businesses that open ahead of ours. What lessons can we learn? What things didn’t they anticipate? What mistakes can we avoid? I’ve challenged our managers to learn from these other businesses and incorporate these ideas into our best practices.

2. Keep your eyes up
Another piece of advice from my waterskiing friend? — I need to keep my eyes up. While there is a natural tendency to look at your ski and the water right in front of you, the best skiers keep their eyes focused further in front of them. That’s why I’ve learned to watch my boat. How it handles the wakes and waves it encounters gives me a good idea of how I need to anticipate what is coming.

3. Be agile
The best slalom water-skiers have a great deal of flexibility. Their knees act as “shock absorbers” while their shoulders and torso make minor-but-rapid adjustments to guide them across the ever-changing wake of their boat. Their arms pump in-and-out with the rhythm of their motion as they both control and respond to the water and their ski. If they are good, this looks easy and natural.

As someone who aspires to be a good skier, I can tell you it takes a great deal of practice and agility to make it look as easy as they make it look! Leader – to lead well during challenging times, you and I need to work hard at being agile and flexible, adjusting rapidly to the changes around us.

4. Stay humble
Based on what I see on Lake Austin, the early-weekday-morning skier is a different skier than the weekend-in-a-boat-with-my-party-friends skier. We tend to be older, a bit slower, and oftentimes more willing to learn from others. I’ve been waterskiing for more than 40 years, and yet when I’m out on the lake, I usually see any number of skiers who are better than I am. I try to learn from them to get better myself.

As a leader, one of your most important jobs is to learn from others. This can be a challenge for the natural leader because you are wired to be in front. To humble yourself, go a bit slower, ask questions, and learn from others requires a different mindset. Yet during times of challenge, learning from others is a pre-requisite for success.

• Find examples you can learn from
• Keep your eyes up
• Be agile
• Stay humble

Great reminders for an aging water-skier. Also great reminders for all of us who aspire to be good leaders.

Postscript: If there is a better time than early morning to be water-skiing on Lake Austin, it just might be at sunset!