5 Steps to Take When Your Canoe Hits Rough Waters

By Nathan Mersereau

Canoe_RoughWatersLife, like a canoe trip, is a lot easier to manage during sunny days. But as we all know, life is not always clear skies and calm waters.

In many ways, hitting some unexpected rapids at work is like a stress test for you and those you’ve welcomed into your proverbial canoe. No matter how hard you try, as a business leader you are at times going to face turbulence — whether it comes in the form of relationship rough patches, highly problematic projects, client concerns or any number of other vexing issues that can arise despite your best-laid plans.

Here are five tips on how to navigate when things get choppy:

  1. Keep it real
    Embrace the reality of the situation. Let’s say there’s an eruption of staff discord because a key initiative is faltering. Instead of burying your head in the sand, panicking, or merely crossing your fingers and hoping your team can get back on course, face the ugly facts and then take action. Publicly acknowledge that you see the problem and then work on devising a solution. Help your cause by soliciting your employees’ feedback and ideas. The same goes for managing client relationships. Authenticity and a willingness to be open will go a long way to cementing rapport and trust.
  2. Over-communicate
    While striving to steer your team in the right direction, aim to over-communicate. Be crystal-clear on roles, responsibilities and accountability points. Be willing to update or amend your plan if it’s not working. Be sure to project both confidence and adaptability. As the saying goes, “speak as if you’re right, but listen as if you’re wrong.”
  3. Rely on process
    Innovative thinking is obviously important for business leaders, but you can’t always “MacGyver” a situation in real-time when your traversing rocky waters. While you might not have been able to anticipate the waves you’re currently facing, you do have principles, a core mission and hopefully foundational agreements in place that can help guide your decision making.
  4. Trust that there can be a positive outcome
    When you find yourself in the rapids, you have no choice but to deal with your predicament. And when you have to deal with a formidable challenge, you also have to maintain some optimism. Keep your inner dialogue positive. For example, trust that you and the long-time vendor you’re suddenly butting heads with can have a tough and honest conversation that leads to a better relationship. Trust that you can convince your top-performing employee to stay despite the attractive offer she received from your biggest competitor. Trust that your new strategy can lead to a merger deal when previous negotiations have quickly broken down.

    Entering any situation with the negative attitude of, “Well, I’m sure this won’t work but I guess I’ll give it a shot,” won’t protect you from disappointment if your efforts do fail. In fact, your pessimism makes it far more likely that you will capsize.

  5. Learn for next time
    After you make it through a tough time and get stabilized, it’s critical to take some time to think about what you’ve learned. What did you do right? Where did you fall short? What resources or people helped you most? Write down key takeaways because, unfortunately, there will be “a next time.” You don’t know when or where you will encounter more rapids, or how intense they’ll be. But you can bank on the fact that you’ll run into them again. The good news is that if you do some mindful reflection the rough waters you just survived can make you wiser and more resilient.

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