Back in my college days in the late ’80s, I was associated with rowing as a sport. In competitive rowing, I used to be a coxswain (cox for short). In a specific type of boat, the cox is the member of the crew who sits in the stern facing the bow. He is responsible for steering and coordinating the power and rhythm of the rowers. I don’t recall why our coach felt I would do better as a cox than at pulling oars. But as it turned out, I was reasonably good at the job. And those hours on the water, rowing with four crew members, taught me some great lessons. These came handy later on, navigating my teams to reach their goals better and faster.
Fast forward to 2008. I experienced white water rafting for the first time. Both sports appeared to be the same — a group of people with oars in hand paddling through the water to reach a destination. But clearly, rafting was a very different game compared to rowing.
Competitive rowing was serious business. Each member of the team had a clear role from start to finish. A clear strategy based on the assessment of opponents, planning based on the track’s nuances, and executing to plan was vital in winning a rowing event. All oarsmen would focus on execution efficiency, leaving navigation and pacing to the cox. How efficiently oarsmen converted their power into a forward movement of the boat separated winners from the rest.
The rafting was a very different experience. The water was very turbulent. The tracks sprinkled with rocks, and sudden drops in height meant that each obstacle had to be negotiated uniquely. The paths weren’t straight and marked, and the endpoint not necessarily visible. One could do as much planning or strategizing, till the next gush of water, flowing freely and fiercely, turned your plan, and with that, your boat upside down. None in the boat could stick to their uniquely defined role. But they all shared one single objective – to keep the boat afloat and reach the destination. Sometimes, going forward meant paddling backward to circumvent the obstacle.
Lessons learned and skills acquired as a cox back in the late ’80s were critical during the first couple of decades of my professional life. It was the industrial era where the world was moving at a manageable pace. The focus was on execution excellence. Just like an oarsman, mastering your role, excelling in your defined craft, leaving the navigation, and rest to your leader, cox was enough to win laurels.
However, the information era that we are navigating through now has its own set of challenges. Disruption has become a new normal. The world is turbulent, like white water. Strategy, planning, and execution are still crucial in business, but only till the next wave of disruption hits you. Today’s workforce needs a mindset of white water rafter than of oarsman in a rowing boat. They need a broader understanding of the goal than a well-defined road-map. They need to think on their feet to deal with the unexpected and adapt to the situation. Agility in strategy, planning, and execution is more critical than stability. And, most important is the agility of the mind. Unless, of course, you are in calm waters with defined tracks and a visible destination. And if you are, connect with me. Remember, I was competent as a cox. I wouldn’t mind a trip down the memory lane before I take you back to the future!