Reefing The Sails for Economic Storms

By Timothy Bentley


During economic storms, we hear that we should "clear the decks", "batten the hatches", and "reef our sails". Those phrases carry a lot of meaning for those of us who work on the people side of organizations.

My wife Esther and I were novice sailors when we planned an easy-going cruise in our boat Second Wind, along the north coast of Lake Ontario,

As we approached the first night's harbor, we scarcely noticed a dark cloud bank on the horizon. It was small, we were only a mile offshore, and we didn't take it seriously.

But within minutes, the clouds surged down upon us and turned black. Rain began to whip our faces. And the wind howled from ever-changing directions.

Second Wind spun around out of control, heeling further over than we'd ever experienced. The sails flapped angrily and the boom swung violently. Reefing our sails was out of the question. We had to haul them in completely.

Within a few minutes, soaked, shivering, and exhausted, we righted the boat and motored into the harbor.

To our astonishment, as we tied up, the sun came out, the skies cleared, and you'd have thought we had imagined the storm.

I wish I could believe the world economy will turn that sunny, that quickly.

Clear The Decks

The commentators have noticed correctly that since the dawn of time sailors survived deadly storms by clearing the decks, battening the hatches, and reefing their sails. What's the contemporary meaning?

When a ship was rolling in heavy seas, the last thing the ancient mariner wanted was to have heavy objects sliding around the deck and breaking things. Sailors stowed away everything they didn't require immediately.

Equally, those of us who labor in organizations need to reduce the clutter and focus all available resources into projects that will ensure we weather this crisis. That way, when the skies clear up, our enterprises will be prepared to move ahead quickly.

While other projects might fit this criterion, the one I'm most familiar with is 360-degree feedback, which is provided by our company Panoramic Feedback. Here's a test you can apply to your feedback and other projects:

In good weather, do they help the organization maintain its forward progress?

And in rough weather, do they help your people ride out the storm, while your competitors struggle to stay afloat? 360-degree feedback, for instance, does that by encouraging your employees to keep growing, even in the face of adversity. They are, after all, your ultimate competitive advantage.

As in every area of life - family, sports, hobbies feedback from those around them helps them assess their strengths, and make changes where their skills need development.

This storm is going to pass eventually, and the question is, "What then?" Are your current projects preparing your workers to seize the advantage? If they've been growing their skills during this storm, you can be sure they'll be ready to sail when the sun emerges.

Batten The Hatches

During heavy weather, sailors used strips of wood called battens, to secure covers over the open hatches and keep water out.

It's crucial right now that we keep our most precious cargo from getting swamped. People are easily discouraged in rough times.

We could lose some of our best workers to other opportunities in the months to come. And the productivity of those who remain could shrink, as their enthusiasm dampens.

When people are worried, employee-focused initiatives like 360 reassure them that they're still cared about, and their career paths remain important.

Reef Your Sails

During a blow, sailors change their tactics. They reduce their sail area so the ship won't be overwhelmed by the wind.

I suppose that sailors with more experience than us might have been able to keep sailing through that squall. But it's also possible that their sails might have been shredded and their boat damaged.

We made a big mistake by not being alert to the weather. But once the squall hit, we did one thing right. We changed our plans in a hurry, and got our sails in.

During an economic foul weather, you want to reduce your financial exposure.

One way to reduce costs is to hauling in any risky, high-priced initiatives, replacing them with more economical methodologies.

For example, when the economic skies darken, we've noticed that more organizations were asking us to manage their projects for them. They liked the reasonable cost of 360-degree feedback and wanted to continue to get the benefits.

But they needed not to increase their admin effort or retrain their staff. They were reefing their sails.

As Esther and I look at economic crises, and whenever we cruise with Second Wind, we keep the advice of the ancient mariners at the forefront of our minds. They knew a thing or two about surviving storms.

Timothy Bentley is Chief Operating Officer of Panoramic Feedback