Professional Skipper – July 98 issue            back to articles menu

"Beat the recession with an air of positive expectancy"

Ever heard the expression ‘Self-fulfilling prophesy’? Simply, if enough people say ‘this situation exists’ often enough, then the situation will come to exist. If enough so-called ‘expert economists’ say that we are in a recession, then people will stop spending money or investing in new ventures, or expanding existing ones, and hey presto – you have a recession.

I’m not saying we should ignore negative information. But to continue to present that information in ever bleaker, increasingly funereal tones, which the economists (through the avid-for-bad-news media) continue to do, does nothing to help us deal with the information in a positive way. Without any other source of advice, we tend to ‘batten the hatches’ and go into ‘hibernate and survive’ mode. Hence, recession. The Economists, who in reality started the whole bloody thing, will pat themselves on the back and say how clever they were to predict it.

As professional skippers, we are trained to deal with bad situations. Through experience, we know that bad weather is not a problem. It’s how you deal with that bad weather (and the state of your vessel) that determines if bad weather is in fact a serious problem, or just a situation that is uncomfortable and requires special care. If you broke out the lifejackets and abandoned ship just because the waves got bigger than the masthead, no-one would travel by sea. You also know that as long as the Skipper is smiling and whistling, passengers tend to believe everything is normal even if they are throwing up in the loo or over the rail. I remember a particular trip bringing passengers back from Motuihe when we got beaten up by a nasty head sea coming through the channel, and then got beaten up again with an even nastier beam sea as we were exposed to the Northern Approaches. When we finally berthed, one of the passengers said to me quietly “As long as you were whistling, I knew we were OK – then I realised the tune you were whistling was ‘Yellow Submarine’ and somehow that made me relax even more”. OK, it was a potentially dangerous situation, but I am a competent skipper and the vessel was in great shape – designed for conditions far worse than that. If I had become panicked to the point where my judgement was effected – NOW you have a dangerous situation. But that has nothing to do with the weather. It has everything to do with my mental approach to the conditions the weather presented.

I used to be frightened of flying. And then I got a job which required me to fly around NZ, mostly to provincial towns – which meant flying in F27 Friendships which, for those not old enough, were an over-wing twin-prop 44-seater. On average, two return flights a week. In bad weather, they used to open the door to the cockpit to avoid cargo (which was stored between the passenger compartment and the cockpit) from blocking the door if it shifted, like when the plane stood on its head. That meant you could actually see the pilots chatting casually to each other while the plane executed 200 metre drops and stomach twisting corkscrew lurches. As long as they weren’t worried, then I wasn’t quite so terrified. It was a mental thing rather than reality. 

My last salary was paid to me in April 1989. I walked away from a flash office, hot & cold running secretaries, a company car, a good salary and an expense account. I didn’t have to leave – I had just reached some kind of watershed in my life, and I knew I had to change something. Rather than have some kind of well-thought-out Master Plan, I must confess in all honesty that I had no idea what I was going to do. I just walked, and most of my friends at that time thought I was mad. Maybe they were right. The strange thing is that, at that time, I had NO answer to the question “Where is the money to live going to come from?” and even stranger, I wasn’t all that worried. Something in my head told me that an opportunity would come along if I just put myself in the right place, did positive things and expected something positive to happen. Guess what? It did. I won’t bore you with a history of what happened then. Suffice to say that after a period of ‘wandering in the wilderness’, some stomach-churning false starts, years of hard work, and some stormy weather I have a very successful little company, and while I won’t figure in NZ’s richest people, ‘I ain’t doin’ so bad’. Had I worried about it, I would probably never have left that comfortable job.  As I look around at some of the businesses that started up at the same time as I did, and have now fallen by the wayside, I wonder what made the difference. I listen to people telling me how bad things are and I see them down-sizing in true ‘batten the hatches’ mentality, and I wonder if we are somehow living in different Universes – because I’m not experiencing a downturn. We’ve had our best June ever. I would love to believe it’s just because we’re damn good at what we do – and we are – but I truly think it has to do with our mental state. We’re too damn busy making our clients happy to worry about a recession, and if you follow the logic, making your clients happy is the only thing you really have to worry about. Everything else – like revenue and then profit – flows on from that. So, for those of us small business-people facing an economist-engineered recession, I have a couple of suggestions based on experience and observation of many other businesses in my job. If you’re into potatoes, and the potato market gets hit, then find a different way to use potatoes and market that new way. Otherwise, you’re just one of the crowd and what happens to the crowd will happen to you. Find something about your business that is unique to you, or really hard for your competitors to supply. You may have to invent something – add some other service to your business. Then market the hell out of that difference. The last idea I have for you is ‘strategic alliances’. If it’s ok for the big boys, it can work for us too. The idea is to find another business that works with the same potential clients as you do, but is not your competitor. Link up with some commission-payment arrangement or shared-marketing-costs so that you present clients with a ‘seamless experience’ of which your business is part. The intention is not the earning or paying of commissions. The aim is to access a bigger potential market for all parties in the alliance.

In closing, I guess what makes me so irritated at the ‘expert economists’ is that they never present their information in a way that motivates you – they just say “This is bad, and its gonna get worse”. They never say “This is the situation, and it’s bad, but these are the things you could do about it.”  They just make you feel bad in return for getting their face and name on TV.  I forget who said it – some famous business tycoon, addressing his entire staff after getting sick of hearing nothing but negative, negative, negative: “Spreading gloom and despondency just makes you part of the Problem. By all means report your facts – but then give us a range of possible Answers. That makes you part of the Solution – and if you want to stay in my employ, I know which I’d prefer you to be…” One of my clients said to me the other day – after yet another economist had spread more doom and gloom – “What do you call 12 economists at the bottom of the sea?” The answer – “A good start….”

Economists, take note.

Carpe Diem

Steve Punter ANZIM, Dip Bus (PMER), FHRINZ
Staff Training Associates Ltd, Auckland, New Zealand.
© Steve Punter 2001 All rights reserved by the author.                                                                                                                       back to articles menu