Click here to order the September 2013 issue in which this article appeared.
Lessons from a Sailor
Someone once told me that “one good analogy is worth three hours of discussion,” and I believe it. When I get the opportunity to mentor younger direct selling executives as they come up through our organization, I often use analogies to describe the fundamentals of our industry. One of my favorite analogies involves the construction of a sailboat and the principles of sailing. For me, this has become an even more appropriate analogy to use, since our Univera offices look out over Puget Sound and most days I can point directly at sailboats as they cruise by.
In my experience there are two basic types of boaters: sailors and power boaters. As in any subdivided sport, activity or philosophy, each group believes they have made the best choice and tend to view members of the other group with withering disdain. In our story practitioners of other distribution methods—including traditional retailers—are the power boaters, and we direct sellers are the sailors.
Just as traditional retailing and direct selling have some crossover in operating methods, power boating and sailing have much in common, but also in many ways they are very different. For example, in strategy, power boaters generally decide on their desired destination, aim their boat in that direction, press the throttle forward and move in a more-or-less direct route to that point on the horizon. Sailors also choose their destination but must factor in several other variables—most importantly the wind. Depending on the wind speed and direction, they must set the rigging (the ropes and sails) on their boat to capture the wind’s energy and sometimes move their boats in indirect routes to reach their destination. This does not mean that they are at the mercy of the wind, but rather that they must adapt their course and their actions to harness the power of the wind. In direct selling, our independent contractors are the wind that provides the energy to move our businesses forward, and we must consider them and create business strategies that most effectively harness their power.
Sometimes power boaters will cross over and trade in their boats for the clean lines and elegance of a sailing vessel. Similarly, during my 30 years in this industry, I have occasionally seen corporate executives come to direct selling from other industries. Some have grasped the fundamentals in an almost instinctive way. Others have struggled to understand something that at face value looks like a familiar consumer products model but behaves in a very different way. Inevitably they learn that while some of the fundamentals transfer, the essence of direct selling, as in sailing, has very different dynamics. Some go on to learn the lessons of sailing and become fine skippers, while others return to the familiarity and relative comfort of the power boat cockpit.
Lest we lifelong sailors become too smug, we should always look for opportunities to learn from our power boating friends. After all, we are no longer using a sextant to measure our progress—or flagmen to communicate with other boats—and GPS has replaced the old paper charts we used to rely on. As direct sellers, we have learned a great deal from modern techniques in data analytics, market segmentation and leveraging social media, to name a few practices and disciplines that we have adapted.
8 Guiding Principles for Success
Maybe the most important lesson that we can teach our direct selling crew is that good sailors respect the wind, and they should know that without the wind the boat simply does not move. At the same time, it does not mean that the boat only moves in the direction the wind is blowing. The captain of the boat sets a course and sets the sails to harness the energy of the wind to move to the determined destination. A good captain can use almost any wind to go in almost any direction.
The boat’s sails are the key features that allow a captain to harness the energy of the wind. A sailboat has two standard sails: the mainsail and the jib. The mainsail is the one that extends back from the mast, while the jib extends forward. Although both sails play a critical role in sailing the ship, in most situations the mainsail is the primary sail providing the majority of the power.
The most important lesson that we can teach our direct selling crew is that good sailors respect the wind, and they should know that without the wind the boat simply does not move.
In this analogy, our products and our opportunity are the two standard sails. In some companies, the products are the mainsail, inviting and capturing the majority of the energy. Other companies may prefer to use the business opportunity as their mainsail. Whichever choice is made, both sails work in harmony to achieve maximum performance. It is critically important to know which sail fulfills which role, as putting the wrong sail in the wrong place causes confusion and significantly slows the boat’s progress.
In our industry, being unclear about the roles of product and opportunity ultimately confuses the field and, worse, can fail to harness their energy.
An important part of sailing is understanding how much of the ship’s sail to let out, and how much to strap down. The “reefing” is what allows you to determine how much sail is let out, and it allows for very small adjustments. As an experienced sailor, I can tell you that it is wise to start out with your sails reefed (tied down), and to let out additional sail as you need it, because it is much easier to let out more sail than to pull sail in. The same can be said about managing your compensation plan. In other words, be careful how much canvas (cash) you put out there, because it is hard to reel it back in, and in strong winds having let out too much can capsize your boat!
Some boats also have a special sail known as a spinnaker—that colorful, parachute-like sail you see out front of some boats. Deployed under the right conditions, the spinnaker can get extra speed out of the boat. In our analogy, the spinnaker represents a special incentive or promotion. It should only be used under specific circumstances and must be used with great care as it can wreak havoc or cause a significant slowdown when deployed during the wrong conditions. But when used correctly, it is beautiful to watch and it causes the boat to surge forward as it attains maximum speed—just as the right incentive can create excitement and a surge in sales for your field.
As the boat is underway, we are down in the cockpit reading the gauges to measure our progress. On the sailboat we would be looking at wind direction, speed and depth, and mapping our position on the charts. In the direct selling cockpit we are constantly reviewing sales, recruiting, activation, productivity and retention. We are also mapping our position against our strategic plan to ensure we are progressing toward our goal.
While we continually adjust our rigging to get the maximum speed out of our boat, there are also mistakes we can make that will slow our boat or even bring it to a dead stop in the water. One of the more common mistakes direct selling sailors make that can significantly reduce their speed is considerably modifying a sail (or completely switching it out) while the boat is underway. It can be a scary sight as the wind is howling and the crew is madly scrambling around the deck to make the changes. One of the great mysteries of the sea is that once the modified sail is finally hoisted into place, more often than not the wind goes dead calm and the boat begins to drift. This is just like the chaos that can be created in the field by making significant compensation plan changes while the business is underway. This too can bring your business to a complete halt.
An even more dangerous mistake is a cavalier attitude that ultimately runs your boat up onto the regulatory rocks. Wise captains know their charts and never sail even close to these dangerous waters. Interestingly enough, these dangerous waters also tend to be inhabited by pirate ships that will attempt to steal your wind and plunder your boat.
Speaking of unsafe waters, beware the songs of the sirens. The sirens are the so-called professional networkers who sing promises of bringing their large groups from some other organization to yours. Theirs songs can be alluring as you envision bringing hundreds or even thousands of new associates into your organization all in one fell swoop! Listen carefully. Most of these promises of quick growth will evaporate as you reach out to embrace them, and you risk veering totally off course as you chase them into unsafe waters.
It can be a temptation, when frustrated with a lack of progress, to stand upon the deck of the ship and shake one’s fist at the wind, cursing it, because it will not cooperate and blow at the speed and in the direction the captain wants.
This is a place where my analogy breaks down, because the actual wind does not care what anyone thinks. However, our independent contractors know exactly what we think of them, and they care deeply. They look to the home office as their support system and partner in success. To disrespect the field is to cause the winds to still and your boat to languish in the water.
2013 marks Randy Bancino’s 30th year being associated with the corporate side of network marketing. Currently President and CEO of Univera, a DSN Global 100 Top 75 organization, he has held wide-ranging roles in the industry. He has also spent years as a managing partner with a consulting firm specializing in direct selling and headed the international division of a medium-sized, publicly traded company.