“The word impossible is not in my dictionary” – Napoleon Bonaparte
Driving through Tuscon, Arizona, recently, I decided to take a detour to visit the famed airplane graveyard in the desert. Hundreds of planes are parked there because it is a safe, dry place. Most will never fly again though they are still very useful; there is simply no market for them.
The scene reminded me of my mother-in-law, Doris. She is the first true entrepreneur I ever met. She has an extremely high tolerance for taking risks – something core to the entrepreneurial spirit. I took a managerial job in the fish processing plant she owned. I quickly learned the ‘ins’ and ‘outs’ of fish processing in Alaska and the ‘ins’ and ‘outs’ of working with a risk taker.
The salmon industry in Alaska is tricky business. The salmon return to their streams to spawn on a God-given cycle and then return sporadically throughout the summer. So when they arrive at various destinations, the fishermen are ready for the summer’s catch. The trick is that no one knows when that time is.
The processing plants (such as the one we operated) have a perpetual feast or famine situation. There are either so many fish they can’t keep up processing 24/7, or they paying stand-by crews to do nothing.
An innovator comes up with a novel workable idea; and the entrepreneur makes it happen. I don’t know who thought of the idea, but I know that Doris made it happen.
The novel idea was to fly fresh fish by airplane from an area with a glut of fish to an area waiting for fish to process. If Bristol Bay had too many fish to handle, why not fly a load to Cook Inlet where the plants were waiting for their fish? Then when Cook Inlet is glutted, fly their fish to the plants in Bristol Bay, where they are now winding down their operations. A novel and gutsy idea!
Many things needed to happen. Many things could go wrong. But Doris looked at this challenge the way she always looked at such challenges with a “why not? not “why?” perspective. She made some phone calls to the Arizona desert and discovered that DC-3s, 4s, and 6s sitting there were still operable. She also knew the Vietnam War was winding down and young pilots were still itching to fly.
So she made it happen – she hired pilots, paid licensing fees, leased planes, rented tarmac space at small airports, bought fish totes, and brought it all to Alaska. People thought she was crazy. I was one of them.
However, not only was it profitable for our company, but she set the stage for an entire industry of flying fish which continues to this day. Working for her taught me a great deal about working with a risk-taker, which shaped my future work consulting entrepreneurs.
9 Characteristics of Risk-Taker Entrepreneurs
Entrepreneurs think outside the box. Doris’ ideas were uncomfortable to me as a manager and to the finance people who continuously watched the bottom line. One day I asked where Doris was. She was on a plane for the Capitol to talk to the Governor. Wow, I thought, I could have used that money to hire someone to fix an ailing compressor. I either had to learn tolerance for her risk tolerance or get out. More importantly, I started to learn that God wires us all differently. As hard as it was, I stayed.
Comfort with chaos:
As Lewis Carroll said, “Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” That was Doris. It irritated me. I wondered where the money would come from. I wondered where it went. All this was not my comfort level. Again I had to learn to accept difference and be comfortable with chaos.
As a manager I had a plan. I had goals for the shift, for the fish from the first sight of them as they surfaced from the boats in the brailers, to the semi-trailers that hauled the frozen fish away to faraway places like Norway and Japan. I scheduled breaks for the guys and knew how to put shifts together. Inevitably my plan was interrupted and I was called to the office to think about something new. I had to be flexible and learn to adapt.
Sometimes risk-taking entrepreneurs need people like me to have the courage to ask questions and make comments. That requires advanced communication tactics, because risk-takers often have their minds made up before their team hears the idea. I learned that it might be too late for my comments, but I could offer them appropriately and in a timely manner.
In the business world we cannot afford a “we-them” approach as we aim toward common goals. I had to try to get along with Doris, not only as my mother-in-law, but as my boss, and as a risk taker. Some risks she took were unreasonable, but when we saw success I learned to say “you were right – congratulations Doris.”
Acceptance of Failure:
Not all of Doris’ big ideas were successes; in fact many were not; not unlike big industry in America. Remember the Ford Edsel, New Coke, and Apple Lisa? According to a recent Wall Street study, it is normal for 40% of new product launches to flop. While working with Doris in Alaska’s fish industry I learned that risk-takers accept failure, and I needed to understand that.
There is always another day:
With all the things that cause discomfort in working with an entrepreneur who takes risks easily, it can be easy to lose sleep. Maybe it was working the long days and nights, but I eventually learned to sleep and not worry about what lay ahead. Each day had plenty of trouble of its own!
It is all about the customer:
Managers like me can get myopic about the details of operation. But we must keep the big picture in mind. Doris often thought about the value of salmon to the customer – its nutritional value and lofty goals like “feeding the world”. It was all about good food and healthy people. It was about the customer.
Doris was a leader and I learned that leaders lead, set direction and inspire followers. I wanted to be a leader, too, so I watched, listened and learned. Even though I had the innate qualities of a manager, I had things to learn about leadership, the big picture, better product quality, employee development, and satisfying customer needs. I started to learn to do the right thing and not just to do things right, as Warren Bennis reminds us.
If you’re involved in a social enterprise at any level, chances are you are working with a risk-taker (or two or more). Recognizing and accepting these things about them might be the difference between you walking out in frustration or playing a key role in the business’s success. Your perspective and skills are vital to the risk-taker, if you can learn to work with him/her!
Or maybe you are the risk taker. If that’s you, be aware of these things about yourself, and remember that not all of your team has the same “infinite capacity for not knowing what can’t be done” (Henry Ford) as you do. It doesn’t make them inferior – believe it or not, you need them, too.
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