CEO Coaching: What Are Your Fish Eating?

My friend and I raced to Alcova, Wyo., one night to fish the Grey Reef section of the North Platte River. After spending the day on the Cache la Poudre River outside of Fort Collins, Colo. we were heading to “the Reef,” which has thousands of large trout per mile. We figured we would have about an hour of sunlight before a late cocktail hour.

As we walked from our truck to the river, swarms of midges (think mosquitoes that don’t bite) circled us. When we got to the river, the water was boiling in front of us with trout eating in the “film” (right below the surface). We thought we were going to be rock stars.

Not so much.

I don’t know about you, but if I’m famished, I’ll eat whatever is in front of me. Fish are often different; they can be persnickety. Put a piece of pizza on your line (it’s a metaphor for insects, I don’t really use pizza) when the river is serving up calzones, and they won’t eat the pizza! Give them sausage when they’re looking for pepperoni, and you go home empty-handed.

Your customers and coworkers are sometimes like fish (don’t be offended, I’m a guy who loves fish!). Guess at what they want, and you’ll often miss the mark. The hook you’re trying to set is “delight,” but the bait may not be as apparent as you think. On a river, you can have incredible success one day with a particular fly, and the next day you’ll get nothing with the same fly. 

Customers and coworkers aren’t that fickle, but what they want can change from year to year, especially when you throw in a pandemic, financial meltdown, wacky wage scales, and daily headlines of war. 

I wish I had the insight of Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, or Henry Ford, but I don’t. You probably don’t either (and hopefully don’t have their personality!). Most successful CEOs have no more predictive power than you do. The only answers are to: (a) ask desired customers and coworkers what they want, (b) learn from others, or (c) experiment.

Experimentation can be fun but expensive. It’s the start-up world, and you have to fail fast until something sticks against the wall. Learning from others can work well, but at the end of the day, strategy is usually about being different, not a copycat. Standing on the shoulders of others would be a gracious way to put it. Building a better mousetrap, so to speak. If neither appeals to you, you better ask lots of questions.

What processes do you have to understand what your customers (the right ones) really want? What processes do you have to understand what your coworkers (the right ones) really want? Have fun fishing!

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