The Feel For Running A Business

There are a great many things in life in which there is an element of earthy knowledge that I call “The Feel.” The Feel is real.

In my own life, I’ve run businesses for more than 33 years and have advised others for 8 years, ran Army units for 5 years. One of the big differences I find is the comfort with which a CEO is able to settle into the job and run the business, not solely by feel, but with a sense of feeling they know what they are doing.

I experienced this notion in a number of different undertakings:

There is a moment when you are sailing a largish sailboat when the wind, the sails, the heel of the boat, the current, the swells, the point of sail are all in perfect equilibrium. You can hear the wind wind singing in the shrouds. You are in the slot and you can feel it. If you let the wheel go, the boat stays obediently on that point of sail until one of those elements change. This is The Feel and, baby, you’ve got it.

When you are landing an airplane in a crosswind, you have to dip the upwind wing, you stand on the rudder, you control the speed, you manage the angle of attack, you tease the throttle — done well, the plane obeys and while it is wont to move about on short final because of the crosswind, it does not. The plane touches the upwind wheel, gently puts the other one down, you keep a bit of that rudder in, and you roll down the centerline of that runway. Because you have mastered The Feel of it.

On a golf course, you are up around the green with a chip and a putt to make a birdie. Money will change hands on this putt. You line it up, you check the grain of the grass, you divide that distance into fourths, you model the ball’s movement through each of those fourths. You use a seven iron and a stroke you have used before because you’ve been to the Dave Pelz Short School. Your ball winks at you as it lies exhausted a foot from the cup. You knock it in with the edge of your shoe. The Feel

You’re fly fishing. There’s a patch of white water that leads into a smooth pond. It is the kind of pond that if you were a hungry fat rainbow trout, you would lurk waiting for dinner to arrive. You move your rod between 10 and 2, paying out enough line to land above the rapids, you let your fly drift into the flat water, you mend your line so the line doesn’t drag and spook the trout. When the trout rises to take the fly, you gently seat that hook. Fish on. The Feel

In the military, you come up to an open area with your company deployed in a line of platoons. You stop and look at that treeline because you have learned that treelines can hold bad surprises. You wait and watch, touching every inch of that treeline with your eyes behind good binoculars. You look for movement, openings, pathways, broken branches, detritus. You re-deploy your company into two platoons forward, one in reserve. You spread out. When you are certain you cannot see movement in that treeline, you move across quickly. You have The Feel of it.

In business, you will develop a certain familiarity with process — doing things the same way every time ensures conformity to a prescribed set of outcomes. You document those outcomes. You use a checklist, because you know the powers of checklists. [Checklist Manifesto, Atul Guwunde — link here].

You set up for a board meeting with a specific agenda you use for all board meetings. It has 25 agenda items, but you only focus on 6 at the actual meeting. You send the board package out a week ahead of time. You call each board member a couple of days thereafter and ask if they have any questions. You conduct the board meeting with a time allotment for each agenda item. You stay on schedule. When the discussion gets bogged down on an unrelated topic, you “parking lot” it and move on. You get the minutes out the next day. You follow up with each board member, especially anybody who got their wind up. You have this particular egg sucked. You have The Feel for it.

You set out clear goals for the company, the departments, the disciplines, the management, the team. You follow up on them, edit them every month. When it comes time to do Performance Appraisals, you refer back to those objectives and you don’t grade the person, you evaluate objective attainment. What is measured is managed, and with the passage of time more objectives are getting done and the company is prospering. All because you have The Feel for these things.

I could go on for a long time. The teaching point is this — there is a feel to running a company. It is not something that you can learn in one sitting, but know it is out there. It is not something you can learn at Wharton or Stanford. It is earthy and personal and it requires you to have a leadership style and a genuine, authoritative voice in how you run things. It is The Feel.

Does it make the job easy? No. The job keeps evolving, getting bigger — but you are meanwhile getting better and what used to scare the crap out of you doesn’t even register. You have The Feel for this thing. It looks good on you.

When you started out, you had condors — big, sharp-taloned condors, birds of prey and, guess what, you were the prey — in your acid gut trying to scratch their way out. Now, you have butterflies. Not tame butterflies, but the kind of butterflies they would sell at Whole Foods rather than ranch butterflies.

You still sweat it, but it doesn’t feel like the condors felt. Sometimes you miss the condors.

It takes some time to get The Feel of things, but it happens. Be on the alert for it. It’ll be a lot of fun. It took me 5 years of running companies to really get The Feel for it. I had the advantage of having run companies — combat engineer companies — in the Army. It was great training for business, but it was also great training for understanding The Feel.

Seek the wisdom and counsel of people who have had this feeling, because if they haven’t they can’t really help you. You can spend a lifetime flying in the back of an airplane, but only someone who has felt that vicious crosswind in Lubbock can tell you how to land that plane.

The Feel is real. Get it.

But, hey, what the Hell do I really know anyway? I’m just a Big Red. Car — oh, those nights roaming through the Hill Country in the dark, top down, the wind in my hair, the smell of life in my nose.