9 tips for navigating rough business waters

Katharine Hepburn, one of my favorite actresses of all time, once said, “As one goes through life, one learns that if you don’t paddle your own canoe, you don’t move.” An old fisherman’s saying goes like this: “Forty thousand wishes won’t fill your bucket with fishes.”

With the economy starting to recover, it’s my humble opinion that we should be out there, paddling and fishing with passion. Since a sales pipeline has to stay full, the only way to do this is to grab the paddle (a list of good business contacts) and pole (phone, email, personal letter/note), put the canoe (self motivation) in the water, and get going.

Our pond (the market trade area) has increased in size. It’s bigger than ever because the Internet makes it possible to sell virtually anything to anyone, anywhere. It’s smaller than ever because the competition from everywhere on the Web is increasing exponentially by the minute. Those with the best “bait” and the most determination and patience will succeed.

Determination is the tireless pursuit of a goal, purpose, or cause. Whether paddling across a pond or prospecting for new business accounts, determination helps us get around barriers and stop signs, and stay committed to reaching the end goal … signing a customer to a new deal and landing safely on the shore.

There are many ways to paddle correctly in business. Some techniques might have to be adjusted frequently. Some might require mapping out a plan of action. Some might expect us to join forces with another paddler. They all would require us to be fired up, filled with energy to succeed, ready to put our backs to the task, and persist even when the waves threaten to come up over the canoe.

So here’s my take on how to handle the rapids and eddies:


  1. Set goals and deadlines to stay motivated. The other day I heard a business owner talking about how a goal never gets reached if there’s no deadline. That rang a bell for me. I hear lots of people talking about their goals, but many don’t achieve victory because they have set no time limit on getting to their dock.
  2. Take risks. Every river’s whirlpool has some excitement. Find opportunities. Fulfill the obligation to the company and yourself to succeed.
  3. Be confident. Be resilient. Henry J. Kaiser said, “Problems are only opportunities in work clothes.” Successful people just put the paddle on the other side of the canoe and get going again.
  4. Partner with both clients and vendors. It’s more fun to go canoeing with others.
  5. Answer emails, return phone calls, and respond to requests for quotes as quickly as you can. This is a fast-paced society we’re working with. Those who are in racing canoes will finish first.
  6. Ask questions and listen. Ask customers to clearly define what their expectations are.
  7. Hire top performers. I once read an article that said, “You can’t expect to attract headliner workers with understudy wages.”
  8. Learn to delegate. Some people hate to delegate so much that they do everything themselves. You can do that when you’re paddling alone, but when there are others in the boat, everyone has to help.
  9. Use education as an important tool. If you’ve never been in a canoe before, it would be good to get any instructions that will help to make your journey a pleasant experience. The same is true if your company is facing challenges never encountered before: get advice and counsel, talk to industry peers, and learn everything possible before getting in the boat and picking up the paddles.

The phrase “paddle your own canoe” means we have to have an independent streak, be able to take care of our affairs, and be skillful. All these traits are key to succeeding in business these days.

Click here to sign up for the free IB ezine — your twice-weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. If you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.