The million dollar mystery — Where’s the slippery puck going?

Are you as tired of talking about the pandemic as I am? It’s been the headline for 12 months now. We’ve lost so many and so much, stuck in a winter-dark Groundhog Day.

But the hints of spring, like March Madness and the NCAA hockey tournaments, are there. We’re emerging from the pandemic’s long, cold grip on us. Schools are returning to live classrooms. Positive COVID cases are down. We’re getting the much-needed shots in the arm — literally and figuratively.

Many friends were happy to pick their brackets for March Madness again this year. Me, I love college hockey tournaments. I was weaned on Badger hockey, dating all the way back to when they skated at Hartmeyer and then the Coliseum. We’re known for our men’s and women’s championship teams. This year, despite the pandemic, both Badger teams are in the hunt for the top prize. It brings to mind many of the greats in the sport — Coach Bob Johnson, local players on the Miracle on Ice Team, Mark Johnson and the late Bob Suter, and one of the most famous hockey players of all time, Wayne Gretzky.

Gretzky, “The Great One,” earned his nickname when he was just 10. (Talk about putting pressure on a kid!) He lived up to it though and holds or shares 61 different records in the game.

As a child, he watched lots of hockey on TV and lived on the rink his dad put up every year in their yard. His dad told him to draw the game as he watched it, without looking at the paper. He practiced this time and time again. He perfected his skills in reading the game, ice, and players. He etched it deeply in his mind. He mastered anticipating where the puck was going to be, and then, on the ice, made sure he was there to get the shot. No matter how the ice conditions changed, his energy levels, or the opponent, he was there to shoot the shot.

Hockey was not Gretzky’s first love. He wanted to be a professional baseball player. The truth was his desires, capabilities, and skills didn’t match the market. While I’m certain he didn’t suck at baseball, it wasn’t his strength. Hockey was.

Interestingly, as hockey players go, he was slight. He lacked the size and strength of many other players, most of whom weighed an average of 15 pounds more than him. His ability to skate, anticipate moves, improvise, and pivot were his superpowers. He stymied opponents.

His most famous saying now makes sense: “A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.”

The pace of a hockey game is fast and unpredictable. One minute, you’re gliding down the ice going for the goal, and the next you’re on your tail surrendering the puck to someone else or getting slammed into the boards fighting to retain control. Being able to read the ice at a moment’s notice makes and breaks the results of the game.

It sounds like running a business these days, eh? Today, the puck keeps moving on us. The players, our shape-shifting customers, and suppliers surprise us with their next move. The economy is ice-like — slippery, and unpredictable.

What’s next? How do we prepare for a return to normalcy? I believe there are five strategies that leaders should put into play as we enjoy tournament time:

  • Abandon your old play book: There are many aspects of your business model that remain valid and strong, but the game has forever changed. There is no “return to normal.” New market demands, patterns, and trends formed in the last 12 months and will continue to evolve. We, as people, have been deeply impacted and our attitudes about just about everything have changed to one degree or another. Accept this as truth rather than fight it. Pull your coaches and assistant coaches together. Devise the best plays for the new game.
  • Anticipate where the puck is going to be: While we were all caught off guard last March when the whistle stopped the game without warning, we don’t have that excuse this March. People are coming out of the locker room and heading back to the ice. Huddle your team and workshop what will emerge as trends in your customers’ needs, emotions, and desires. Whiteboard wild ideas and chase them down. Contact your customers and ask for their input. Anticipate where you need to be.
  • Manage your bench: Over the past 12 months, you likely have seen a new side of your team. You may have let some of the players go. You may have replaced those people, redeployed others to fill the gap, or are still playing short-handed. Your players have shown you a side of themselves you were unaware of in 2019 — rising to or shrinking against the opportunities and pressures of the game. Who belongs on your first line now? Should positions and lineups be shuffled? Is it time to bring up someone from the juniors or build up the current squad?
  • Drill the plays: Gretzky was known to improvise plays as the game went. He and his teammates were able to adapt because they knew the base play. They had a plan and a strategy for the game and any given play. The coach built their systems for each game — specific plays, strategies, and rules similar to your company’s policies, procedures, systems, and tools. As we move into the rest of 2021, practice the plays. Fine tune your systems so they can withstand the power play when it comes. Be ready for the rush. Revisit everything from material sourcing, your supply chain options and relationships, manufacturing, product/service delivery, and relationship management. Be prepared to improvise, seize opportunities, and defend the goal as the puck moves.
  • Make it fun: Think of the pandemic spring like skating on to the ice at the beginning of the second period. The first period is behind you. You may be ahead or you may be battered and bruised, but there’s energy and excitement. 2020, the “first period,” sent us reeling and reassessing what is and isn’t important in life.

The game is important, but so is having fun out on the ice — enjoying the teamwork, making the saves, assisting to make the goal, shaking hands at the end. Another one of Gretzky’s famous quotes is, “If you surround yourself with quality people and great friends, the sky’s the limit.” Celebrate the wins and help each other up after a fall. Go out there to skate and have fun.

We business leaders are in our own NCAA tournament. We’ve made it to this point in the season. We can make it to the championship game. Skate to where the puck is going to be. Take care of your teammates. Shoot your shot.

Happy spring and On, Wisconsin!

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