It was a warm evening in the spring of 1992, and the winds were light and variable as we departed Charleston, South Carolina, for our return flight to Clarksville, Tennessee. Our single-engine Cessna aircraft had the fuel tanks topped off, and the weather for the 500-mile trip looked good. With the steady hum of the Lycoming engine, my passenger and I settled in for the flight. We didn’t have GPS technology, nor did we have an iPad showing our real-time flight path and weather – that technology was still years away. As we began to cross the Smoky Mountains, the sun had set so we had little visual reference except for a few random lights from small towns in western North Carolina. It took us a while, but it became very clear that the lights were not passing beneath us very quickly. I called the Air Traffic Center controller for a ground speed check. His response was, “You don’t want to know!” before telling us that it was around 50-60 miles per hour! Our airspeed was 130 miles per hour, but an especially stiff headwind meant that our plane was only going about half that fast in relation to the ground. Without an altitude change to take advantage of more favorable winds aloft, we were going to need a fuel stop before reaching our destination.
Have you ever felt that way in your business? Your airspeed is okay because you can check all the boxes:
- Qualified employees (but maybe looking for more)
- Backlog of orders
- Quality is good
- Continuous improvement efforts
- Shipping on time
But you aren’t making the progress that you want.
It could be any number of things that cause you to feel this way. Maybe profit margins have eroded, some key employees have left your organization, long-standing issues have never been completely resolved, or your products need to be updated to stay viable in the market.
As we proved in our flight, airspeed is necessary for a safe flight, but ground speed is critical for progress. For us, the change in altitude is what made the difference. We couldn’t change the wind, but we could change how we engaged with it. So it is in business – there are things that are out of our control. We can complain, work harder and look for loop holes, but in the end it’s our ground speed that matters.
Forward progress – you know it when it’s happening, and your employees do too. So how can you achieve it? Start by being honest about where your focus is. Are you and your team spending the majority of your time on internal issues? If so, intentionally taking a step back and considering these questions may help you address the headwinds along your route:
- What are we doing to engage and listen to our customers?
- Have we clearly defined our target audience(s)? Do we understand their needs, concerns and behaviors?
- What are we doing to evaluate our industry so we can identify potential disruptions and mitigate the risks to our business?
- How can we strengthen our brand and position in the market?
This is not an exhaustive list but demonstrates the shift from internal to external focus – like checking the winds along the route. If I had looked over the winds aloft forecast before leaving Charleston (as I should have), we could have planned in advance for the headwinds instead of wasting time reacting to them in flight. Hindsight is 20/20 of course, but hindsight in business can be an expensive way to learn our lessons. Instead, taking time to focus outside of your day-to-day business activities can help you navigate better and make forward progress. Perhaps you’ll even experience more tailwinds than headwinds as a result.