Squirrels, Boats, and Thoroughbreds (Book Review)

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“Success is doing ordinary things extraordinarily well.” — Jim Rohn

It can be tough to find leadership guides that really dive into the tough stuff.  You know, the messy parts of leadership, or how to really apply leadership to work and life.

This is especially true when it comes to finding great guidance on leading transformation, or combining personal leadership with business leadership.

Squirrels, Boats, and Thoroughbreds: Lessons for Leading Change in Traditional Businesses, is a book that does just that.

In Squirrels, Boats, and Thoroughbreds, Jamie Gerdsen shares hard-learned lessons on leadership for inspiring innovation and change, in yourself, in business, and in others.   He tackles topics including hiring, motivation, professional focus, coaching the business cycle, and work-life balance.

It’s a brilliant book with real-world experience on how to get everyone rowing together in the same direction to “pull” the vision, mission, and values forward.  It’s all about lasting leadership.

Whether you read it as a personal development guide, or a leadership manual, or a book on business transformation, the lessons are powerful, pragmatic, and timeless.

With that in mind, let’s dive in …

What’s In it For You?

Here is a sampling of some of the things that Squirrels, Boats, and Thoroughbreds helps you with:

  • How to grow yourself and your business
  • How to lead and drive change more effectively
  • How to be a more effective business leader through personal development and organizational savvy
  • How to clear your head of head trash
  • How to renew and recharge yourself on a regular basis
  • How to develop your personal, family, community and business leadership skills
  • How to hire more effectively
  • How to create a compelling place to work
  • How to inspire people to better levels of performance, including yourself
  • How to do more meaningful marketing that creates a lasting brand image

Chapters at a Glance

  • Chapter 1 – Call to Action
  • Chapter 2 – What Success Feels Like
  • Chapter 3 – See Your Future
  • Chapter 4 – The Positive Power of Pull
  • Chapter 5 – The Paradox of Leadership
  • Chapter 6 – Capital T, Little t Talent
  • Chapter 7 – Squirrel Versus Dog
  • Chapter 8 – Making the Circles Concentric
  • Chapter 9 – Is Implosion Imminent?
  • Chapter 10 – All in the Family
  • Chapter 11 – Mindset and Motivation
  • Chapter 12 – The Communications Conundrum
  • Chapter 13 – Three to Go
  • Chapter 14 – Birth to Death: The Business Life Cycle
  • Chapter 15 – Overwhelmed
  • Chapter 16 – R(relationships) + or – V (value) + $ (profit)
  • Chapter 17 – The Elephant in the Room
  • Chapter 18 – Coaching: I’ll Take the Under, Not the Over
  • Chapter 19 – Highs and Lows
  • Chapter 20 – Taking the Long View
  • Chapter 21 – Inside and Outside
  • Chapter 22 – Three Rights for Success
  • Chapter 23 – Laws of the Jungle
  • Chapter 24 – Do It Yourself? Or Hire an Agency?
  • Chapter 25 – The Game Changer
  • Chapter 26 – Rings Around the Bull’s-eye
  • Chapter 27 – Time, Talent, and Treasure
  • Chapter 28 – Four-Dimensional Leadership
  • Chapter 29 – The Power of Pull Redux

Key Features

Here are some of the key features of Squirrels, Boats, and Thoroughbreds:

  • Actionable.  The book is extremely actionable.   In fact, every few pages you turn, you’ll likely want to try something.
  • Easy to read.   It’s written in plain English and with a conversational tone.  Best of all, Gerdsen gets to the point.
  • Look Ahead.   At the end of every chapter, you’ll find a short set of exercises and actionable ways to reflect on what you learned and put it to use.
  • Real-world advice.   It’s not academic theory.  It’s real-world lessons from the school of hard knocks.
  • Stories and examples.  Gerdsen weaves stories and examples throughout his book that bring the ideas to life and help you easily relate to the information.

Here is a sampling of some of my favorite nuggets from the book …

The Future is Inside You

Don’t wait for the future.  Make it happen.

Gerdsen writes:

“Put a positive mindset together with motivation and you’ve become a force to be reckoned with.  This is the person who can lead a company forward.  The new you.  One of my favorite quotes sums it up nicely:
‘The future isn’t in front of you. It’s inside you.’”

Never Become Satisfied

When you get to the top of the mountain, there’s always another one.  Unless you give up.

Gerdsen writes:

“My point is that success changes.  It’s like a video game.  You reach one level only to realize you have a new challenge in reaching the next.  Savor each level as you complete it and relish the challenge of the next.  Never become satisfied.  That’s the kiss of death.”

Startup Routine

Gerdsen shares his starup routine that helps him make the most of each day:

  1. Ten minutes of thinking great thoughts: I think about people who are adding value in the world, things that make a difference, things that turned out better than anyone expected because someone took the time to care.  Little things. Big things. Great things.  They’re all positive things and they put you in a positive mood.
  2. Ten Minutes of reading: No not the morning paper, or worse, some tabloid from the supermarket.  Invest in a business book that broadens your thinking, develops a talent, or expands your mastery of an area. I was never a reader growing up, but I have gained so much from the books I’ve read, I’ve become an avid reader.  These days, I inhale books. I can’t get enough.
  3. Ten minutes of writing: You see the progression: ten minutes of your good thoughts, ten minutes of learning, now you’re ready to put your learning, your thoughts, your hopes on paper.  I believe in this so much that I have my management team journaling.  Going back and rereading what I’ve written, I can see my own personal growth.  If you had told me I’d gain this much insight by writing things down, I’d have told you that you were crazy.  Crazy, yeah, like a fox.

Centered and a Reservoir of Strength

You can improve your leadership capability at work, by improving your personal and family leadership.

Gerdsen writes:

“I’ve found that because my personal and family leadership improved it has made my business leadership better.  This goes back to that concept of balance — of not being 100 percent in one area, and 10 percent in the others.  I’m convinced that if you’re more ‘centered’ in your personal and family lives, you have a base from which to show more business leadership.  This base, this reservoir of strength makes a huge difference.  With things I might have gone ballistic on before, I find I’m more controlled, more interested in resolution than fireworks.”

Start with the Future

Don’t get stuck in the past, or bogged down in the present.  Flip to the future.  Break it down and work backwards from the end in mind.

Gerdsen writes:

“Nonetheless, that inertia of starting a transformation is something you’ll have to overcome.  What worked for me was breaking the target situation into a whole slew of smaller tasks.  Once again, I started with the future.

My first step was to visualize the company one year from now, three years from now, and five years from how.  At each of these future dates, I documented in detail how I saw the company structured, staffed, and performing.  I also documented changing market conditions, competitors, and other potential threats.”

Spend Your Time on Operations, Customers, and New Business

It’s easy to sink all of your time into one aspect.  Invest your time in improving operations, learning more about your customers, and growing or expanding your business.

Gerdsen writes:

“An adviser of mine once told me that I should divide my time this way: one-third should be spent on business operations, one-third should be spent with customers, and one-third should be spent on new business.

Measure how you spend your time.  If you’re like me, most of it was in operations.  Making the shift to spending more time out of the office might not be easy for you, but customers love it when you pay attention to them — so that’s good for business.  And the more time you invest in new business, the better your growth potential.”

Brand Messaging and Transactional Messaging

Give the people you serve an image that draws them to you, among the sea of choices.

Gerdsen writes:

“It’s easy to explain with an example.  BMW’s brand message is ‘The Ultimate Driving Machine.’  Their transactional message is ‘Right now, you can get a BMW with zero down, zero first month’s payment, and zero APR.’  The brand message makes you want it; the transactional message gives you the incentive to buy right now.  Again, you need to both to optimize your business potential.
Creating a brand message is the more difficult of the two because it requires you to say in a few well-chosen words why you are unique.  I say well-chosen words because they need to set a tone or create an image.  Imagine if BMW had used ‘The Ultimate Driving Automobile.’ It doesn’t have the same oomph does it?
As you think what your brand message might be, steer clear of what others in your market have used, as well as things that are overused.”

A Reason to Choose You

Give your customers a reason to choose you.  It has to stand out among the sea of hyperbole.

Gerdsen writes:

““… the cardinal rule of marketing is ‘It’s not about you. It’s about your customer.’, and you need to give them a reason to choose you.

That’s why you hear things like ‘It’s the best checking account in the world.” or “No hospital cares for you as much as we do.’  These companies say these kinds of things out of pride and when they do, unfortunately, they’re talking to themselves.  All that hyperbole gets old pretty quick, and even worse, it’s not what customers want to hear.  They don’t want to hear you talk about how wonderful you are.  They want to know how your product will benefit them.  For example: ‘Offering you the most convenient ATMs.’ or ‘More clinical experience for better outcomes.’  Give your customer a reason to choose you is what marketing is all about.”

4 Laws of the Jungle

Gerdsen shares what he learned about the laws of the jungle as a metaphor for effective marketing:

  1. First Law: If you Want to Mate … Jungle animals know that if they want to market, they have to stand out.
  2. Second Law: If You Want to Eat … A great many jungle animals hunt in packs.  With more animals on the hunt, there’s a better chance they’ll capture prey.  The same is true in reaching consumers.  Using one media is like hunting solo.  You want to reach the consumer in multiple places.
  3. Third Law: If You Want to Survive … Survival in the jungle isn’t easy.  Overcoming harsh conditions, multiple predators, and the intrusion of man, takes constant vigilance.  Animals must pay attention to scents, sounds, and instincts to quickly escape dander.  As marketers, we must pay constant attention to market conditions and nimbly adjust our marketing to make sure we not only survive, but also prevail.
  4. Fours Law: If You Want to Be Feared … In the jungle it’s threaten or be threatened.  The bigger beasts are able to intimidate smaller scavengers and even some bigger animals.  The same is true in marketing.  The company that ‘muscles up’ and dominates is the one that will intimate other companies.  You can be that dominant company by making sure your marketing is in the right place, at the right time, with the right message.

Three Initiatives at a Time

Initiatives are programs of improvement.   Three initiatives creates energy.  More creates chaos.

Gerdsen writes:

“At Apollo, change is constant.  We have three initiatives going at any one time.  Strategic planners always want you to do a top five.  But I’ve found five initiatives are too many for an organization.  Three seems to create a sense of energy in the organization, a feeling that the company is moving forward and becoming better. More than three — chaos erupts.  Too much is in flux.”

Push Pull Theory

Pushing wears you out.  Instead, encourage the larger system or team to pull the organization forward.

Gerdsen writes:

“My self-examination took me all the way back to that nationals rowing championship in Indianapolis.  I found parallels between that race and running the business.  I couldn’t push that boat to a win.  I couldn’t move from one rower to another, pushing on his oar, trying to make the boat faster.  All I’d have done was create chaos.  And that’s what my frantic activity was creating now at Apollo.  Like rowing, what I had to do what get each manager in the company pulling in sync with a ‘power 20.’  I felt that surge of adrenaline that signals an ah-ha moment. I’d shifted into sound thinking mode, and I dubbed this new idea of mine Push Pull Theory.”

Squirrel Versus Dog

If you’re involved with hiring, know whether you need to hire a squirrel or a dog.

Gerdsen writes:

“If you want to climb a tree, hire a squirrel.  He’ll scamper right up that tree, as fast as his little feet will take him.  If you want to climb a tree, don’t hire a dog.  Oh, a dog with be your friend.  He’ll sit at the bottom, look up the tree, and bark.  But climb? Seriously?”

Create a “Fewer Meetings” Environment

If you want to be more productive, then have less meetings.  Make the meetings that you do have count.

Gerdsen writes:

“Where I would have been the one wanting to know the status of a particular thing, in this new ‘fewer meetings’ environment, the meetings we did have became more productive because we were talking about accomplishments not status.
The other benefit was that by focusing on fewer things in meetings, we tended to go deeper on a given subject.  Instead of a superficial look, things got the deeper dive needed for real results.
You have to find your optimum balance.  Our turned out to e a short weekly meeting and a longer strategic meeting once a month.  I realized that even with fewer meetings I still had my finger on the pulse of the business through our employee playbooks that summarize weekly achievements and our ongoing program of customer satisfaction surveys.”

Put Out Fires — Don’t Hire a Flame Extinguishing Company

Don’t turn problems into ongoing projects.   Put the fires out.

Gerdsen writes:

“Finally, take the longer view in hiring.  Sure, hiring someone to put out a small fire feels good.  It’s a quick validation that you’re actively managing your business.  When you see an ongoing blaze you don’t ignore it.  You don’t establish a flame-extinguishing committee.  You put out the fire.  End of story.”

Let Go – You’ll Have More Control When You Do

It’s the paradox of leadership.  Letting go gives you more control.

Gerdsen writes:

“This is the big paradox of leadership.  This is one of the hardest lessons there is to learn: You actually have more control when you let go.

It’s true.  Better employees don’t want to be controlled.  They want to think, not just execute.  So if you think you need better managers, you may have to grow your own and give them room to operate.”

Get the Book

Squirrels, Boats, and Thoroughbreds, by Jamie Gerdsen, is available on Amazon:

Squirrels, Boats, and Thoroughbreds: Lessons for Leading Change in Traditional Businesses, by Jamie Gerdsen

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Image by State Library of South Australia..

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