Entrepreneurship Startup Handbook

On Rowing the Boat

Lately I’ve been using a metaphor about rowing boats to illustrate how each person on our team must add value or be removed from the team.

(Please know I don’t take letting someone go lightly. I’ve had to do it several times at iThemes, but it’s always a hard, and often emotional decision and one of the duties I don’t enjoy as part of my job.)

So here’s the deal … with any small business, everybody is in the same small boat together fighting against the current of normal business activities.

Unlike some big corporations, where a person could possibly “hide” and slip by with little or no actual work product to show, small businesses need everyone contributing, working together, as there’s often more work than enough warm bodies.

There’s little margain for error. (Google the statistics of small business failure if you need more convincing or ask an entrepreneur.)

So here are the rules of small business “boating”:

  • Everybody on the boat must row — Nobody gets a free pass on rowing. I realize sometimes you need a break from rowing. So yes, sometimes you need to take time to rest, relax, get re-energized and motivated, but then it’ll be time to get back up and start rowing hard with everybody else again.
  • Each person must carry their own weight and then some — This is about adding value to the team effort. Merely jumping in the boat and rowing your own addition means you’re simply watching the scenery as others are rowing the boat ahead. Each person should add something to the effort of the team in their own unique way. This doesn’t always mean someone is the strongest rower but maybe they are the most efficient. Either way, when you’re rowing next to your teammates toward the same goal and vision, you start realizing your rowing for a greater cause – the person next to you. Rowing comes in all kinds of different flavors but all must advance the mission of the team first and primarily.
  • Each person must be rowing in the same direction as the group — Sometimes people get in the boat and decide to steer the boat in a different direction than the rest of the team. This doesn’t just mean the team is carrying that person’s weight now, but they are actively battling AGAINST them. Or maybe they are distracted and don’t realize their oar is dragging. Either way, it must be corrected quickly, or else it’s wasted energy and time and money.
  • Failure to heed the laws of small business boating means …. you get dropped off at the next campsite (or worse, thrown overboard) — it’s a tough decision to take someone out of the boat, but I’ve found it also can dramatically increase morale (especially if the person is rowing against the team or causing distractions and problems within the crew).



One reply on “On Rowing the Boat”

It’s also important to address the “new guy” who’s jumping in the boat. If you’re starting out in a new boat, it’s important to get a feel for the direction the team is rowing the boat. It can be the temptation of a new rower to jump in and throw their metaphorical oar in the water thinking they are adding something new and awesome (or even with good intentions of trying to prove themselves), but the boat is already in motion and if they aren’t contributing in the direction the team was going before they jumped in, they are actually working against the boat. That isn’t to say new rowers can’t have an opinion on where the boat is going at some point, but the analogy is great to illustrate that if you aren’t working with the team, you’re actively working against it.

Great post. Awesome illustration.

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