Balloon Management: Control Operations, Not People

Chapter 11

In this chapter:

So much of what we call management consists in making it difficult for people to work

Have you ever spiked a balloon like you would serve a volleyball, to get more distance?

If so, you’ll know it didn’t go where you intended. The more effort you use to try to control a balloon, the more random its direction becomes. Gentle taps, intermittently placed, keep it in the air with ease. The key is in knowing when and where to tap it. When you stay relaxed and alert, you can guide a balloon virtually anywhere.

The same is true for people. You have the greatest chance of directing the outcome by staying relaxed and alert (in the Possibility Zone!), applying the lightest touch at the appropriate time.

It takes enormous energy and effort to manage people’s actions. At least, that’s the story we keep telling ourselves. What if getting optimal performance from your people could be as effortless as tapping a balloon in the air? Or adjusting a steering wheel? What if we’re making it hard?

Success is a function of paying attention, so that when people need a gentle boost or a course correction, you can give them a light touch at just the right time. Too much too soon, and they’re likely to forget the details or get overwhelmed (oops—crashing and burning in the red zone on the right). Too little too late, and they’re more likely to fail (oops—crashing and burning in the red zone on the left).

It takes very little energy to shift a person’s point of view. The biggest challenge is not in managing “them,” but in keeping our own control issues and reactions to disappointment in check while together we look at what’s missing.

I met a young man named Mike who was enduring more external pressure than most people could bear. His business was in a tailspin, and he was in the dumps. What struck me about him was his courage and authenticity to tell the truth about what was happening to him. Business people so rarely tell the truth about failure. I was drawn to Mike’s openness.

Mike was a farmer. I knew nothing about agriculture. There was a world of cultural differences between us. Despite these differences, Mike was eager to learn from me. Because of these differences, I was eager to learn from Mike.

Mike and his family had suffered a personal trauma a few years earlier when his older brother was killed. At the ripe age of sixteen, Mike set down his video game controller and took charge of a large family farming business. He catapulted into the leadership role on the heels of tragedy. He didn’t have time to learn about the business or grow into a leadership role. He was not prepared to run a business of this magnitude.

Mike enjoyed many successes in his first decade. He put together ambitious deals, and for a time, he did well. But he’d unknowingly built a house of cards. He’d just learned one of the toughest universal lessons of business, that there’s a difference between building a business and directing workers and cash flow. The former is sustainable over the long term; the latter is not.

Mike was hurting and his emotions were raw. This was not the time for me to lecture him about mistakes. Instead I shared my failures, my family’s experiences with grief, and lessons learned along the way. I built trust. Mike listened intently (tap.) He drew his own conclusions from my stories (tap.) He questioned the principles and strategies he felt ready to apply (tap.)

Mike and I talked about the value of this approach to guide his performance. We both saw how effective it was. I came to call it Balloon Management.

The world is filled with so-called experts and advice givers. Everyone wants to talk, but nobody is listening. We’re all striving too hard, needlessly expending energy and effort. Look around you. People are stressed out, frustrated, and unfulfilled in the work they do. In the words of Dr. Phil, “How’s that working for you?”

Once a foundation of trust has been built, learning and growing in partnership with your team can be as effortless as guiding a balloon. An environment of trust is the most glaring difference between high growth entrepreneurs and ordinary employers who constantly struggle to keep staff on track. Successful entrepreneurs manage environments, not people.

An emotional connection is essential to employee engagement. I don’t mean touchy-feely stuff or warm, fuzzy statements of false hope and positivity. I’m referring to connecting mind and heart, establishing a bedrock of trust where work is concerned. When this connection is made, the mind opens automatically. Unlike the expert–student model, learning flows both ways. It’s remarkably simple. Much of the knowledge exchange in learning is nonverbal, as we discovered in Chapter 3, Question the Disconnect.

When we take the time to connect and build a solid foundation of trust, we don’t have to spend a ton of time together. In fact, I spend far less time with the people I know are there for me. I don’t need to validate the relationship. I know we’re connected in a meaningful way. I also know these people will take excellent care of my clients when I make a referral.

In the absence of trust and mutual respect, our social structures get overwhelmed by power dynamics. When we use power or status to dominate and control employee behaviour, the outcome is diminished to a task, a transaction void of meaning. Think of a time you’ve been on the receiving end of obligatory service from a disengaged worker. You want far more for your customers.

As a leader, there’s no question you need to maintain accountability for your people. But relying on power, authority, money, or status to gain the upper hand to keep control doesn’t work. It doesn’t work for you, and it doesn’t work for anyone else.

They Lift, You Direct

​Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction

A teacher once told me it was difficult to motivate students. The same is true in the workplace. Let your employees’ passion fuel their motivation from the inside. They provide the helium. You provide the overall direction and guidance from the outside.

They lift, you direct.

Canadian entrepreneur David Chalk is an anomaly. Had his future unfolded the way the school system predicted, he would have been institutionalized as a child. He had dyslexia and ADHD, which resulted in severe learning disabilities. Reading and writing were incredibly difficult for him.

At age twelve, David’s real learning began when his mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Knowing the world would be tough on David, his mother began preparing him for her imminent death. She had to figure out how to transfer important life lessons to him from her hospital bed. She was determined that his learning would outlast her.

Knowing that traditional teaching methods did not work for him, she relied on his strengths to make the lessons stick. David’s best skill is understanding how his brain absorbs information and processes it into practical, applied learning. He learns best not by regurgitating facts, but by drawing, building, and doing. From the depths of her love, David’s dying mother painted a picture of his future, a future that didn’t include her. Together they created his life plan to age thirty.

David knew his limitations. The school system had made certain of that. Becoming an entrepreneur meant he had to enlist people who were strong where he was weak (the essence of performance DNA, which we’ll cover in the next chapter). To engage them in his venture, he painted a picture of a shared future that was bigger, bolder, and more compelling than anything they could accomplish alone.

“I was fortunate to understand people from my mother,” David confided. “It’s not just about planning, and honestly, I’m not a big business plan writer or anything. What I am is a believer in people.”

Pure gold. What I am is a believer in people.

David created nearly twenty companies with his unique approach to business building. Several have been franchised, including Doppler Computer Superstores and a North American chain of big box membership stores that paved the way for the birth of modern day superstores.

“I spent more than eighty percent of my time working with [my people] as a possibility of the future,” admitted David. “I had them passionate and excited about their lives. It was like revving up a car at the starting line. The wheels are spinning, the engine is racing—the green light goes off, and that car goes flying down the track.”

I’ve witnessed this paradigm in other successful, high-growth companies. Businesses that start as an idea and grow to employ hundreds of people have founders who are aware of their own strengths and limitations and share David’s belief in people.

What’s the attitude toward people in your business? In my experience, most employers and small business owners expect people to let them down … and so they do.

David explained it best when he said, “The process of getting to the other end is my win. Them arriving at the other end is their win. We both had a win–win situation.” The philosophy of helping other people achieve their goals and dreams by helping you build your business extends beyond employees. As a brand, RYU Apparel Inc. is building athletic apparel in an unconventional way. It’s not about the clothes. RYU Apparel is building a business from a shared commitment to values. The respect the founders hold for customers, employees, suppliers, and lenders is reciprocated throughout the brand—Respect Your Universe.

Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) started by offering memberships to its customers. In turn, MEC inspired the growth of new manufacturers and suppliers. One member, Treya Klassen, started sewing garments for MEC from her home. When demand exceeded her capacity to produce, she invited her friends to act on their goals and dreams by sewing garments alongside her. Her friend Simon Levon soon saw the possibility of leaving his corporate career to drive more sales of Treya’s clothing line. They became business partners, learning about business and growing together.

In the absence of capital, Simon and Treya continued to apply the same win–win philosophy to attract the kinds of resources needed to solve problems and grow the business. They listened to discover common interests, from their first factory in Vancouver to expansion into China. By helping others, they helped themselves. The business grew each time the partners noticed their business goals and dreams aligned with someone else’s.

Research data collected from high-growth entrepreneurs shows they are open and willing to integrate other people’s goals and dreams into the pursuit of their business goals and aspirations.

Brokering a win–win agreement requires delicate balance. The relationship can be fragile at the beginning. Fear of the unknown and insecurities about losing control can pop balloons.

The mainstream mindset about business and leadership is all about power, control, and social status. Those are hardly ingredients of a healthy relationship, especially for those positioned at the bottom of the hierarchy. No wonder so many people dread going to work every morning!

Make no mistake. David’s employees did not work to make him successful. They were living into a future of their own success. They worked for David because he was devoted to helping his staff win their own games.

David’s weakness was his greatest gift: He couldn’t jump in and rescue his staff. He led by involving his team in his vision and gained their support in building the systems and processes needed to fulfill it. That’s the nature of mutual respect and collaboration. Let others know what you want the outcome to look like and feel like. They may discover a way to produce that outcome that you never imagined. 

​Ask yourself, “How do my people think and make decisions?” Seek to understand what motivates them, what worries them. Like David Chalk, be a believer in people.

The “A” Word You Don’t Use Often Enough

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel

Traditional approaches to business development and human resource management have created a fixed mindset when it comes to sharing ourselves at work. There’s a disconnect between our wants, needs, and values and “the way business works.” We try to protect what we value by separating our personal lives from our business lives, but we are each a whole person, perfectly imperfect. I discovered this disconnect at my lawyer’s funeral.

Craig, my lawyer, reminded me of Professor Kingsfield from the 1970s TV series The Paper Chase, bow tie and all. His wife was a teacher, and he wanted to know what it was like to teach. I was a student in the one and only business law course he taught to find out. My classmates found him intimidating and aloof. I appreciated his dry humour. We clicked, and he later became my lawyer.

After Craig’s sudden passing, his son invited Randy and me to the service after finding a photo of our children in his father’s office desk. I vividly remember the call. I expected to see people I knew at the reception, but everyone else was family or friends. His children confided that Craig had kept his work life separate from his home life. I felt privileged that chance events allowed me to meet his family.

Knowing I was career oriented, Craig used to peer over the top of his glasses and caution me to make time in my life to have a family. After our second child was born, Craig prepared our wills. I gave him the wallet photo as a gesture of my appreciation for his advice about work– life balance. I wanted him to know that his contribution had made a difference to me and that I’d taken his advice to heart.

The Internet is crowded with claims that gratitude can make you happier. Some say a daily ritual of recounting what you’re thankful for can transform your life. Even Harvard scholars praise the healing power and benefits of gratitude.

Gratitude as a daily practice is great for individuals. I believe there is something equally simple yet exponentially more powerful than gratitude for organizations: Acknowledgment.

Acknowledgment is the action of expressing appreciation toward another person. It shows, first, that you noticed something that person did, and that you then verbalized your belief in that person. I’m not talking about moral platitudes, shallow remarks, or happy speak. If your words lack depth and meaning, they will backfire on you. Acknowledgment is gratitude communicated in a heartfelt, impactful way.

Acknowledgment touches people at an emotional level. It has the power to move people to action and to give them courage when their confidence is low. When unexpected, acknowledgement can make someone’s day, put a jump in someone’s step. Catching people in the act of doing a great job reinforces the actions and behaviours you want to see. I was acknowledging Craig by giving him a photo of our kids.

Acknowledgment is consistent with Balloon Management. It is a powerful way to notice and incrementally release the gifts and talents in other people, powerful enough to create a culture shift. It lifts people up with enough force to energize them and start an upward spiral. As business owners, we are simply noticing what works. With each behaviour-enhancing, system-improving acknowledgment, we collect new dots to connect later.

All of them.

One organization, The Doorway, is holding space and taking the six rules of emotional engagement to the streets, literally. The Doorway uses a self-funded, choice-based approach to release trapped potential in street-involved youth.

The Doorway creates a safe space where young people can openly acknowledge their counter-productive behaviour without judgement (tap). Getting the truth up on the table, so patterns and triggers can be examined, enables youth to learn from their mistakes (tap). In an environment of trust and equality, youth are empowered to plan their own strategy to get off the streets (tap).

Multiple attempts and false starts are needed to develop applied skills, but the success stories are inspiring. By managing the environment (instead of people’s actions), The Doorway is transforming lives, one at a time.

For every copy of The Possibility Process sold, the Discovery Centre for Entrepreneurship contributes to the expansion of The Doorway. This is our way of acknowledging the difference The Doorway is making to Canada’s social development. Business leaders who engage with us to help them implement the Possibility Process in their business are investing in their people, performance, and profit. One process fuels two different outcomes—social development and economic growth.

If you’re reading this book, you are helping us to realize this lofty goal. Thank you!

Breakthrough Boosters

  1. Think about all the things that are working well in your business. Acknowledge the people responsible for producing these results. Tell them specifically what you appreciate about their contributions at work and the positive impact their actions have had on you and the business.
  2. If this chapter caused your thoughts to drift to someone who pleasantly (or unpleasantly) contributed to your development as a leader, act on the impulse to reach out to him or her with a heartfelt expression of gratitude.
  3. To watch a short video and learn more about The Doorway, visit (account login required).  

Remember: Choosing to implement the Possibility Process has little to do with how much power, money, or resources you have. Even if you are starting from scratch, you already have everything you need to be a powerful influencer of the system you want to enhance. In fact, ​having nothing may prove to be to your advantage. After all, you have everything to gain and nothing to lose. So why not give it your best shot? The more rigorous you are with yourself, the bigger the impact you’ll have with others.

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