About 20 years ago I got totally addicted to skydiving. Hooked. I couldn’t get enough of it. It was also about this time that I began getting a little freaked out by carpet. But I’ll explain more about that later.
I was young. I’d just sold a business. I calculated I could take a year off and I knew exactly how I wanted to spend it; jumping out of a plane. My skydiving obsession had begun in a cinema watching Wesley Snipes – or at least his stunt double for insurance reasons – leaping out of a plane called a Douglas C-47 Skytrain. A couple of days later my friend and I went and did a static line parachute jump. It was terrifying, gut-wrenching and utterly wonderful.
Many years later, with money in my pocket and time on my hands, I headed to Florida to do hundreds of skydives: Fly. Jump. Fly. Land. Repeat. Sleep. It was the most magical 12 months of my life.
A fellow skydiving addict once told me the main difference between crack cocaine and skydiving is that the latter is more expensive. It certainly is when you do 10 a day.
Colourful communities of hedonistic thrillseekers hung around the airfields, living in tents, vans and trailers; but these particular adrenalin junkies had enough money to pay what could amount to hundreds of dollars a day to get their fix.
Among them were quite a few people I am sure could have been up to no good had skydiving not scratched their risk-taking itch. A lot of us were CEOs or founders hunting for alternative forms of adrenalin. We knew what it was like to have sweaty palms, a racing heart and a dry throat running a business. Now we were getting similar feelings before stepping out of a plane miles above the Earth.
Of course, not all CEOs are skydivers. But if you run a business and these feelings are entirely unfamiliar to you, then is it time to ask yourself whether you are taking enough risks? Are you embracing three fundamental pillars which will drive your business forward?
Does your business need some TLC?
If you are truly embracing TLC you should realise that being afraid is no bad thing.
Let’s begin by thinking about $10 billion. Take a second to truly think about how much money that is. Ten billion dollars. Ten thousand million dollars. How would you feel if you had $10 billion? How would you feel betting it on a horse? Even a horse with good odds and even if you had loads of money anyway? If you can imagine this, you may be able to get at least a sense of how Mark Zuckerberg feels right now.
Facebook has committed to spending £10 billion this year alone on investing in the metaverse. If this term is new to you, then you need to find out what it is quickly because it is about to begin affecting and infecting almost every aspect of your business.
Imagine putting on a virtual reality headset on a drizzly February day in England and being transported to a sun soaked balcony in Bali to shake hands with the avatar of a tech entrepreneur from China. Imagine watching the Manchester derby from the middle of the pitch at Old Trafford, running alongside Cristiano Ronaldo as he scores the winning goal. Imagine wearing your VR headset for nearly all the time you are at work. This is the metaverse and it’s coming. Either that or Mark Zuckerberg is about to waste the annual GDP of a small island nation and, hilariously, on something that literally doesn’t exist.
Why would a man who has everything risk so much? Because he doesn’t just want to own the world now. He wants to own the future.
So, back in reality, what does a CEO of a company where the turnover is a mere seven figures take from this? How can someone who only has a hazy concept of what the metaverse even is hope to have agency in this almost inconceivable future?
For a start banish any thoughts of technology somehow being ring-fenced in your organisation. You should have dismissed that concept in about 1999. If you think technology is a separate entity within your business for your CTO to handle, then you are wrong. Technology is woven through the fabric of your business in the same way it has leached into almost every part of your personal life.
Secondly, consider that you might not really understand what’s going on. The technological potential of the world and its implications are close to incomprehensible. Technology is changing us faster than we can learn about it. But this is no excuse for not trying to understand. Dare to try the impossible task. If you don’t, one thing is certain; you will sit watching other CEOs and their ventures overtake you through the passenger window when you should be in the cockpit flying the plane.
When I think about leadership I often think about selling because selling is a kind of magic that can transform what people believe to be possible. Through the art of storytelling we can open people’s minds to appreciate the true benefits of ideas which make the world a better place.
Once you begin to understand the possibilities of technology and the effect on your business you need to create a compelling vision of the future that you can sell to your team. Inspire them to join you in the magic of changing the world. They will join you if you can enthuse them with the belief it is worth doing.
All this will become much easier if you trust them and they trust you. Trust is built out of demonstrating care. Most CEOs will say that their people are their most vital asset. But we should constantly be checking ourselves to ask if we are treating them that way.
A more difficult element of building trust is showing vulnerability. People’s ideas of leaders can too easily tend towards the image of an almost infallible, uber competent figure, without which things would fall apart. It can be hard to accept that sharing some of your weaknesses can actually persuade others to follow you.
You’ve already laid bare your vulnerability in front of technology, now trying doing it in front of your workforce. Tell them – and mean it: ‘I cannot do this on my own. I need you.’
This dual approach engages people with a story, while giving them the power to play their part in its creation. Yet it is only one of the many facets of leadership which I will explore with you in the future.
Now, let me explain why I used to get slightly freaked out by carpet. And I’m not talking about any old carpet.
After the plane takes off from the airfield it spirals upwards to a height of two-and-a-half miles. With each rising loop the silence among the newer skydivers becomes more profound. Casual jokes that get a good laugh at 500m fall flat at 3000. Stomachs are knotted, tongues stick to the roofs of mouths. We nervously wait for the engines to slow at the dropzone. The door opens with a rush of air. The first skydiver steps off the carpeted floor of the plane and hurtles downwards, becoming almost instantly a distant speck and then invisible.
The idea that this jaded, but otherwise homely carpet, could exist on the edge of two-and-a-half miles of fear, excitement and beauty was difficult to reconcile.
The way I rationalised it was by going back to the word ‘skydiving’. As an activity it is well named, because this is exactly what you do. In the same way a diver dives into water, skydivers dive into the atmosphere. Once you are soaring through the air at around 120mph it is amazing what you can do. Like a bird you can tilt, turn and manoeuvre. It is a unique experience of being in control, while also accepting the greater power of gravity. Eventually, any fear of the flight is forgotten in the sheer, magical joy of those moments of freedom and ecstasy.
I haven’t been skydiving for many years now, although one day I definitely intend to return. But just like those entrepreneurs swapping the rush of business for the rush of gravity in Florida, I still feel the hairs on the back of my neck prick up when I confront my fears to create something truly innovative.
Innovation and risk come hand-in-hand. There is nothing harder than trying to market a truly new idea. No-one knows what you’re talking about, they don’t understand the language you’re using, no-one else has recommended it to them and there are no reviews online. There is a very real risk of creating something great, but so different you struggle to sell it.
People often say ‘Don’t be afraid of change’ but in fact it is only when you are afraid that you know you’re truly doing something new. Change is hard. You are met with scepticism and will doubt yourself. But know this, if you are waking up at 3am worrying about it, then it could be a powerful sign that what you are considering will make a real difference. Of course, there are times when you might fail. Then you may fail again. But failure is no shame. Not taking the step at all is the real let down.
The first time you jump out of a plane you experience something called sensory overload. Your mind struggles to compute what is happening. Humans aren’t evolved to plummet through the sky, so it can feel like our brains turn themselves off and on again. With more jumps you learn to perceive clearly and maintain control; always knowing that if you screw things up you’re dead. The risk is clear. The reward is gaining control over something that previously seemed impossible.
Will you stay sitting on the carpet or will you step out of the door?
Do you want to effect real change in the world? Maybe I can help you and you can help me.
I will be using LinkedIn and my blog to share ideas on the theme of technology, leadership and change, because we all need a bit of TLC.