From Above




I had a good dose of my own medicine this last week.

Actually, I took the medicine a while ago, but I am now in a position to properly reflect on the experience.

The platform for my learning was my third Whale Trail walk, and this time we did it right.

The first time I did it I was a guest, and a slightly unwelcome one at that. The second time I was the host, but I almost immediately surrendered control over the process by way of a debate over food, and walked away doubtful if half the group cared for my product.

The third time we nailed it.

Now, let me qualify my victory lap here. I learned a long time ago that, sometimes, you just get lucky (or unlucky). As the tour guide/trip planner/event organizer, you are putting yourself out there every time. Especially if not everyone in the group knows each other well, or even at all. There are inherent risks that one or two individuals could shape the narrative of the experience, by way of their negative energy or conflict with others. How much impact they have will depend on you, of course.

And then sometimes you luck out. You just don’t have those conflicts, and things JUST WORK.

You know what I’m talking about. From the start, things just gel. People get along, there is good chemistry and a distinct lack of drama. Even when the weather turns foul, something goes wrong with the food, or you are unable to do a certain promised activity, it’s not a big deal. The group just deals and makes the best of it.

On the flip side, you could be doing 99% of things right. The trail delivers, the food is great, you tick all the activity boxes. You see whales and otters and loeries and dolphins and glorious sunsets and spectacular views.

But your trouble child is fixated on the old mattresses, the spiders in the loo, the lack of proper coffee, the one morning of rain that soaked their backpack and clothes for the rest of the trip, and…my personal favourite…not enough vegan options.

Things go wrong, despite your best efforts. But what I learned a long time ago is that there are probably three keys to successfully delivering on your product:

  1. Be clear about what the product will do for your ideal customer.

  2. Communicate this well. Before, during, and after purchase.

  3. If the product is not working for the ideal customer, find out what features they do want. Then iterate until you nail it.

I’ve gone through this process before with PG Tops and the touring business. I ended up, after 10 years, in a very different place than where I started. But part of it was not knowing who my ideal customer was, never mind what my product was when I started. Over time, and with patience, I figured it out. And I listened. I listened to my customers, my team, and my suppliers. And we tweaked until we got there.

With Shoshin Walks, we are in the same process. And this is where I get to the point of this story. Strategy sits with you. The founder, the leader, the “visionary”. Yeah, I like to call myself a visionary. Nobody else does, but hey, let’s claim it. For YOUR BUSINESS, you are the visionary though. The person that sets direction, that sees the path. The person that has to make the calls, ring the changes, roll the dice.

Strategy is collaborative. You talk to smart people, you ask them what they want, you take on board their opinions. But you still have to make the final call and have the strength of your convictions if not everyone agrees. You also need to shift your perspective if needed, and not be stuck in your paradigm. But knowing the difference…ah, there is the great challenge.

When we started Shoshin, I did talk to my colleagues. All top tour guides, all people I respected well, and we jointly agreed on a certain way forward. We would focus on the personal work element, and leave the food up to the individual. Keep it simple, we said. Keep the price point lower, we thought. I didn’t fully agree, but I did not have the strength of my own convictions at the time.

After almost two years of tinkering with the model, it is clear we were wrong. Our clients have come back and resoundingly said: feed us. Make it easy for us. We’ll pay. We want the whole solution.

So after a few walks where the food took centre stage (to our detriment), I made the changes. Strategy, ultimately, sits with me. And with the food taken care of, I upped the price point and went out to find the right person to fix this problem.

And so, on this last Whale Trail, I invited my cousin Lush Zelewitz along. A culinary nomad, his base is Mahlzeit, his retro neon garage restaurant in Somerset West. This is where he serves up a dazzling range of treats including Allekrik Ravioli and Austrian cake. But he also jets around a bit. Working locations like Austria’s busiest ski resort or a tent at the Oktoberfest, has given him not only the craft to work magic with limited time and resources but also the most magical of skills: People.

What a treat, hey. To have a guy like that look after your guests. The food was amazing, the delivery was done with flair, and Lush became the star of the show. The quips, the stories, the detailed explanations of how he came to the recipe, the back story to why this particular dish, the passionate advocacy for sourcing ethical ingredients.

And a lot of that was done easily, on the spot. It all felt comfortable, organic, and timeous.

I saw his whole process. How he insisted on more detail so he could adequately prepare. How he pushed back against things that I wanted that didn’t work, but easily incorporated suggestions that would. The work went into sourcing, packing, prepping, freezing. You don’t have unlimited space to pack food, so Lush was thinking ahead all the time, and how he could use renewable resources like the roulade, the breakfast bread, and leftovers from dinner.

Lush had been clear on HIS STRATEGY. He scanned the terrain, reviewed his resources, and placed his troops. Then he went to battle, and the result was glorious.

Leadership is tough. Leadership is being inclusive, leadership is collaborative. Leadership is also the strength of your own convictions and not veering from your recipe, despite lots and lots of well-intended suggestions. Leadership is preparation, leadership is thinking ahead, leadership is adjusting to the changing landscape and making the necessary calls. Leadership is setting your team up for success, and removing obstacles for them to be their best.

Yolanda, the Zims, and everyone else that were lucky enough to experience this last trip with me will agree: with Lush, we saw true leadership in action. And strategy executed perfectly.

Thanks, Lush. Can’t wait for the next one.

You can go find Lush on Facebook or Instagram.

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