The Conversation That Changes Everything

“So, I hear that you’re training for an Ironman.” Our new sales manager leaned across the table smiling brightly,”Man, that’s impressive – how do you do find the time to do that?”

We were enjoying drinks with a few others after dinner. It was a beautiful evening outdoors in the mountains, and we had already shared several laughs. The banter was light, and so was my response.

“Oh, it’s not that big of a deal, and it takes far less time than people imagine. It’s just twelve to seventeen hours of training a week, which isn’t bad.”

“No, that’s not what I meant,” he said as his smile vanished,”I meant: How do you train for an Ironman, and still do your job?” This had quickly turned into the conversation that changes everything, in just two sentences. Everyone at the table noticed, and went quiet.

“Well, it’s really not that much time when it’s broken down,” I said,”It’s some early morning workouts, some lunchtime workouts, and then some longer rides, swims, or runs on weekends.”

“Hmmm. I guess I can see that, but I’m pretty good at time management, and I couldn’t work it in. I don’t know how you do it.” He paused for a moment before he added,”and still do your job…”

The wind blew down from the mountains as I considered my response.  I already knew where this conversation was going, and – in fact – he did, too.

“Okay, well, what time do you get up in the morning?” I asked.

“Oh, I like to roll out of bed by 6:30.”

“On training mornings, I get up at 5am, so there’s seven-and-a-half hours in my week that you don’t have,” I said. “And, how far is your commute?”

“Forty-five minutes, each way.”

“Well then, my commute is thirty yards, so there’s another hour-and-a-half per day for me.” I said. “So there’s an extra fifteen in my week.”

“Okay, I see where you’re going with this,” he said, shaking his head,”But I just don’t see it.”

“You don’t see it?” I asked.

“Yeah, I just can’t see how you can train for an Ironman and still do your job.”

“Well, I DO do my job and train for Ironman events. And – in fact – this next one is my second one, and it hasn’t been a problem with work, so far.” I was by then firmly on defense, and this statement – in retrospect – was as close as I could come to punting.

“I just don’t see it.” He said this definitively, as if it wasn’t just a matter of perspective and it certainly wasn’t open for debate. The conversation was over, as far as he was concerned.

I got up to leave shortly after. That evening, we had an impromptu meeting of Team Pemba, where we started crafting our exit from that brand. Less than three months later, we were done with them. I still see that guy around from time to time. He’s put on a lot of weight. To be fair, he’s also had a few promotions since then.

And herein lies the dichotomy in the outdoor industry. It’s best represented in the difference between Alec Baldwin’s cameo in Glengarry Glen Ross and the memory of Alex Lowe. When our motivation comes from “Third prize is: You’re fired” instead of “It’s going to be fun to the bitter end.” it’s safe to say we’ve lost our way.

It’s time we each asked ourselves: Is outdoor activity what drives us, or is this just some other kind of widget or rag to sell?

While we consider the question, our customers are playing Wii, and teaching their kids to do the same.

6 responses to “The Conversation That Changes Everything

  1. Interesting. Two things come to mind. One is that, so long as the dollars are there and your volume growth is on par or exceeding other rep groups, your supplier is just plain full of hot air (as well as a probable excess of cheeseburgers).

    However, one of the things you’re fighting is the stereotype of the outdoor rep: “those guys would rather ski than sell my stuff. They’re not really businessmen.” It’s likely that cheeseburger-man came to the table with that stereotype and you just fed in to his preconceptions. He was probably also jealous because he can’t figure out how to make the time to stay fit.

    I was in a conversation the other day with a CEO who sells both through the OI market and in consumer electronics. He LOVES the CE reps. Why? Five percent commission and a focus on new account growth that he doesn’t perceive among his outdoor reps. His view is that OI reps are too often satisfied with meeting last year’s numbers and then taking time off to play outdoors. I’m not sure if that’s perception or reality or if he just has a bunch of just-getting-by reps but it’s a stereotype the good reps are saddled with.

  2. avatar David Sweeney

    This speaks to a couple of fundamental truths that I’ve come to believe when working together with other people.

    1. All issues are communication issues
    2. Where you stand depends on where you sit

    I think there’s this common misconception where managers believe that everyone’s actions are synchronized to the company’s mythical Shared Vision.

    However, to achieve Shared Vision a group of people need to have an understanding of each others Shared Expectations. To understand each others expectations a Shared Perspective is needed.

    These states of being in an organization are only possible through communication and a commitment to finding clarity in our roles and how we work together. Shared Vision doesn’t just happen and it shouldn’t be expected as a natural state of business…

    Yours in therapy,
    – D.

  3. Chris, your comment reminds me of a joke that I often tell: “What’s a thousand reps at the bottom of the ocean? A good start!” After the short laugh that this brings, I add: “What’s a thousand nurses? Not funny.” Basically, the point is that until we get to the time where people can’t substitute “rep” for “lawyer” in any lawyer joke – and it’s both a problem in perception and in reality – reps aren’t going to get any respect for what we do. Your comment is extremely important, and worth its own ongoing discussion.

    In the outdoor industry today, I see a split between those of us who believe we’re selling widgets and rags, and those of us who believe that we’re selling culture and ideas. While unit sales are what drive us from a financial perspective, the moment we focus on the particulars of the product rather than the activity, we’re lost.

    The outdoor industry is lined up against much more powerful industries who first get people to buy into their idea, and then sell them products that support the idea. How else do we explain the monster brown-sugar-water or the cow-by-products in fun-fruit-shapes-and-colors industries? Coca Cola alone sells more in a single week than we sell in a whole year, and I would suspect the same is true for the fruit-snacks industry. Their premise? Sell sugar wrapped in attractive packages at a high-margin by making it “cool” and/or “fun.”

    And, in our industry, we have products that are both “cool” and “fun” and – not incidentally – can change lives.

    You bring a very important ancillary topic into the discussion that was on my mind when I wrote this piece. The rep vs. in-house discussion – David’s Shared Vision/Perspective argument – is ongoing and super critical. But more than this, I wanted to address the idea that we have a blend of different types of professionals in this industry. In conversations elsewhere, I’ve heard it described as “suits vs. sandals.” Folks wearing sandals founded this industry, and folks wearing suits hold key positions in it, now. We need both, but maybe not embodied in two different people. Ideally, we should all be able to pull off wearing both suits, and sandals, and maybe even both at the same time.

  4. This week is my first back at full-and-then-some time “real” work, so my brain is tired, and I can’t engage in the thoughtful discussion taking place about Big Issues.

    My small comment, instead…

    Your post is about engaging in the conversation that changes everything, but If ever you need a “bob and weave” for that Big Conversation, my response is always “I don’t have a TV, and my house is a mess.”

    Finding relaxation in my “leisure” activities rather than in front of the TV, and making the enormous sacrifice of not cleaning house, frees up a ton of time for running, biking, climbing, and playing on the water.

    Keep up the great work. Both in the office, and outside of it.

    -Sara.

  5. Good thought-provoker, Brad. Frankly, I think it boils down to a much more fundamental and universal question: do you live to work or work to live. There are people who fall into both categories. I hope I fall into the first, but find I am often dragged into the second. Even so, there is a third element for some of us, and that is family time. Trying to keep a balance between family, career and leisure or training routines can be Herculean. Those in the outdoor industry seem to be in the unique situation of being able to combine instead of simply balance. What a shame that some don’t take advantage.

  6. Thanks Dan and Sara!

    You frame the conversation well. And, in fact, if I were to push it further this is why my family lives in a condo, why I cut my own hair, and why our life is set up so that everything we need is within a half-mile in any direction. All of it boils down to making choices that support your values, and if living well and spending time with family is what you value, then that’s what happens.

    As a larger discussion in the outdoor industry, here at Pemba we’re trying to engage the idea that culture is as or more important than product, from a sales perspective. Everything we buy has a context, and that is – basically – does this item add value to my life and support my values?

    The path of least resistance follows the stream as it comes down to us. If we are told from everywhere and come to believe that fast-food is convenient and inexpensive, that TV is a good way to spend our time, that sugar-water (or bottled water) is cool, then that is so. If outdoor products and activities are viewed as inconvenient, expensive, and maybe inaccessible to everyday living, then that is so, too.

    At the moment, the outdoor industry seems to be losing the culture wars from both without and within. We can’t compete with consumer-electronics, entertainment, and fast-food for time, dollars, and attention, so we need to find ways of making what we offer more integrated with daily life. And, we should do so by embracing this idea, ourselves. My thoughts, anyway…

    Thanks again for the comments.

    Take care,
    Brad