Catching More Than Fish: 8 Lessons for Building Your Business


Last week our family fished in the mazes of mangroves in Southwest Florida with perhaps the best guide in the area. The operation is nothing fancy—just a small boat and a lot (30 years) of experience. He’s never had a website, doesn’t use social media and is only reachable by cell phone. If you get voice mail, there’s no personalized greeting.

Yet this guide is typically booked out for two years. We only lucked into hearing about an opening several months ago.

So how does he do it? What does it take to build such a wildly successful business and attract such customer loyalty?

Watching this guide, I learned more than just how to catch fish. His examples are lessons that also apply to reeling in larger number of clients, casting a broader net to grow your business or simply navigating the shifting tides of today’s business environment.

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Here are the top eight insights I caught last week that I’m thinking about in terms of my business. Maybe they’ll trigger some ideas for your own as well:

  1. “Patience, grasshopper.” Over and over, our guide would chant this kung-fu phrase as he had us remain calm and push beyond our anxious expectations. What an incredibly useful reminder in today’s “always-on,” information-overloaded, instant gratification world.
  2. Observe changes in conditions. When the tide comes in, it brings fish from the cooler waters, and the wind pushes the fish into the shore. The lesson for us? There are opportunities in changing market trends. We just have to be looking for them.
  3. Think like a fish. He wondered aloud what the fish might be thinking. In the context of client relationships, it reminded me of this Dale Carnegie metaphor (aptly, about fish!): Personally I am very fond of strawberries and cream, but I have found that for some strange reason, fish prefer worms. So when I went fishing, I didn’t think about what I wanted. I thought about what they wanted. I didn’t bait the hook with strawberries and cream. Rather, I dangled a worm…Why not use the same common sense when fishing for people?
  4. Expect action and move if it’s not there. Our guide didn’t wish for fish; he expected them. If we weren’t catching them after a few minutes, he concluded that we needed to move. In a fast-paced, ever-changing business world, that kind of decisiveness and confidence is critical.
  5. Focus on process over results. After all was said and done, we returned to the dock with no fish. But even though you could tell that our guide was disappointed, he never tried to justify or apologize for something that was, frankly, outside of his control. He knew that he was good and that he was following a good process. It reminded me that my job is to set up the conditions for optimum results. That doesn’t mean I can always control the outcomes.
  6. Keep improving others’ skills. Our guide continued to tell us and show us that we could keep getting better. He offered coaching for better casting, better rod angle and better position. He wanted everyone in his boat to be absolutely the best they could be at the work—an excellent example for leaders of all kinds.
  7. Tell great stories. Stories connect us to one another and our past. On the boat, we heard historical stories that helped us better understand the culture of fishing, exciting stories of past catches and personal interest stories about clients. Stories make the business, its mission, its culture and the value it offers come alive.
  8. Chum first. At each stop, our guide would throw handfuls of live bait into the water before we dropped a line. He was trying to generate excitement and action in the area. It reminded me of the importance of offering lots of value before we expect the market to be ready for our line.

Whether you are building a business, a client list or a team, consider these ten lessons from a legendary fishing guide.

Which of these top eight applies most to your work right now?

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