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  • Writer's pictureDavid A. Van Wie

Fly-fishing To Excellence

Picking up on the theme from my first blog post, Watch Your Backcast, I offer here a few more pithy piscatorial maxims from fly-fishing that can be applied to the business world and everyday life. With apologies to Tom Peters (author of the classic management book In Search of Excellence), I call my approach to management Fly-fishing to Excellence.

I always wanted to write a best-selling management book, and this is as close as I am likely to get. I hope these are fun and even a tiny bit insightful.

Fish To Fish

The first rule of fishing is “fish to fish.” This means cast your fly where you know (or strongly suspect) a fish might be. There is no point in casting to where there are no fish.

This may seem obvious, but remarkably many fishermen don’t seem to get it. Instead of determining where the fish are holding and what might interest them, some fishermen choose a pool with little thought and blindly cast any ol’ fly in the hopes of happening upon a fish. Or they believe that a fish might just wander by, perhaps on a Sunday stroll.

Seasoned salespeople know how important it is to qualify leads and allocate time and resources to the best qualified leads. Are they ready and able to buy your product or service? Is this the best time to approach them, or are they pre-occupied with other priorities? In other words, are the fish feeding?

It is important to be sure who actually will make the buying decision. It is very frustrating and inefficient to pitch someone who then has to go sell your idea up the chain. It is not always easy, but it is worth the effort to understand who can actually make a decision, and present to them directly if possible. Are you wasting your time with the little fish nibbling at the surface, when you really want the lunker who is sitting on the bottom?

The same thing goes when pitching an idea to your own management team: do your homework to decide when the time is right and the person is receptive to a new idea. If the time is not ripe, a killer proposal might go nowhere, like a perfect cast to an empty pool.

Match The Hatch

“Match the hatch” means choosing the right fly that mimics the natural insects that might be hatching at that time. When the fish are locked on to a particular pattern, your offering needs to be aligned with their desires and expectations.

How does this apply to business? First, understand the customer’s needs and expectations, perhaps even better than the customer does. Through market research and testing, successful businesses spend significant effort seeing the world through the customers’ eyes. Then, with a conscientious program for quality control, the company must be sure the product or service consistently matches (or exceeds) those expectations and requirements.

Second, follow the trends, and be aware of what is changing and what is new. How can you keep things fresh and up with the times? What worked yesterday may not work at all today. Got a cool website? Turn it into an app. Menu getting a little outdated? Add kale, bacon, and sriracha sauce. Sriracha apparently makes everything better.

Use Enough Rod

In fishing, you need to be sure to have the right tools for the job. A small 4 weight rod is no good for throwing heavier bass plugs in the wind. If you are going for bigger fish, you better have a strong enough rod, the proper weight line, and a leader that won’t break when you hook that monster trout.

Many, many businesses fail because they are undercapitalized, and can’t carry enough inventory. Not enough rod. Or they flounder before they hit a critical mass of awareness in the marketplace. On the other hand, many start-ups get swamped with rapid growth, and never quite recover before customers are turned off by slow response or are wooed away by a shinier lure. In fishing parlance, their leader was too light.

And have you ever been disappointed when a restaurant is understaffed and the service stinks, even though the food is fabulous? Use enough rod.

Fish The Foam Line

In a trout stream, the bubbles, foam and floating debris concentrate in the flowing water following a consistent line down the channel. The trout quickly learn that the foam line is a moving cafeteria filled with bugs and other tiny critters they like to eat. So a wise fly caster will place her fly in the foam line, and hope for the best.

This is the same strategy businesses use when locating near the mall, or across from a busy restaurant. They look for high customer traffic, and see the value in siting their store nearby to entice the customers who are already heading that way.

The Foam Line strategy is also why you get bundles of offers and services you never thought about when you purchased that new computer or TV from a big box retailer. Businesses pay good money to jump into that transaction chain so their offer passes by the customer’s eyes while they have their wallets out.

Mend Your Line

When casting a fly, an experienced fisherman tries to present it so it will drift with the current in a natural manner. As the fly moves along and starts to drag across the current, he flips the fly line in one direction or the other to get a better drift. This is called “mending your line”.

In business, a salesperson might start with one pitch, only to find the customer’s interest going in another direction. Maybe the customer has an unusual or a more specific set of circumstances, so the salesperson has to make adjustments to the presentation, or try a different angle to make the sale. He has to “mend his line” to try to hit the target in such a way that everything feels natural to the customer.

As a manager, you might have to mend your line after the project plan you spent so much time developing stalls or gets off track. You may have to reconsider the team you assembled, and bring in additional skills and resources needed to get the project completed successfully. Maybe you have to add staff, bring in a specialty subcontractor, or a whiz kid programmer to help out. You could always just “go with the flow” and hope for the best, but making adjustments midstream is the mark of an astute manager.

Try The Contrarian Strategy

My final fishing maxim is one that I apply in a variety of circumstances. When thing just aren’t going right on the water – the usual flies are not working, my favorite killer tactic keeps coming up empty, and frustration is building – I switch to the Contrarian Strategy: I try to do the exact opposite of conventional wisdom; I throw out “the book” and go in a completely different direction. When all else fails, I resort to the polar opposite approach.

  • Everyone thinks we need to use the tiniest dry flies? Heck, I might throw in a big ol’ streamer on sinking line and see what happens.

  • Fishing the tried-and-true deep holes isn’t working? Off I go try the smaller pocket water and shallow runs, frequently with some success.

I can’t tell you how many times the Contrarian Strategy has worked well for me on the river. But I am not sure how often it can be successful in the workplace. Best to use the Contrarian Strategy with extreme caution.

Many years ago I was implementing a new program in a large, stodgy corporation. I soon realized I was spending all my time coaching and cajoling the most reluctant supervisors with little success. I was wasting too much time and energy on the unwilling, which was both unproductive and discouraging.

So I decided instead to lavish time and resources on the early adopters. I did everything I could to make them look like heroes. I exalted them with praise in the company newsletter. I tried to find ways to give them extra resources and rewards. And I ignored the reluctant whiners.

This worked like a charm. Suddenly, the recalcitrant managers were complaining that they weren’t getting any attention, help or resources. That they were being treated unfairly. Ha! The Contrarian Theory came through for me again.

In investing, the Contrarian Strategy often works to counteract the herd mentality. When you read that “everyone is buying XYZ and the sky is the limit,” that is probably a good time to sell and get out before the market peaks and crashes. These bubbles happen again and again, and it is the contrarians who buy low and sell high. (Of course, timing the market can be tricky. Please consult a professional financial advisor… blah, blah, blah!)

Send Me Your Stories

My friend, Norm Richter, has noted that "Zen-like life lessons spontaneously combust around fly-fishing." Got a good example picked up while pursuing your own forays into fly-fishing? Or how about a similar analogy from another favorite sport or pastime that applies equally to business, to a profession, or to life in general?

Send a note to I would love to hear about it.

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