A couple of weekends ago I had a great experience at the Schwantz School held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Kevin Schwantz, who runs this school for motorcycle drivers, was a legend in the motorcycle racing world back in the 1980s and ’90s. If you watch any of his race videos on YouTube, you’ll see that he raced only one way—to win. When he made his move for a pass the world held its breath.
One of the sessions at the school was focused on effective braking. I loved a quote that was shared in the class: “Don’t wait ‘til you see God before you grab the brakes!” Which means, don’t wait so long that you’re on the brink of disaster before you take appropriate and relevant action—in this case, slowing the bike down a straightaway for an upcoming turn.
I found myself thinking about riding as a metaphor for business relationships. When I’m preparing to ride a certain racetrack, I am required to do certain things before, during, and after that ride, in order to develop mastery of this skill I’ve chosen to pursue. Nurturing relationships has a similar dynamic.
Preparation: Before I approach a ride, I need certain skills. I have to learn how to accelerate and how to brake. I need to learn the geometry of cornering—the approach, the apex, the exit.
Each component of riding has its specific requirements. The straightaway requires acceleration, so you’ve got to learn how to upshift through your gears to pick up as much speed as you can. Curves require braking, which could mean squeezing on the brake handles, or using engine braking to slow the bike down. You must learn to recognize the right speed for each situation, and effective transitions from one to the next.
Preparation for riding gives me guidance for developing strategic business relationships. Just as I master certain skills to successfully negotiate a course at high speeds, I prepare to meet with a business relationship by learning as much as I can about that individual’s interests, desired outcomes, influences, and so on. The success of each interaction is often highly correlated with the breadth and depth of your research and preparation.
During the ride: My motorcycle coaches told me, “If you’re looking at your front wheel, you’re in trouble.” On a racetrack you have the straightaway, but coming at you at the end of each straightaway is a corner where the situation dramatically changes. If you go into that corner with the speed you gained on the straightaway, you are going to end up in the wall. You have to continually judge scenarios and adjust accordingly.
I learned quickly that to keep your skin off the pavement, you have to look through each curve. You have to broaden your field of view and not become fixated on a target. You have to become very savvy at ascertaining what situations will come up, and what skills, knowledge, and behaviors are most applicable. You always have options in how to prepare for the next step. What’s important is to continually pay attention, not only to the immediate situation, but also looking ahead to what’s coming next.
Corners are the “moments of truth” where my skill at maneuvering my bike is tested. Interactions with strategic relationships are the “corners” in business relationships. Some corners have a consistent radius, while others an increasing or a decreasing one. How you prepare to take a bike through that corner will be vary in each case. The entry, the apex, and the exit are all very different.
Business relationships work exactly the same way. Who are you meeting with and what are their priorities? You have a certain agenda you want to accomplish, but what is on their agenda? If those aren’t aligned, you’re not going to come out of that corner successfully. Like a ride, that meeting is taking place in real time. You have only split seconds in which to develop your strategy and execute it—through the relationship equivalents of braking, acceleration, or body position.
When I meet with a strategic relationship, I want to be as present to the moment-by-moment action between us as I can be. I also have to understand what’s coming up ahead at the next curve, so I can anticipate and adjust accordingly. I can’t rest on “We’re having great dialog now.” I have to imagine what’s next: What do I need to prepare for, do more or less of, what are my options, to nurture this relationship in the next minutes, days, months?
Afterward: Make time for introspection. After a run on the racetrack you evaluate, “Damn, I came out of that first turn too wide.” Or, “It wasn’t nearly as smooth as I liked through the back stretch.” My first day on the track at the Schwantz School, I was just trying to figure out which way to go. By the second day, I’d become more capable, more confident. I was working on precision and consistency. I was engaged in accelerated continuous learning. I’ve discovered that is critical on the track and in business relationships.
Every interaction is a learning opportunity. It’s good to spend some time with “Here’s what I could have done, what I should have said, here’s how I dropped the ball, here’s what I need to do differently next time.” This is your post-mortem opportunity to internalize and apply those lessons to the next corner, and the next interaction. Post-mortem is how you learn not to “wait until you see God” before taking strategic action.
Make time for some introspection—what went well, what you want to do differently. But quickly transition to “what’s next.” If you’re on a motorcycle pondering what mistakes you made in the last corner, you’re going to run into a wall because guess what—there’s always another corner coming up. That’s how you improve as a rider, and as a relationship-builder.
It’s also really important to think about what you must STOP doing! The couple of times I’ve gotten into trouble on a racetrack has been because I’ve “target fixed” on a patch of grass vs. the next curve. The motorcycle will go where you look. So will business relationships! So I’ve stopped starring at any one object and am constantly moving my eyes to the next reference point. What are the next reference points in your relationships?
You prepare; you do the best you can when the rubber meets the road; you reflect afterward to learn from the experience. Do this, and over time you’ll develop mastery—whether your goal is successfully guiding a motorcycle going 150 mph down a straightaway or nurturing a business relationship headed for success.
- Prepare by mastering the skills required for your chosen passion — be it motorcycling or high-stakes relationships.
- While engaged in the action, keep one eye on the present and one on the road ahead, judging the changing scenarios and adjusting as you go.
- Afterward, learn quickly through introspection, then move forward. There’s always another corner coming.