On Sept 11th, 2001 the world changed in an instant when Osama bin Laden decided to use commercial jets as weapons, killing thousands in a matter of minutes.
Everything changed overnight, people were in mourning, 430,000 jobs were lost in New York City alone, the emotional shock of the events and the fear it engendered woke up the world to the threat of terrorism.
For businesses, insurance rates skyrocketed, the stock market crashed for a few weeks, and a few airlines went bankrupt.
… and then, there was the war in Afghanistan where thousands of US, British, Canadians and Afghans died.
Even up in the mountains where my little software company was nestled, the shock hit us hard. Our customers realized the market crash and industry affects were going to hit them, so they started calling us they were going to cancel our coding contracts.
Contracts often have a line in them called “Force Majeur” which spells out how each party has the right to break a contract when the world has gone mad, when a natural or unnatural disaster like war has hit.
And on one day in October, 2001, I sat with my head in my hands at my desk, wondering how my company was going to survive, how I’d handle bankrupcy and if the business survived, how could I possibly keep my staff without firing everyone and defaulting on my office?
I had brought some excellent programmers to Canada from Ukraine in 2000 and now just over a year later, I was going to have to tell them that they’d have to go back because they hadn’t been in Canada long enough for permanent residency.
Mr. Vachon showed up as he did every week and sensed the mood in the office was sombre. He asked me what was happening and I told him that I probably wasn’t going to be able to pay him after this week because all of our customers were going to cancel their contracts.
With a twinkle in his eye, he looked at me with the care of a kind Grandfather, but one who had managed 18 companies during his life and for him, the hurdle that I was facing was just another one of life’s challenges.
He said, “let me tell you a story”.
“There was once a British pilot who flew in World War II and while pilots around him in other aircraft kept getting shot and crashing, he was notable for surviving every mission and attaining a very high kill rate. Eventually this did not go unnoticed and his commanders asked him to train the other pilots.”
“He told them the secret that I will now tell you. This is a skill, that if you should master it, will get you out of any situation such as the one you are in right now. Until your dying day, you will quickly see that you are in charge of your own life and your own destiny”
“The pilot told them — Your brains are filled with too many thoughts when you fly, you need to fine tune the way that you think, to minimize your thoughts to what is truly important. There is a procedure that you must follow over and over again, and then you will survive.
To remember the procedure, remember the acronym ‘SOS’. No, not “save our ships”. I’m not talking about the Mayday call, in your brain SOS is NOT an emergency.
From now on, it stands now for Situation, Objective, Strategy.
Say that over to yourselves — Situation, Objective, Strategy and never forget it.
When you’re flying, ask yourself — “what is the situation that is happening to me at this instant in time”.
Perhaps the Luftwaffe is diving at you from 10,000 feet, perhaps you are running low on fuel, perhaps you are in attack mode, or someone is attacking you….know your SITUATION, and everything that is important to fly your aircraft.
Now ask yourself — “what are my objectives?, What do I want to happen?”
Get those objectives in your head quickly — it might be that you want to attack an aircraft, or leave the area,get fuel, or hide.
Know what it is that YOU, the pilot want to see happen!
Finally, develop a strategy to make that happen. You know the situation, you know your objectives, so what will you do to make those objectives real?
You only have seconds to go through this, so you need to think fast, think clearly and limit how far you can think it through. If you’re on the ground, perhaps you have hours to plan and strategize, but in the air, only seconds.
So get it quick — what is happening, what should happen, what will I do?
Situation, objective, strategy.
S — O — S
You’re being attacked from above, you need to get away from the bullets, so you can roll, descend, gain altitude….whatever you do it’s fine…and you know what will happen then?
You’ll be in a new situation.
You may be in less or more danger, but the situation will have changed, and you will now need again to say “what is my new situation? what is my new objective? what is my new strategy?”
Keep that going for the duration of the mission…and frankly, for the duration of tyour life.
No-one can guarantee that all your strategies will work, nor that all your objectives will be met…. that’s life. However YOU will have control over your life because those decisions you make will be yours, and you will live with them”
The cycle will repeat over and over again. The only promise SOS makes is that you will always be in a different situation everytime you execute the loop, and with good intention, a better one.
When JC told me this, the story definitely lifted my spirits and gave me hope, but I didn’t quite understand how this war story fit into my life. He started another JC mantra - “Situation, Objective, Strategy” and asked me to say it a few times (and many more times for years after).
(Note that from that point on, if I ever had a problem the first question from his mouth was predictable: ”So, did you SOS it?”)
“Yeah, okay so thanks JC, I got the new mantra, so how does this apply to me?” - I asked.
“Well, what’s your current situation, what’s worrying you?”
I told him about our customers in Canada and Silicon Valley warning us they were going to cancel their contracts, the lack of anyone doing new contracts, and that everyone was expecting at least a year of economic depression before things turned around.
He said, “Great! so you know your situation!”
Now what are your objectives?
I had never really thought in terms of “objectives”, I knew about Goals, as JC insisted I read my 5 goals every day, but they were generally pretty long-term.
At the moment I couldn’t really think of an objective. I said I guess I’d like to somehow keep the business going which was in my mind a pretty weak and unlikely objective to achieve.
He asked - “If the world was working in your favor, what would you like to see happen?”.
“Well, I’d like my customers to all come back, and I’d like to have more customers, and I wish I had more time to figure things out so I could build the business back.
I’d like my programmers to be able to stay in Canada and ultimately I’d like to meet my payroll this week”.
Okay so, take one objective - “I’d like my customers to all come back”, what could you do that would bring them back?
He twinkled…I kind of grew to be a little worried whenever he twinkled because it made me feel more like the know-nothing mentee I truly was, but on the other hand I’d learned that a twinkle meant an important paradigm-shifting lesson was being imparted.
“Well, my customers are going to have less money, so they’re cutting back their expenses, and they won’t be able to afford us”.
“Why can’t they afford you?” - he asked.
“Because we have to earn a profit, and we’re not cheap”.
“You said your objective was to get your customers back, is that your objective, or is it to earn a profit?”
And suddenly it clicked. I saw the strategy, I hadn’t seen it because my objectives had been locked in with the past.
This was NOT a time for profit, this was a time to survive.
“You know, I bet my customers are thinking like I am, they’re probably all worried and frazzled by everything that’s happening right now. In a year if they fire us, they’re not going to have a product to sell and they’ll be in worse shape than they are now. If they invest in the technology they’ll come out on top, of they don’t, they’ll go bankrupt.”
So, that day I came up with a plan to offer my customers what I told them was the “offer of a lifetime”. I would charge them exactly my cost to run my company and not a cent more, for the next 6 months. No profit, in fact my unique selling proposition on that day was “I wan’t profit, but you will”.
I called each customer with that offer and explained that if they invested in us developing their products, they’d be paying rock bottom to have the work done, and when this economic crisis was over, they’d have technology that none of their competitors would have, and our developers would still be around to support their product.
Honestly, I had nothing to lose, and the phone calls were very quick.
Everyone had to “think about it”. I let everyone know there was not much time to think about it because we’d have to close very soon.
I had enough cash for one last payroll.
My staff knew all about it, and that day we sat around our companies most precious asset - our espresso machine — and had coffee and discussed what we’d do if the company closed.
Then, one by one - they ALL called. The phone rang, and each customer agreed to continue the contract “for six months” at my firesale rate.
In the weeks that followed, SOS did indeed become my mantra as though I had a much smaller budget to operate with, I was flush with the wealth of my imagination which was now dreaming up new objectives and strategies every day.
In the years that followed, I realized more about the value of the SOS approach — the simple 3 step method. It is actually the core of all human thinking, most people just don’t realize it. It’s the core of every business planning method on earth - SWOT, 6 Thinking Hats, Hoshin Planning, PESTLE, VRIO.. all of them… because it’s how you think alreaedy, it’s just that most people never fine tune how it works in their heads.
For running a business, there are lots of situational awareness “techniques”. You can learn by using tools like SWOT (what is your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats). Or perhaps VRIO - (value, rarity, imitability and organization)
To understand “situation” you can use whatever framework best addresses your needs. Sometimes you need input from many people to fully understand a situation, to wrap your head around it. Sometimes, you need to act quickly and focus only on certain elements of the situation.
Your “objectives” are your wants, desires, the vision of the future you’d like to see.
It may happen it may not, but you need to know — what DO YOU WANT TO SEE HAPPEN? It’s criticial, but most people are afraid (as I was and sometimes still am) to fail. Or, we fear that our objective vision for the future is too incongruous with “real life”, so that it can’t be achieved…so we don’t even bother to acknowledge we have it.
To know your own objectives, you really need to look at your values - what do you consider to be the “right thing to do?”. What are your moral values, what are your business values? The more you know about your values, the easier it is to develop your objectives.
For that guy in World War II, he valued survival quite highly so it framed many of his objectives, but he was also at war at the time, and concerned about the survival of his country so he had military objectives in mind, too.
Know yourself, know your values…and you’ll have an easy time with objectives.
But then, there’s the tricky part — strategy.
What are you willing to do to make each objective happen? Of course you have to actually EXECUTE on a strategy, that goes without saying. Otherwise nothing will change.
I know in some situations I’m really good at developing strategies. In fact, it’s probably a real strength in me. I have adult ADHD so my brain is loaded with ideas anyways, many of them quite lateral so brainstorming comes easy to me.
However, I know my limits. I am not an economist, I am not an accountant, not a lawyer… and sometimes you need to simply know your situation, know your objectives and find yourself an expert strategist.
When you do that, you can delegate SOS.
As a side note, some people use the term “tactics” for short term things they need to do to achieve somethihng and “strategy” for longer term braoder plans they need to do to achieve something. Whatever term you prefer, go ahead use…but SOS sounds clearer to me than “SOT”.
To finish up the story, our customers paid us the minimum, our business survived, our programmers got their permanent residency, and we had the time to develop new strategies that provided years of software development projects and an exciting business. We created new products, and we strategicallly linked our customers together so that all our customers grew and prospered.
And for the 15 years, I could always count on JC calling me up to “SOS” a new situation.
Every week, we had spaghetti. It was ritual, my mentor JC Vachon would drive an hour north from his home to my business, we’d meet and work trhough the accounting, and then we’d go out for spaghetti. The restaurant next to my office had amazing spaghetti and meat sauce at the time, and spaghetti and coffee was our time to talk about real things.
Somehow JC knew what I needed way before I did, he’d show up and I would imagine that during the drive up to my office he’d been thinking about what I was doing and what we should talk about because I always felt there was some sort of plan in every meeting.
One of the earliest I recall was when he started out lunch with —“so what are you main goals?”
Um… “well I want to make some money in business, retire young, I like to create software,… what kind of goals are you talking about?”, I asked.
“Well, I think that most people can deal with about 5 goals in their life - goals are like targets that you aim for. You might not always hit them, but your brain needs to know what they are,. Once you know your goals, your brain will start to see opportunities for hitting them. Without them, you’re like a boat on the ocean bobbing in all directions, never finding the shore. Without goals, you can’t plan” - and then he chuckled — “And you know what they say, ‘Fail to Plan, Plan to Fail!’.
“I see, so what are your goals?”
Well I have 5 main goals, I write them on a piece of paper and every day I take it out of my desk and read them. That way your brain is continuously focused on what they are and ideas for their achievement will float into your consciousness, every day”
One of my goals is “Stay Married”.
“Huh? That’s a goal?”
“You bet. I’ve been married to the same women for 50 years.At the beginning, for many years I was a salesman on the road. When I met my wife, she was the daughter of a well-to-do farmer in my town. She was beautiful, charismatic, headstrong and tough as nails…she was my match, and I knew she was the girl for me. We fell in love, married and had children, but my job at the time was as an on-the-road salesman. In my day the husband worked and the wife ran the home — I travelled all across Canada for Petrofina helping setup gas stations and then for Procor and Gamble.
Spending that much time away from home as a salesman coud have been hard on a marriage, she was left raising the kids, I was totally not there. My headstrong wife could easily have left me or I could have drifted into other relationships on the road.
But, I made a decision early on to never let that happen. It would go against my moral and spiritual values. It would have caused pain and grief to myself, my wife, my family. So “Stay Married” has always been a key goal.
To achieve that, I did a few simple things, — I called my wife every night wherever I was to discuss the day, and that wasn’t cheap in those days. I came home everyweekend and my rule was — for those 2 days, I’d do anything my wife wanted to do. See a show? Go to a restaurant? Anything, I was hers for those two days. She wanted to have her hair done twice a week to chat with the local ladies, I made sure that that always was available to her. She likes to play piano, I made sure she’d have a good piano. She loves listening to opera - that always made gift giving simple - opera tickets, records and CDs.
She knows I always have her back, and because of that goal, I have a happy marriage, both of us are happy, we’ve raised kids, shared everything about ourselves, our lives together..
So what are your 5 main goals?
I thought about it that week and the next, and the next, and realized that Health had to be #1 otherwise nothing else was possible. I’d watched my mother fight with Type 1 diabetes all her life and knew that chronic health problems must be managed or kept away for as long as possible in one’s life.
The other goals changed from time to time, from life situation to life situation, sometimes business was a priority, especially as the number of employees increased and I felt responsible towards their families, sometimes it was my own family or friends, sometimes it was specific financial targets.
The goals shifted over time, but I realized their value.
I met another fellow who was an expert in “Clipper Ships” and he mentioned that a CEO was like the captain of a ship who needed to keep that ship aimed towards a port, a mission. Storms, mutinies, scurvy and pirates could push your mission way off course, but as captain your job was to keep that ship pointed at that port no matter which way it strayed.
Goals are a lot like that, write down 5, look at them every day, and let your experience, your intuition and your mind question every day — what could I do to get closer to that goal?
I’ve heard of SMART goals where you measure them, assure they’re achievable, etc… but honestlly it’s too much work for me. I don’t personally need to track my goals, I just need to know where to aim the boat.
Objectives is a term that is sort of like a “waypoint” towards a goal, something you’d like to see happen that indicates you’re going in the right direction. For example it might be to achieve a sale, or make a painting or practice piano for an hour… those are all useful in identifying “wants”, but goals are a little different, they are longer term, they are more general.
“Vibrant Health” is a goal. Eating healthy food this week is an objective.
When you plan your days and weeks after looking at your 5 goals, you’ll find that knowing what your focus is makes the objectives easier to find, easier to achieve, and you can be confident knowing that your objectives are helping your goal.
JC eventually taught me a method for thinking that builds on this, which I’ll soon share.
It rained the first day and what struck me foremost about Mr JC Vachon, was his hat.
The hat was distinctively British, beige with a short double brim. It looked like someone had morphed a pith helmet into Sherlock Holmes deerstalker.
Some people dress to communicate a message. Was he trying to communicate “adventurer”, “detective”, “I’m British” or … simply “I don’t like rain on my head’?
He was certainly well prepared for the weather with a dark grey London Fog coat and rubber pull-on boots, but I couldn’t help feeling that every aspect of his attire spoke another message.
We were in Quebec, the French province of Canada, and with a name like "Vachon", he most certainly wasn’t a London native, and though his English was perfect, I soon learned he could joke in French “joual” like a dockworker.
We had scheduled to meet in a bistro in the beautiful resort town of St Sauveur, in the Laurentian mountains of Quebec where I’d set up a software company. My financial partner, Michel, had announced he was retiring and recommended Mr Vachon to take over the management of our books as a bookkeeper.
As we sat down for a lunch where I expected to simply meet another “bean counter”, Michel instead introduced this man as someone who had managed 18 companies, worked for Proctor and Gamble, Petro-Fina and had been managing director of Cousins Canada, a British company which might have explained the hat. He had also run Michel’s father’s company and then sold it for several million dollars.
He said — “You’re in good hands with JC, you should get to know each other”… with a chuckle.
I was a little taken aback as I realized this “bean counter” could easily be a millionaire, in a financial plane well beyond mine. I re-assessed the suit. It was an impeccable light blue business suit, with jeweled cufflinks, and I wondered exactly how rich was this guy? His wireframe glasses gave him more the appearance of an academic, than a businessman,yet everything about him was polished and flawless, without a thread out of place… Every detail was a message.
Even his cologne was designed to pass a message. It was subtle, but pervasive and made me think of gentleman’s clubs and leather chairs.
Though I was sure Michel had told JC everything already, I felt obliged to dole out my standard “elevator pitch” - “ I & A Research is ‘Code farm’ that obtains software contracts in Silicon Valley, and then brings them back to Canada to architect at lower cost than the insanely high Valley prices of the year 2000. Using a combination of in-house developers and outsourced Ukranian developers we build good quality software and send it back to the Valley, finished and tested, ready to sell”. Yup, 30 seconds… I nailed it.
While I was spilling out the carefully worded elevator pitch I knew in my sleep, JC had been sizing me up, there was a twinkle in his eyes, and there was a long pause. Then he asked a simple question:
“So, what is your 5 year plan?”
Oops, I suddenly felt less like a company president and more like a kid caught for cutting school, I had to admit, I had no real business plan other than “do what we’re doing”. Our business had been built on the principle of “never get bored” and “try not build anything that would hurt anyone”, and our history of developing product lines for companies, but we were winging it, there was no “plan”.
We had brought over a few top developers from Ukraine to work in Canada who we respected enormously for their high quality code, and then hired a few local developers to round out the projects.
It was a modest company, we weren’t very profitable, but it was fun, often exciting, yet we had no idea of where it would head. No, there was no real plan - we were driving it by the seat of our pants.
The only plan was — maybe we can keep hiring people and getting more contracts, and get a bigger office.
Our office was in the attic of a souvenir store. The ceiling was angled down so if you stood up too fast, you’d bang your head on the wood paneled ceiling.
I imagined it wouldn’t take much effort for Mr Vachon to do the books, there wasn’t that much to record.
My personal finances at the time were very modest. I had enough to live on but had a rather large debt to pay for personal loans to me for my car and house, and no clear plan on how to pay it off. When times were lean, my staff earned significantly more than I did, and we had juggled.
He said, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” Yes, I knew Ben Franklin, too. Who was this old guy who I was hiring to simply do my books, telling me, I was planning to fail?
Instantly, I put up my defense - “Look, I am self taught, nobody taught to program and design software, nobody taught me to run a business, I just did it, and I’m not doing too badly, thank you very much”.
“So, in say 5 years what will you be doing?” I hadn’t really ever thought much farther than a few months ahead and 5 years was like some other lifetime, so I defended lack of planning, which was stupid, I know, but that’s what I did.
“Nothing I plan ever works out, you know the adage: ‘Humans plan, God laughs’. I just notice opportunities and hopefully bump into the right people, and then I manage to eke out a living”.
I didn’t tell him the truth which was that I often prayed for some sort of guidance to direct my life and help me get to some point where I could breath a bit. At that point in time, I didn’t realize that my prayers were about to be answered.
He said,”you know, my guess you probably could use a bit of mentoring on your business”. This probably was a kind way of saying, “Kid you don’t know sh*t about business”, but it provoked in me a sudden sadness, a realization that for all of my life I’d been craving someone to help make my path easier, someone to talk to about my insecurities, my loneliness, my fear that my lack of knowing what the heck I was doing would someday leave me begging on the street.
I vaguely understood the concept of what a “mentor” was. There had been people who touched my life and moved me along my path, but they had been away from me for many years and I was alone with my life, and though my business had had my partner Michel handling books, the other 95% of the business was my responsibility.
It flashed in my mind that having someone “mentor me”
who did nothing to help me was a distinct possibility and this could be complete bull, but my reading of this unusual person, who had obvious financial success, with the kind twinkle in his eye, told me that I should trust him”.
The next two hours were confessional where I poured out all my worries, family problems, customers that weren’t paying on time, how scared I was telling employees what to do, my cluelessness of how to sell our services and my dreams of what life would be if only I knew how to get there. I had studied Tony Robbins, I had read hundreds of self-help books, which had indeed helped me, but honestly, I wasn’t getting anywhere and my predominant emotion was fear of failure.
He said, “Look, I can guide you a bit, but I don’t work for free, how much do YOU charge for your work?”, At the time it was $85 an hour for design, which I thought was a bit high for Quebec and a bit low for Silicon Valley and for the year 2000, I considered it a sweet spot where people would hire me considering it a deal, and I could still afford to pay myself and my office rent.
So, he said “Okay, I’ll charge you $50 an hour and I’ll come see you every week or two and we’ll see what we can do to get things in order.”. I thought that for the advice of a millionaire, this was a rather unusual price, I wondered what was the deal? If this was a goodness of the heart thing, then it should be free, if this was a business undertaking, hell my lawyer was $150 an hour at the time.
In any case, I agreed, we shook hands, he left. As he was leaving he asked, “Oh, and one thing…do you have a photocopier?”
“Huh? Uh, yes we do.”, I replied.
“Great, first lesson is this — when you get back to your office, put your hand on the copier and copy a picture of your hand. Spread out your fingers nice and big. Got that?”
“Uh yeah, but why?”
“What I want you to do is take the photocopy and stick it on the back of your office door", he told me, dead-pan.
“Okay, and this is so…?”
He smiled and said, “Well, if you ever want a pat on the back as President of your company, I want you to rub your back up against the paper on your door”, and he gestured wiggling his shoulders up against a wall, “because that, Mr. President, is the only ‘pat on the back’ a President is every going to get running a company”…
He laughed out loud, I laughed more cautiously as this was both true and bittersweet, and for many years thereafter whenever he spoke of responsibility, his name for me was “Mr. President”.