After a dunk in a raging river, a CIO offers advice on coping with the unexpected.
The day promised to be eventful, because any day I get to spend with my childhood friends turns out to be just that. I was on our annual "fellas" weekend trip, and this year we were whitewater rafting down the Ocoee River in Georgia. This was our time to relax, reminisce, and rejuvenate.
And it was our time to taunt and poke fun at each other. During this trip, though, it would have been wise to listen to the guide as he was giving the safety instructions, instead of engaging in our usual behavior. It also would have been wise if we had not indulged in bravado and acted like we already knew what to do, even though none of us had ever been whitewater rafting.
Exactly seven minutes into our ultimate four-hour, 11-mile trip through upper- and lower-river and multi-class rapids, I really wished I had paid more attention to those safety instructions. I can still see the dazed look in my brother's eyes and feel the cold water rushing around me after the raft hit a large boulder and sent me flying. After flailing in the water for few minutes, I managed to collect myself and realized our raft was moving fast down the river and farther away from me. I saw the collective look of panic on everyone's face in the raft, which triggered my own bout with panic. I needed to get back to the safety of the raft but I had no idea how to make it happen.
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A lesson that has been with me since early adulthood is that a crazed mind cannot make a clear decision. I began to calm myself to allow myself to focus. I tried to remember any snippet of the guide's safety instructions. I recalled the instructor saying, "If you end up in the water, lay on your back." After a few minutes of allowing the river's current to push me closer to our raft, a kayaker called to me and said to grab on to the kayak as he moved past me. Soon the kayaker navigated me back to our raft where my friends pulled me to safety.
In hindsight, I compare my time in the water to every impactful change I have had in my career. The guidelines I practiced in surviving a raging river are also applicable during times of impactful change. When experiencing change in business or in our personal lives, it can feel like you are in a raging river. I pass these guidelines on to others who are embarking on similar instances, which can sometimes feel like a genuine crisis.
As an example, I was in a recent conversation with Joe, a young manager navigating his way through his career progression with diligence. Joe indicated that on his journey in life, both as a professional and as a husband and father, he sometimes finds himself in a situation where he is unsure what to do. He knows that he needs to do something or things will not get better. Such was the case recently when Joe realized some of his peers were advancing ahead of him. He felt that he had stalled in his career and did not know what to do. Joe felt a sense of panic, much like when I was thrown unexpectedly into the rushing water of the Ocoee River. To Joe, I shared my story of surviving the raging river and said the following:
Focus. If you're screaming while you're in the water, you're opening yourself up to taking in too much water. Calm down and focus on the task at hand. A deliberate approach to what you need to accomplish is the first step to accomplishing it. Write your goals, set deadlines, and measure those goals.
Remember your instructions. Before you arrived at this point, you were provided with instructions to help keep you safe and to help you navigate through this. You owe it to yourself to leverage what you know already. But also understand that there isn't a ready-made manual for every crisis. Research your life for any experiences and lessons that might help you in your current situation.
Get comfortable with helping yourself. Accept the fact that your teammates might not be in a position to help you. Your teammates might be in the rushing water themselves and unable to stop their momentum to help you. They might be no more skilled than you in this fast-changing environment. Your success is in your hands and, therefore, you will need to rely on yourself more so than anyone else.
Accept help. If there is someone who is able to help you, then accept their help. Remember, though, people only want to help those who are first willing to help themselves. Hence, it is imperative to try to help yourself before you accept help from others.
Give thanks. At the end of your journey, give thanks that you survived it. This could have had a much worse outcome, but because you survived it you are stronger. Always acknowledge and appreciate the journey and not just the end result. There is always a lesson to be learned that will serve you well later, and that lesson might also be a blessing to someone else later.
Acknowledge what went wrong. Understanding what went wrong prepares you how to handle the opportunity should it ever come up again. Unless you get in the habit of looking back over a journey, it's impossible to know how to circumnavigate similar situations when you find yourself back in familiar territory.
Needless to say, I survived the raging river despite the fact that I didn't start out practicing any of the items listed above. But I learned through the sequence of events that in life when you face a crisis and you are convinced you are in uncharted waters, there is always hope. Commit the principles to heart and watch yourself ride the rapids of life with success.
Take action: Are you in a difficult situation, or even a perceived crisis, that has you stalled? Decide today to start with the Focus principle above and walk right to your destiny.
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Onyeka Nchege is the Chief Information Officer for Coca-Cola Bottling Co. Consolidated (CCBCC), the largest independent Coca-Cola bottler in the United States. He has strategic and operational responsibility for developing the information technology strategy and management of ... View Full Bio
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