The Mama and the Papa: A Lesson from the Grace Bailey

When a company has a leader at the top who demonstrates selling, customer-focused entrepreneurial energy and another leader who embodies and demonstrates the administration and financial controls, there will be healthy growth.

What follows may not sound like an article on business. I request some patience and leniency. Follow along, and it all will come together, I promise.

The ocean is glass. Islands are everywhere. Big islands with towns and cars, little ones a jumble of rocks, and many others of different sizes. Last July, I was sailing a 120-foot gaffed rigged schooner named the Grace Bailey. It was built in 1864 and sailed like it was back then. Everything is manual, nothing automatic. All food is cooked on a wood stove on a wooden ship. There is synergy in that. There is no engine. There was one phone charger on board, which was fiercely argued over!

Now for a bit of business background (more patience, please). When you look at small $1 million to $5 million businesses, there is a design that works and supports growth-oriented companies. I first learned of this from a book titled “Corporate Life Cycles” by Ichak Adizes. The author contends that there is a life cycle to companies, a theory and methodology I buy into. Per Ichak, all small and startup businesses, if they are going to grow in a healthy way, need a mama and a papa in top leadership.

What the heck does that mean? This idea is not gender based; it is role based. The papa role is out in the marketplace with the customers. They are the visionaries who see the possibility of the company growing and prospering. Papas are a little mad, unreasonable with lots of energy. They make relationships with the customer and success in the marketplace happen.

 The mama role is the saner operational one that turns the business ideas and/or clients into money. Think of Eskimo couples. The papa goes out hunting and stalks, chases, and shoots the bear. Upon bringing the bear carcass home to the igloo, the mama turns it into something useful such as bear burgers, bear claw earrings, and a rug. Both the mama and papa roles are important inter-dependent roles and critical to the success of the enterprise. The mama and the papa depend on each other for the success and growth of the enterprise.

Over the years, I have seen this thinking repeatedly play out in companies. When a company has a leader at the top who demonstrates selling, customer-focused entrepreneurial energy and another leader who embodies and demonstrates the administration and financial controls, there will be healthy growth. When this duality does not exist at the top, there are numerous pitfalls. When there is too much papa entrepreneurial spirit, a company risks growing too much, acquiring too many customers, and not being able to deliver the papa’s promise and handle the growth. Similarly, if a company is too administrative, then it runs the risk of too much organizational bureaucracy and red tape and no one bringing in new business and exciting ideas.

Gustavo and Marina

I saw this play out at a small technology company. Owner Gustavo (not the real name, to protect the innocent) was the mama. He started out of a small office repairing computers and providing and occasionally building some systems. He was the internal face of the company, attracting loyal employees and putting in internal structures. The culture was robust, yet growth was slow, poking along at $3 million.

Then came Marina (again, not the real name), from a much larger computer company, CDW, where she was one of its sales leaders. Marina became the papa, and in three years the company grew to $17 million. This company got the design right, and real growth ensued.

Back to the Boat

Now it comes together in a splash of sea spray. Thank you for your patience. It was on the deck of the schooner Grace Bailey, in conversation, while plying the calm waters off the Maine coast that the mama/papa design came back into my consciousness. In lengthy conversation with Captain Rob, the skipper, and owner of the Maine windjammer cruises company, I was once again reminded of its potency.

Captain Rob, an aging hippie with bleached-blond shoulder-length hair, bemoaned that business was not what it used to be. He talked about a steady decline in business over the last few years. I was curious. Everything else in the economy was growing, so why not here?

I put down my beer and put on my listening cap. What I heard was that Captain Rob was the essential mama—an operations man. When you got him talking about how he remade the boat and rebuilt the dining area, he glowed. The Captain talked about this endeavor with great emotion.

However, when you talked about the marketplace, increased competition, and social media, his effect got very flat. When you talked about marketing, staying in touch with customers, and new innovations, he glowered into his coffee mug and squinted into the horizon. The glow was gone, enthusiasm vanished.

Captain Rob ran a good ship. The food was healthy and on time. The crew was lively, attentive, and entertaining. We even had a lobster bake on a small island. From what I could see, all the passengers had a good time. Operationally, the Grace Bailey worked.

However, it begged the questions: Would any of the passengers return? Would they tell and refer others to this excursion? And did Captain Rob and his company establish an ongoing relationship with the passengers? For me and from what I saw, these questions were answered with a resounding “No.”

There was no attempt by the company or Captain Rob to establish a Facebook page or e-mail conversation with the beloved customers of the July 30th voyage. There was no attempt to turn our relationship into participation in other programs such as sailing for camera buffs or learning to cook healthy or senior sail or any other program because there was no other program. The biggest question for me is would I go back to Maine for a summer sail? Maybe. Would I go back to Captain Rob? Maybe, but I first would check out other options. I am not necessarily loyal to the Grace Bailey.

What would a true papa do in this situation? Well, first, there would be a robust social media marketing plan. Captain Rob could even Tweet from time to time. There would be a real focus on differentiating from the other boats with a personalized approach using technology.

The passenger bonded with the young crew. You could leverage what was happening with Tristan, John, and Sarah. Photos and sounds would be posted on the Website, so the magic of the trip was kept alive. The brand of the Grace Baily would be one of beauty, great sailing, and great comaraderie—an experience passengers would love to share and re-experience.

There you have it. With an abundance of mama energy and a little papa energy, the schooner Grace Bailey is left sailing off the coast of Maine. She is operationally excellent with an experienced mama but with no direction from an excited and passionate papa. She has the capacity—there is room for more passengers, but innovation is not present.

Pay attention to this tale and look at your own operations and business focus. Ask yourself the questions: How is the mama energy in my business? How is the papa energy in my business? What is missing?

Bruce Hodes is the president of CMI, and a speaker, author, business coach/consultant, and former psychotherapist who shows how to grow a powerful, profitable business and achieve sustainable growth.

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