Of Big “O”s and Little “o”s

Capitalizing on a really big opportunity often requires marshaling a host of smaller opportunities across an organization. In these instances, the open-door leader's job is to broaden the opportunity landscape for the entire organization. To illustrate this concept, let's consider the story of Sutton Bacon.

To the surprise of many, Sutton became the president and CEO of the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) in his late 20s. People wondered how a guy so young could be given the opportunity to lead a whitewater-adventure facility with such a rich history. But the choice made sense. Despite his age, Sutton was perfectly suited for the job—he had previously been the president of American Whitewater and
had worked as a marketing strategy consultant after graduating from Emory University. What mattered more was how deeply Sutton loved the NOC. He had learned to kayak there when he was five years old. He knew, and valued, the NOC's rich history. He also knew of its financial struggles and competitive threats—like the new year-round whitewater facility that had just opened up in Charlotte, North Carolina, only two hours down the road. Sutton, part kayaker and part hard-core business consultant, convinced the NOC's board of directors that he was the right guy for the job.

The big opportunity was to create long-term sustainability for the NOC, which would require solidifying the NOC's preeminence as a whitewater mecca while expanding its offerings. The challenge for Sutton and his team was to get the bulk of the workforce—raft guides—to see that the NOC's opportunities would be limited if it continued thinking of itself as just a rafting business. Sutton felt that turning the NOC into an adventure business would create far more opportunities for everyone. More customers could be served, more money could be made, and more fun could be had if the NOC transformed from a rafting outfitter to a provider of memorable adventure experiences. Becoming a world-leading provider of adventure experiences would require changing or reinvigorating nearly every aspect of the NOC. Sutton and his management team aimed at the larger opportunity (sustainability) by creating many smaller opportunities. They started hosting more national and international canoeing and kayaking
competitions, which brought more exposure to the NOC and more revenue to fund other ideas. They launched more informal events, too, like the annual Halloween Pumpkin Run, where kayakers competed by scooping up bobbing pumpkins on their way down the rapids. They opened Slow Joe's Café, a small sandwich shop right at the river's edge. They even successfully convinced the leaders in Bryson City, North Carolina, to lift the NOC's alcohol license restrictions. People could now buy beer and wine from the NOC instead of bringing it in their coolers.

As Sutton and his team created more opportunities, more money was generated, allowing them to create even more opportunities. They started an instant-photo business that let families purchase high-quality photos of themselves immediately after storming down the river. They opened an outdoor store in downtown Gatlinburg, Tennessee, as well as a LEED-certified retail store in the historic Grove Park Inn in Asheville, North Carolina.

Most importantly, Sutton and his team significantly increased the number and types of adventure programs available to customers. In addition to whitewater rafting and kayaking, patrons could now go zip-lining, on jet boat rides, mountain biking, high-ropes excursions, fly fishing, and international adventure excursions. The NOC was now squarely in the business of adventure.

Sutton and his team of open-door leaders broadened the NOC's opportunity landscape. They shifted people's view of the NOC from a North Carolina summertime rafting
outfi to a vibrant world-class commercial business enterprise offering unique adventure experiences. By tightly marrying thrilling adventure and sound business practices, the NOC was becoming sustainable. Sutton even testifi before the U.S. House of Representatives Small Business Committee, where he was honored as a “Hero of Small Business.”

In the process of broadening the NOC's overall opportunity landscape, Sutton himself became an open-door leader. None of the opportunities his company expanded into could have been accomplished without Sutton opening the doors for his team to try new ideas and grow into new positions.

Bear in mind that the opportunities Sutton and his team created weren't without hardship. Some of the NOC's most tenured personnel fiercely resisted the changes. They felt like the balance had swung too far toward capitalism and too far away from the communal culture they had worked so hard to create. A few people left. A few were asked to leave.

Opportunities bring about change, and change often comes with turbulence. Some people may find changes threatening and disruptive and thus struggle to embrace them. Open-door leaders have to be patient, keeping the end game in mind. People need time to catch on to the potential that the opportunities hold.

The most satisfying opportunities are those that benefit customers and employees. Sutton and his team wanted to make sure that the staff directly benefitted from the changes,
so they lobbied for, and were granted, limited access to the Cheoah River, a scenic class IV and V river. Now the staff could paddle in a remote and unspoiled river that had been closed off to kayakers for years. The team also created new play holes on the Nantahala River, which were irresistible fun for the kayaking enthusiasts among the staff. Finally, they added Wi-Fi throughout the NOC's Bryson City outpost so staff and customers could access the Internet. Soon, people started to “get it.” The best days of the NOC were in front of it, not behind it.

Eventually all the opportunities, big and small, helped transform the NOC and its culture. Many of the NOC's staff took pride in knowing that they had helped their organization become the largest outdoor recreation company in the United States, offering more than 120 different adventure programs in 10 states and serving up to a million visitors annually. The New York Times recognized the NOC as the nation's premier paddling school, Outside Magazine called it the best place to learn how to paddle, and National Geographic Adventure Magazine declared it one of the best outfitters on earth.

Open-Door Leaders Are Opportunity Creators

A leader's primary job is to actively create opportunities that bring about real and concrete benefits. A leader should leave us better off than they found us. Open-door leaders don't sell hope. In fact they don't sell anything. They build. They experiment. They act. They create. And like Sutton and his team, by relentlessly focusing on creating opportunities for customers and employees, they open lots and lots of doors.

Open-Door Actions and Reflections

1. Write down your answers to these questions:

• What are some work-related opportunities or goals that “get you up in the morning”?

• In your work, what are you most excited about right now? Increase the time you spend doing things that awaken your spirit at work!

2. Identify one work-related “problem” that is currently causing you anxiety. List the specific opportunities that this challenge presents. From now on, whenever you speak about this work challenge, refer to it as an opportunity.

3. Identify one leader you've worked with and admire. Using the continuum on the next page, place an “X” on the spot that best reflects the focus of the leader. Resist the temptation to say it depends on the situation. Just think in general terms.

4. Now think of a leader with whom you've worked that you least admire. Use the same continuum to mark their spot.

Now consider your focus. Where do you fit on the continuum? problem-focus opportunity-focus

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

The leader you most admire likely has more of an opportunity focus than the leader you least admire. If you want to be admired too, you'll focus on raising your opportunity-focus number. Do that by reaching out to the admired leader for mentoring. Ask:

• When you come up against a challenging situation, what are your first thoughts?

• In your career, who influenced you to view challenges as opportunities?

What advice can you give for helping me see the opportunities that challenging situations present?

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