Are You an Elephant or a Cheetah?
By Scott Koepf
August 07, 2012 11:45 PM
In July I was privileged to attend the United States Track and Field Olympic Trials in Eugene. As I have with other sporting events, I found some business lessons from this often overlooked contest.
The first lesson I will share is actually a reaffirmation of something I learned long ago when I was in high school. Back then I was 6 feet, 3 inches and over 220 pounds (that was then and no comment as to now!). When people would read my letterman jacket and see football they would nod with understanding. But when they would see track and field listed, I would literally see a quizzical look emerge and I would simply point to the “field” part and say “shot put and discus.” At that point the image of a typical runner was replaced with expectations that matched my body type.
As I watched the Olympic Trials was fascinating by how different the athletes’ physical bodies were for each event. With the rare exception you could tell those who were sprinters versus long distance runners. And, of course, the field event guys were blatantly obvious.
It reminds me of a research project I heard about where Stanford University spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to send researchers to Africa to watch the animals. After much testing and observation of the elephants, in particular, they discovered that, shockingly, the bigger something is the slower it moves. I could have saved them thousands of hours and dollars by just asking me to watch me compete in the 100-meter sprint!
Just as athletes gravitate to where their natural gifts lead them, I believe travel agents should do the same thing. This represents an entirely different approach to specialization than typically discussed in this magazine. It goes beyond destinations, product types or target markets to the actual skill set you possess. Very few travel professionals have natural gifts in all areas of business.
You may be a natural “people person,” who connects with others easily, or perhaps you are a technological whiz and computers are second nature to you. Marketing may be easy for you to grasp or you may be a numbers person who loves spreadsheets. We all may have some skills in some area, but most of us will have at least one thing where we are gifted with superior skills.
Due to the competitive nature and immediate results of track and field, it’s usually quite obvious where an athlete’s skill set lies. You can be a sprinter, a long-distance runner, a high jumper, a long jumper, or someone who excels in the shot-put or discus. In business, however, we are typically bombarded with messages that say we should be exceptional in all areas and so we spend inordinate amounts of time trying to be proficient those areas instead of being a winner where our gifts have given us an advantage.
Marketing, for example, is an area where many agents who are unbelievably phenomenal at building relationships spend an inordinate amount of time just trying to compete. They study, practice and work hard to become marketing gurus. But even if they have moderate success, the downside is that all of that time was taken away from what they really do best. I could have hired the best running coach in the world and practiced sprinting six hours a day, but for me—and my friends, the elephants—it would not have brought me to the winner’s podium.
Of course, you may challenge this approach and make the case that you do need proficiency in all of the areas I mentioned to succeed. The answer to this conundrum also is displayed in the world of track and field. While most of the competitions are individual, track and field is a team sport. A successful team needs top performers in all disciplines. Even if a team has the three best sprinters and sweeps that event, if it has no one in the field events it will lose.
So here’s the take away: Seek out teammates who have different gifts to make your team (your agency) competitive. Affiliating with host agencies is one way to build your team, finding colleagues with different skill sets is another, and hiring assistants is yet another. The key to success is doing what you do best and surrounding yourself with others who do their best at different things. While a team of elephants might be impressive, without some cheetahs the team is doomed.
Scott Koepf, vice president of sales at host travel agency Avoya Travel/American Express, is a veteran travel industry executive who is considered an expert in sales training. This column is adapted from one appearing in the July issue of Agent@Home magazine.