Don’t Fight the Mudslides

It was about a year ago that the “Thomas Fire”  spread across Santa Barbara County, at that time one of the largest and most devastating fires in California history (as I write this essay, the “Mendocino Complex Fore is raging and is now the largest fire in the state’s history.)  Purely by coincidence, I was connected to a great company at that time that happened to be based in Santa Barbara and I began connecting via email with the CEO.  From late Summer into the fall of 2017, we went back and forth on a number of topics and ideas, all very interesting and engaging that ultimately led to him inviting me out to meet live and see their facility which is located very close tot he airport in Santa Barbara proper.  The trip was planned and logistics locked down for me to head out to LA, and drive up to Santa Barbara for a set of meetings in early March 2018.

The routing through L.A. had a personal motivation, which allowed me to stop by and grab a dinner/coffee with my dear son Bryson, though I had no inkling to the twist and turns that would emanate from that simple decision.  While the morning was unusually rainy and stormy in L.A. proper ( which throws quite a wrench into the traffic dynamics for ‘The 405″)  I dove into the traffic in my rental car and headed north put of L.A. enroute to Santa Barbara.  Too busy with business calls and client dynamics, I had not paid ANY attention to the local weather dynamics and forecast as I took he exit off “The 5” to “The 101” and headed west.  I had plenty of time to spare, having planned to get up to the offices in S.B. a good hour or so early, until I saw the large flashing sign saying the 101 was closed ahead in Ventura due to Mudslides!!  Immediately I called my trusted work associate Cathy ( living in Baltimore) who went online and realized the dramatic weather related issues ahead.

“The 101” was indeed closed and we were routed onto side streets in Ventura, where I stopped for a coffee/bathroom break and a live call with Cathy to assess the situation.  Things looked bad across the region, and while the 101 was indeed closed, there was a route that looks open to both Cathy and I that lead north and up into the hills near Ojai, then hard west to S.B.  With new caffeine induced energy in my veins, and a potential new client to see in my sights, I took off on the alternate route.  The rain kept up, growing harder through the morning and was a strong steady downpour as I pulled out of the coffee shop.  I seemed to be making good progress and while slow, I thought I could still make it to the scheduled meeting.  Little did I know!

After 20 to 30 minutes of slow but steady driving north, maybe 10 miles out of Ojai I realized that there were NO cars coming south on the divided four lane state highway and only once car on my side of the highway, seemingly following me!! I pulled over, ( the trailing car when on their way) and called Cathy again ( thank god for Cathy!!) She was surprised when I told her my approximate location because on her online map, the state highway I was on was “closed due to mudslides!!”  It was un-nerving to realize that I was on a closed road, and that there were NO side options or alternate routes available not only to try to get to Santa Barbara but even to get back to L.A.  Freaky indeed!  I turned around and headed back south slowly but steadily hoping that I would make my way back to Ventura, and back to L.A.  I had a complete mental pivot…. no longer was I worried about the timing of the meeting in S.B., i was only thinking about safely returning home…. a powerful clarifying moment!

I share this story as a metaphor for so many moments in business and in life where we need to “wake up” and really see and understand the environment we are facing.  I don’t want to make light of the Santa Barbara fires or mudslides/floods in anyway.  Numerous individuals and families lost their lives, none the less the billions of dollars of damage and devastation that hit that region; it was major calamity that will be remembered in that corner of California for years to come.  I just happened to be a pretty clueless visitor that learned an important lesson that day.  Too often in business we get caught up in the immediate timing and specifics of our short term deliverables ( the meeting in Santa Barbara) and forget about the context and landscape that surrounds us!  Too often we get consumed by the monthly/quarterly/annual numbers and forget that we are trying to build business legacies that should last for years or decades.  remember the mudslides and work to find ways to “stay tuned in” and keep an eye on the landscape you are dealing with more broadly…. if you are lucky enough to have a “Cathy” in your life, reach out to look for help in seeing the bigger picture.  it will certainly help you succeed in the short term and I suggest it will pay dividends in the future.

p.s. after successfully working my way back to L.A., and ultimately Atlanta, I did indeed return to Santa Barbara for successful meetings a month or so later… and the client totally understood the need for the delay!