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Part 2 of Redefining Success: The Shark Theory

By Richard Harriman


This post is number 2 of 3 in the series “Redefining Success” by Richard Harriman, Illuminet Associate Partner.

Think back to a time that you had a real struggle with someone in a leadership position; not your manager, that is a whole different topic.  Think someone that was/is a peer or someone that was a peer to your manager.  It works best if, in this recollection, the person seemed impossible to please – no matter how well you prepared, no matter how experienced you were, this person was always a challenge and publicly so.

I have had a few people like this in my past and recently I decided to have a private conversation with my direct manager about my current situation.  Not complaining per-se (never!), but I was at the end of my rope and I needed some coaching on a way to cope.  When I knew this particular person was to be in a meeting, I would take extra time to make sure that everything was not only “perfect” but that every line of talk track was practiced to head off any potential pitfalls.  On the surface, not a bad thing but I wanted another point of view to make sure I was not missing something.

He did not disagree.  Like a good manager, he listened while I made my case.  He used strategically placed questions and awkward pauses to draw out more information than I probably planned to share, but at the end of my conversation, he had a great perspective on my position.

At this point, he took over.  Now, a little about this manager…  His style was to teach by sharing parables and/or examples to drive a point, an excellent style and to this day, one of the styles that I try to emulate.  And so, he began.

“Do you know why people are hesitant to eat seafood in the Midwest?”, he started.  Now, if I did not know him, I would have a big concern that he had not been paying attention, so I played along.

“I can see it – I assume that it would have to do with geography.  The Midwest is nowhere near the ocean, so even with the best of logistics, you can’t get fresh seafood to come close to matching coastal regions.”  Boom, I nailed that one.

“Precisely.  The food industry has tried everything, from fish farms to fish tanks on rail cars; these ideas worked, but the seafood is not as fresh as it is direct from the ocean, which makes sense.  They also tried all methods of freezing, and other innovation, spent a lot of money on research and testing but the taste difference was still there.  Having lower quality seafood in the Midwest became a problem that the food industry really wanted to solve and what they came up with, and it was something that Japan had been doing for years, was to add a small shark to the rail car tanks.  The shark kept the fish moving while in transit, and the taste is now nearly indiscernible.  The only difference now is perception, which can be hard to correct in the short-term, but over time, with the right product, that too will go away.”

I felt like I had just taken the red pill from the movie The Matrix, I had my aha moment.  It was not the person, necessarily, that I had issues with – it was the job, the role, of that person.  Once my eyes were opened, I saw that not only was the person doing this with everyone, I saw that it was intentional – enter the shark.

The job of the shark is to keep things moving and to keep everyone on their collective toes.  This particular shark also went for the kill when there was “blood in the water” by continuing to “attack” the weak spots of a presentation or meeting agenda point until it was clear that there was more work to do to satisfy the hunger of the shark.  In some cases, it was informational, educational, and helpful.  Sometimes it was awkward, humiliating, and borderline unprofessional – this is obviously too far.

The idea of having a shark on the team is a good one.  It adds to the idea of diversity of thought and preparedness.  The shark in this situation is an antagonist that forces others to prepare for the moment, know the details and to think on one’s feet when cornered.  Test the survival skills, an essential test in business.  It is also ideal if the shark is not the main leader, it is a role best held by someone else on the team to maintain checks and balances.

If no one challenges the room, too many things can pass through unchecked and without objection; this will not only waste time and resources but hurt branding as well.  As it is a good idea to have a shark, it is important to remember that the job of the shark in the wild is to hunt and kill to survive and the weak are the easiest targets; in business, seeking the weak ideas (or resources) to challenge them would be the goal but to do so in way that doesn’t cross a line professionally – let’s not kill anyone and eat them for food.

Knowing there was a shark in the room did not change my approach or preparation, but it did change my mindset and I welcomed the shark.  Think of it this way; would you rather climb into a large tank knowing that there is a shark and its relative location compared to yours or would you rather climb into a tank oblivious to the shark only to discover it after you’ve entered?  Pretty easy to answer that one.

As a side note – I’ve found plenty of articles that support the idea of a shark in the tank to keep the fish fresh, but I’ve never found anything about this for the fish market in the Midwest.  The relevant point is not whether it actually happened or not, the point was made and if you learn to take information and spin it into a story that teaches a point to others, you’ve mastered a skill that others miss – I’m convinced that we learn best through our own mistakes and the stories of others, so true or not, this parable not only touched me but taught me an important lesson on success that isn’t super obvious.

Next week we will look at how a CIO can use potentially divisive tactics through paradox management to drive success. If you have any questions or observations in relation to this topic, please do leave a comment!


About The Author

Richard Harriman is a seasoned leader with 30+ years Executive Level Management, Program/Project Management and Team Leadership experience. A results driven professional with a proven record for developing high-performing teams and exceeding corporate objectives. He is also the owner and sole proprietor of CANOMOJO LLC.

One thought on “Part 2 of Redefining Success: The Shark Theory

  1. A great article once again Rick, it’s critical to be challenged and to keep on your toes, I know personally that if I produce a presentation or proposal – I share it not to get positive feedback but to be challenged and to find the flaws – then it’s stronger for it!

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