High Risk Business & Strategy: What Can a Chain Sawyer Teach Us?

I grew up wielding outdoor tools—electric hedge clippers, tree pole trimmers, and lopping shears. When I wanted to learn how to mount crown molding and do home remodeling, I graduated to reciprocating, table, and compound miter saws.

After making my share of scrap wood, the first successful project was a set of four exquisite Adirondack chairs–the most expensive ones on the planet. The expense was due to two things: an insistence on showcasing the beautiful Cyprus tree grain pattern and a gene I used to attribute to men–the “tool gene.” The one that makes you subject to being captivated by—and craving,  then insisting on possessing–the shiny, new, cool tools needed to get the project done, the “only” things that will get the project done.

For someone who didn’t grow up using a chain saw, it is a fearsome beast.  There’s the obvious potential for severe harm from the saw itself, a potential further compounded by the conditions of what is being sawed and where. Trouble could come from the live tree on a downhill slope, the tree that’s leaning and trapped in the canopy of another tree. Or trouble could come when the cut you made causes the butt of the tree to spring up with the power of a catapult then crushes whatever it lands on.  You can hope it’s just the dirt that’s crushed or the saw you dropped when you ran for your life. Those would be the luckier outcomes.

I didn’t fully appreciate all these things until I participated in a chainsaw safety class. The class was offered by the United States Forest Service in the foothills of the Virginia mountains. Three Husqvarna chainsaws of varying sizes sat on the conference room table, their ferocious teeth safely muzzled with a section of fire hose or a blade scabbard.

On day one, the technical aspects were fascinating! What cut gets what result, where to relieve tension in a tree, watching the kerf—the cut you’ve made—to see if it changes before you make your next cut.   Throughout the day, I cringed at stories—and some brutal images–of the chain saw accidents and injuries. The instructor said several times, “This isn’t to scare you but this is a safety class… .”  I was scared.

Out in the woods the next day, caution and fascination reached a productive balance. I practiced bucking, which is cutting a felled or fallen tree, removing limbs, and felling a dead tree. I learned what happens when you don’t have the face cut where you want your tree to fall, the importance of using your hip and weight when boring the blade into the trunk, and the necessity of paying attention to changing conditions.  (Thank you, Jay for keeping that branch from clocking me on the head.)

Now, foggy mountains left behind; I’m back in the city and all of me intact.  I am the proud holder of a tiny blue chainsaw certification with a restriction: I can only cut with a more experienced sawyer. That’s fine with me!

Chain sawyer best practices offer clear, powerful guidance when our business is engaged in complex business, high risk situations like investing in emerging markets with rapidly changing political, social, and economic conditions. Further, they apply in our corporate strategy and initiatives where the volatility and dangers aren’t so overt or acute. Here are seven parallels between effective chain sawyering and effectively leading your business.

  1.  Do You Have A Primary Objective and the Resources to Fulfill It?  When using a chainsaw in the woods, the primary objective is safety first. That means the right equipment, well-maintained. It means people have the necessary skills, the ability to communicate well with each other, and the good judgment to know how to manage risk.
  2. Are You Willing to Back Away? There is always an assessment of global conditions—not just what is to be achieved, but is it achievable within the context of the surrounding conditions. Sometimes after an assessment, the primary objective (safety first) might mean you can’t get the job done then and there. You need different resources and you use good sense to withdraw temporarily or completely.
  3. Where Does Your Project Want to Go and Where Do You Need It To Go? There’s a wonderful intricacy we can learn from being a good sawyer—where does the tree want to fall given the conditions–and then assessing, where do you need it to fall? Projects and initiatives, just like a tree, have a natural lean dictated by the nature of the project and the prevailing conditions. These must be accommodated.
  4. Do You Have a Risk Management Plan for Critical Junctures? The greatest action occurs within 15’ to 20’ of the base of the tree, as it’s being cut. When felling a tree, you better have a cleared path route that’s 45 degrees off the back of the tree. When you are executing a business initiative and about to set concentrated, significant forces in motion, what’s your risk management plan for those most impacted?
  5. Do You Have Someone Who Can See the Whole Picture?  The chain sawyer term for this person is called a swamper. He or she plays a critical role, standing back to see the whole tree and alert you, the sawyer, to changing conditions. The swamper’s tap on your shoulder could save your life.
  6. Are You Paying Attention to the Little Thing? As I prepared to fell my first tree, Jay pointed to the tiny hole at the base and said “Oh yes. That could be a bee hole.” So even if I executed my plan flawlessly, there was a “little thing” that could have quite a big impact—swarming bees bent on protecting their home.  My legs would have been fine because of the five- or six-layer Kevlar chaps I was wearing. The rest of me would have been fair game. So, as you consider the environment in which you are engaging, what’s that one little thing that under normal circumstances you wouldn’t have anything to do with or you would address immediately? Don’t let it get lost in the bigger picture.
  7. Are You Re-Assessing Changing Conditions in Real Time? As you execute, you must be continually assessing and re-assessing conditions that might necessitate a change in plan. Is the kerf—the width of the cut—opening or closing?  This on-going assessment is essential in activities or business environments that require high situational awareness. If your business operates in countries where there is political, economic, or social instability, you know this. But are you being equally as astute with your corporate strategy?

There’s a lot of serious, hard work to be done in the world. Many of you do business in and have employees in high-risk environments. You might be serving people in high-risk environments. Those naturally command our focused attention: we know lives are at stake. These environments demand common sense, good strategy, and the ability to recognize and respond to changing conditions to minimize the risk and achieve a good outcome. Not every business context however, commands our attention in quite this way. These guidelines go beyond best practices to vital practices—practices that ensure the vitality of your mission and vision, and benefitting those you serve.

Did You Miss It?

On May 8th, in Washington, D.C. I moderated an event on Private Sector Investments that Contribute to International Development: Successes, Mistakes  and ROI. Expert panelists included John Aldonas, Deputy Vice President for Small and Medium Enterprise Finance (SMEF), Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), Tom Livelli, Director, Clark Realty, and Co-Founder and VP of Inter-Mac International, and Gil Crawford, Chief Executive Officer of MicroVest. We had a full room, powerful, real-world perspectives on the complexities and rewards of this “both/and” strategy and fantastic feedback from audience members! You can read an event overview here http://www.sidw.org/assets/EventSummary/private%20sector%20event%20summary%20may%208th.pdf


U.S. Library of Congress ISSN 2164-7240

©Leadership Hand LLC and Beth Hand, 2015 | (+1) 703.820.8018 Eastern Time USA | www.leadershiphand.com

You may reprint an article from Written by Hand© on a non-exclusive basis provided the above copyright and link to www.LeadershipHand.com is included in the credits. Please send us a notice of the reprint along with a copy of the publication.

Comments are closed.