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"Managing Unexpected Terrain - How Learning to Ski the Moguls Helped Me"

I’ve always believed that getting out of the office is key to gaining perspective and that it makes me a better leader. If nothing else, it gives me new analogies to use in our management meetings!

We’re all challenged at this time, more than ever before, navigating unexpected terrain and being comfortable with the uncomfortable. Here’s how learning to ski the moguls helped me re-frame managing the unexpected:

First off, I’m a leisure skier. I’m comfortable on the mountain, but I’m not in it to win it! I enjoy the scenery, but I love to learn and improve, so I enjoy taking a lesson or two.

On my most recent trip, the instructor started by asking what I didn’t want to do with this lesson. It was an interesting approach, I thought. I was honest in replying that I really did not enjoy skiing moguls. For those who don’t know snow, moguls are bumps or mounds of snow that create a sort of obstacle course for the skier.

She asked, “What’s your problem with the moguls?” The answer is simple. I find them stressful. We naturally avoid things that we find stressful. This is a common answer, but here’s the follow-up question: “Wouldn’t you like to know that if you encounter unexpected terrain, you can manage it without the stress?”

Well, now she’s talking my language! That makes a lot of sense and as a result, I decided that the moguls needed to be conquered. Next, she asked, “Do you know why you find moguls stressful?” I didn’t really have a snappy comeback for that one. I just knew that it was intimidating, and like many in our industry, I’m naturally risk-averse! Given a choice, you can keep your bumps. I’ll stick to the nice powder.

She went on to explain that because I was so focused on the obstacles right in front of me, the intimidation factor on the amount of effort that I perceived would be necessary, and that all of the various options had become completely overwhelming. It was not a matter of technical ability. What I needed to do was lift my head, focusing further down the mountain, allowing the things that I already knew to take over naturally. Muscle memory is an amazing phenomenon! It was a simple solution, but like many things, more difficult to execute.

All of us are people leaders because we have the innate skills. We inherently know what to do, but we tend to fixate on the most immediate obstacle. In so doing, we lose sight of the bigger picture. So I encourage you to lift your head. Focus on the horizon. These short-term challenges can most easily become opportunities if we:

Don’t just give up because we are overwhelmed by the most immediate obstacles. There are solutions. Let’s talk about the options. Last week we weren’t sure how we could on-board new employees without ever seeing them physically. This week, we’ve welcomed several new call center colleagues.

Embrace things that are scary and have empathy for those who may be completely overwhelmed right now. Better still, help someone else see past their moguls. Leaders are working together to group tasks from various different areas of the business, temporarily modifying role responsibilities to reduce or eliminate on-site work.

Embody willingness to endure short-term pain for long-term gain. Many companies are giving up on customer service during these difficult times. We will rise to the occasion and show our clients how committed we are to serving their customers, because we believe that long-term loyalty will far exceed the immediate challenges. We are meeting service levels and looking for ways to help others who cannot do so, at this time.

Be eager to explore new terrain! This is our chance to innovate. Here’s an example: We’re working to implement direct deposit for claims payments. People need that cash and we’re trying to get it to their accounts, starting with the most vulnerable in our communities, who should not have to go out to accomplish this task. This will have long-term benefits for clients and create operational efficiency.

Now, back to the ski lesson. It didn’t take long. In fact, it was the very next day, as if the universe knew I could do it. I found myself in exactly those unexpected circumstances with difficult terrain ahead, and only one way down the mountain. (This is what happens when you try to keep up with your teenaged daughter!)

I have no plans to go looking for trouble, and if you ask my knees, they’ll still say, no thanks to the moguls - and please can we have some more Advil.

I would like each of you to experience the feeling of overcoming that which would otherwise be insurmountable. I know you can do it. But most importantly - SO DO YOU!

Wishing you well,



Jennifer J. Toal