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Centerboards

By Chuck Violand

November 5, 2018

For years, nautical vessels have been used as metaphors for business, as the parallels between ships and businesses are unmistakable. I’ve even used them in some of my previous writings and in a presentation I give titled “Sailboats, Yachts, and Tall-Masted Ships.” The presentation describes the changes a small business experiences as it grows, likening those to the changing responsibilities of a captain and his crew, depending on the size of the vessel being commanded.

A sailboat needs a vertical appendage—a centerboard or keel—on the lower part of its hull to avoid being blown sideways or capsizing whenever the wind comes from the side. Except for when a boat is sailing directly downwind, the wind always hits one side of the boat or the other.

If not for the centerboard, the boat wouldn’t be able to sail as straightforward as possible and would be victimized by the slightest wind hitting its sails. It could take on water as it rocks back and forth, and in extreme cases, it could even capsize.

So, the purpose of the centerboard is to offer stability for the sailboat, while only providing minimal protection from the elements that buffet it.
The centerboard on a sailboat serves as a great metaphor for a company’s mission statement. Just as the centerboard is vital to the integrity and performance of a boat, so is the mission statement to a company.

Despite all the talk we hear about the importance of mission statements, it’s easy to be confused about their purpose and to misunderstand just what they’re capable of achieving for an organization. The mission statement is not the sail of the company whose purpose is to catch the wind and propel the company forward. Nor is it the rudder whose purpose it is to steer the direction of the company.

The purpose of a mission statement is to provide stability to a company as it heads toward its destination—its vision. At the same time, the mission only provides minimal protection from the forces that will impact a company on its journey. Things like competition, employee turnover, and challenges to the company culture are just a few of the forces that will buffet a company as it grows.

As Manuel Elizalde, Jr. says in The Soul of Money, “Give people a center and they stand fast.” A company’s mission is that center.

With sailboats, it’s not uncommon for the centerboard to become dented or nicked over time as it encounters objects under the water. For a small pleasure craft this might not be a big deal. But, if the boat is intended for racing, then it’s a very big deal as this can have a dramatic impact on the speed of the boat. Therefore, it’s a good idea to examine the centerboard from time to time to make sure it hasn’t been permanently damaged and that it’s still serving its purpose.

It’s no different with a company’s mission. Just as with a boat’s centerboard, the company’s mission needs to be examined regularly to make sure it’s still serving its purpose of providing the stability the company needs as it continues to grow.