Remember from Lesson 4 that Meriwether Lewis had studied and become skilled at astronomy. One of the most expensive pieces of equipment he took with him on the journey was a sextant – a precision instrument used to fix ones location on the globe relative to the location of objects in the sky like the sun, moon, and stars. The following description from Stephen Ambrose’s book “Undaunted Courage” gives us a glimpse into Lewis’ use of the sextant on April 26, 1805, and helps us understand why navigation was so important to him.
“At 9:41, 9:42, and 9:43 a.m. he (Lewis) measured the altitude of the sun with a sextant and an artificial horizon. He was obtaining his local time, trying to establish the moment of high noon, against which to compare Greenwich time. He could figure out Greenwich time with a set of lunar distance measurements that he could obtain by taking the sextant angle between the moon and the star Altair. What he wanted to fix was the longitude of the junction of the (Missouri and Yellowstone) rivers.”
Process, Precision, and Purpose
What strikes you about the description above? As I think for a moment about what Lewis was doing, three words come up for me: process, precision, and purpose.
Look at the process Lewis had to go through to know what time it was. Today we simply look at our smartphone or our Bluetooth wristwatch and know exactly what time it is. Lewis’ process to know the precise time of day was much more involved.
Picture Lewis the night before, locating Altair, the 12th brightest star in the night sky, and using an instrument to measure the angle between the star and the moon. He probably took this angle and referred to the ephemeris he had brought (which contained tables correlating angles and locations of stars with times of day) so he could determine the precise time in Greenwich. I can see him looking at his pocket watch (probably by candlelight since the new moon was only 3 days away and it must have been a pretty dark night), fine-tuning the setting and carefully winding it before he retired for the night.
The next morning, in cool, damp air, he used the same instrument to measure the altitude of the sun in the sky. Not just once, but three times. With this information, I can picture him going back to his books and comparing his data to standards in tables and charts he had brought along.
And why did he need to know the time with such precision? Because with precision, he could fulfill his purpose, to fix the longitude of an important milestone in the journey. He could determine with precision exactly where he was, tell others how to get to that place, and authoritatively tell them what to expect there.
Where Is Your North Star?
As we make our journey in business, what do we use to navigate and fix our position? Lewis wasn’t going to the North Star, he was going to the Pacific, but knowing he could rely on the position of a star that had reliably been observed and measured for centuries before gave him his bearings – he knew where he was in relation to his objective. In a similar fashion to Lewis using celestial objects to get his bearings, we must get our bearings to fulfill our purpose.
What should we look to? The easiest way to find the North Star in the night sky is to first find the Big Dipper. The Big Dipper position will change throughout the year but if you find the two stars on the dipper end of this constellation and follow a straight line to the next bright star they point to, you will have found Polaris, or the North Star!
In business, I suggest we could think of our paying customer as our “North Star”, and think of our company as the “Big Dipper”. But using this metaphor, rather than looking first to the Big Dipper (our company), the FIRST thing we do is to find the customer and THEN align our company to serve them.
Think Outside The Building
There’s a temptation in any business to think “inside the building”. Here’s what I mean. We arrive in the morning to see our team, our department, our metrics, and our challenges in working with other people or groups. If we go to work on improving any one of these areas that are so apparent for us “inside the building” without getting our bearings, we might head off in the wrong direction.
Even though we value problem-solving and we like to act with speed, we need regular connection with our customers outside of the building to understand what they need and value most. Then we can come back to our team, our department, our company with a perspective that ensures we are aligning to deliver what the customer needs.
Getting out of the building is easy to do but usually takes some planning. Here are some “get out of the building” examples I’ve led and participated in:
- Weekly conference calls to a customer attended by a cross-functional leadership team
- “Listen-ups”, or “ride-alongs” — listening in on conversations sales, service, and support people are having with customers
- Knowledge sharing – I met a leader of a department similar to mine at a local conference. We got our leadership teams together for a few hours each quarter to share ideas and ask each other questions.
Much like Lewis on his Journey of Discovery, as we carefully seek our bearings by getting out of the building, better understanding our paying customer, and as we follow a process with precision to get our alignment right, we will discover new heights of customer happiness and business success!
Questions to Consider
- When was the last time you got out of the building?
- Is the Paying Customer your North Star?
- How might you connect with others in your company to align for customer success?
“Find Your North Star” is the fifth of Five Lessons about Courage that are as applicable for business leaders today as they were 200 years ago when they were first encountered and learned by the leaders of the Corps of Discovery. Here’s a recap of the five lessons:
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Watch for my next and final post in this series where we’ll discuss a surprising sixth lesson that ties all the other ones together!