top of page

Find the fast water or risk being left behind

rowing race

I know next to nothing about rowing, but a friend who rowed to a high standard once told me that the key to river racing is ‘find and take the fast water’. Because within a river system some parts of the surface water are flowing faster than others – for example, in a straight river, the fastest water is typically in the middle, and in a meander on the outside of the bend; in each case because that is where the water is deepest and so there is less friction.

I’ve often thought this a useful analogy for our lives as professionals. Because it is always going to make our lives easier to be able to go faster, internally and externally.

Externally, in client markets, the fast water is usually found by following the money and the sound of the guns. But of course this also attracts a lot of fellow professionals as competitors – so expect to have to stand out and compete hard.

But the cleverest money is often on what might be the next ‘hot’ thing. As Wayne Gretzky once said, he doesn’t skate to where the ice hockey puck is now, but where it is going to be next.

And, as they say in my native Yorkshire, ‘where there’s muck there’s brass’. There is fun, fame and fortune to be found in commoditising and volume markets for those who are organised and innovative.

So there are many and various stretches of external fast water – we just have to make sure we are in one of them. Being in slow water externally is both career limiting and a tough slog.

The internal fast water within a firm is easy to spot. Usually it is the one or two key areas of the firm’s core business and the bets the firm has placed on the next hot things, potentially geographically or sector-driven. And, inevitably, this is where the attention, investment and profit share tends to be concentrated.

But even if I am in this place, I shouldn't get too comfortable. The businesses of professional services firms are built on continually shifting sands driven by forces that are beyond their control, including the impact of regulation. And of course regime change, either in the form of management succession or merger, can change the popularity of a line of business overnight, render it undesirable or even impossible, especially due to conflicts of interest.

The uncomfortable place in any partnership, however, is the internal slow water. These are practice areas, offices or sectors which are on borrowed time until something or someone provokes an existential change.

If I'm in fast water externally and internally, I am in a good place – at least for now.

If I'm in fast water externally but slow water internally, I am probably in the wrong firm. I either need to find a firm where my fast water is also the firm's fast water or I need to make my own fast water also my firm’s fast water.

If I'm in fast water internally but slow water externally both I and my firm need a strategic rethink. No firm, let alone individual partner, can thrive for long today in slow external water.

If I'm in slow water internally and externally, both I and my firm need to reinvent ourselves fast.

We don’t need oars to be successful partners, but we do need to be able to plot in real time our commercial positions both externally and internally, and keep adjusting accordingly.


bottom of page