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An Office Runs Through It: What Fly Fishing Can Teach About Management

A river is not an office, but the lessons learned there can be translated into any office. As one who has spent many hours in both rivers and management, I often felt I learned less about management from textbooks and more from flowing water and the behavior of fish.
Like most fly fisherman I’ve spent many hours being outsmarted by trout. But being so smart, they taught me a few things too. In that spirit, what fly fishing can teach about management:

Small things make a big difference
– This is the foundation of fly fishing and arguably foundational for management too. Successful fly fishing hinges on the smallest details: the weight of the tippet (the fine clear line attached directly to the fly), the size of fly, pattern of fly, and accuracy and delicacy of cast, to name just a few. If any element in this chain is way off, so will be the fish. In the world of management, employee engagement and therefore performance are often influenced by small details as well: a pat on the back or word of encouragement for a job well done… the myriad of minor daily interactions that shape how an employee feels about a manager (and often about an entire organization). Small things matter, in a river or an office.

Matching the (motivational) hatch
– “Matching the hatch” is another cornerstone of fly fishing – the notion of selecting the artificial fly most closely resembling the insects actually hatching on the river, since that’s what fish are feeding on and will want to eat. If brook trout are rising to a feast of ephemerella dorothea (tiny white mayflies), there’s no point trying to entice them with a much larger and darker Grey Ghost. The managerial equivalent is matching what I call “the motivational hatch” – a manager needs to understand what most motivates employees and then “match” their needs with appropriate rewards and incentives. Motivations are as individual as personalities. Some employees just want praise and recognition, others seek more time for family and better work-life balance, some may be lured by titles and corner offices, while still others may care for little beyond compensation and bonus. As on the river, it’s up to a manager to crack the code and determine what attractor will most motivate.
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