Ed on a Harley
Aculon CEO Edward Hughes heads out on the highway.

Board Vroom: Leadership Lessons Learned on a Harley

The total unification of mind, body and situational awareness of riding a motorcycle is a lot like running a company.

In 2008, I joined Aculon, a specialized coatings manufacturer, as CEO, at the start of an economic downturn. It should have been a time for the technology company to embark upon its commercialization phase, but in reality, the recession initiated the opposite. Commercialization programs stopped as large customers feared going out of business, which forced me rethink the company timeline.

Today Aculon is an award-winning and leading surface modification company that specializes in creating ultra-thin film treatments to modify surfaces to make them repellant or to promote adhesion.

I’m an avid motorcyclist, and an an iconic Harley-Davidson Fat Boy is my ride. The total unification of mind, body, and situational awareness of riding a motorcycle is a lot like running a company. I’ve drawn some comparisons between entrepreneurship and roaming on two wheels. Both invoke a combination of exhilaration, fear, and pleasure with a strong dose of anxiety and adrenaline. And both can be the source of great joys in life.

Owning a motorcycle is as American as entrepreneurship, and the skills gained in one arena are absolutely applicable in the other. Here are a few of my thoughts that I hope will help make the journey a success for you.

Choose wisely

On a motorcycle, everything is more open and less protected and speed feels much more intense than in an enclosed vehicle. Consequently, a motorcycle ride is much more exhilarating and satisfying than driving the family sedan, but the risks are much higher. It certainly isn’t for everyone, and neither is running and building a company. It can be lonely, exhilarating and dangerous when compared to the safety of a larger corporation or a car.  So choose your ride and your company wisely before you decide to embark on the journey.

Pack carefully

Packing for a long motorcycle trip can be a challenge. It’s nice to be prepared for every eventuality but, as in business, there are constraints, and choices have to be made. On a motorcycle, there are space and size constraints, whereas in business, time and resource constraints force certain choices. It is often better to bring less baggage and be more flexible to what may come along. You can add new resources and discard others as the journey dictates.  Certainly experience helps. If you have been down this road before, you will likely handle it better.

Look forward, not back

In business as on a motorcycle, be clear about the destination but understand that there may be a variety of possible routes to get there. Don’t overthink the journey ahead, as you don’t know what is ahead. Rather, make a plan, trust your instincts and hit the road. The thrill of riding winding, twisting roads is similar to the early days of the life of a new venture. You can only see as far as your headlights, and you never know what is round the next corner,  As Yogi Berra said, “When you reach a fork in the road, take it!” Don’t spend time looking back and thinking what could you could have done differently. Rather focus forward and use the skills honed on earlier corners to take the next one in better form. Also remember that while, yes, your immediate focus is on the corner right in front of you, remember to enjoy the journey.

Learn how to handle a lot going on

When running an emerging business, being ambidextrous helps as you spin many plates simultaneously with both hands.  Similarly when riding a motorcycle, your left hand is working the clutch and turn signal, the right-hand is working the front brake, while the right foot operates the rear brake, and the left foot shifts gears. You need to operate all these moving parts in a coordinated manner to avoid disaster.

Stay focused

As a CEO, you are responsible for making big decisions:  which business to be in, which customers to focus on, the corporate strategy and the vision of the company. While it would be great to only focus on important decisions, there are always urgent issues and distractions that take away from your ability to think strategically. You are constantly bombarded by people asking for input on how to deal with a key account issue or how to deal with an operational issue or how best to prioritize what to focus on.  These daily issues can be distractions unless managed well. Similarly when riding a bike, there is a lot going on and you have to make decisions in real time. Avoid being distracted! 

Be flexible

I believe a trait of a good leader is the ability to be flexible. Business is messy, and failure often seems imminent.. There will be times when a CEO needs to be flexible and pivot.  The ability to recognize that the pursuit of a specific idea, direction or product, is no longer the correct path to follow is essential to the organizations ability to survive. On a motorcycle, it’s the same.  You constantly are trying to avoid hazards and potholes in order to continue the journey.

Know when to open up the throttle, and when to throttle back

As your experience set builds you will understand better when to open up the throttle and when to throttle back. Early on in your career or ride you are more likely to go full throttle at every opportunity. But with experience you learn how to use the throttle more effectively. Also, unless you are in a race, don’t go as fast as possible as you will more likely make mistakes. It is better to get to the destination than be roadkill along the way.

 “Don’t run out of gas!”

When I was doing my MBA, one of my favorite professors, Bill Sahlman, who taught entrepreneurial finance, would always tell the class that one of the important lessons is don’t run out of cash. It is too easy to be focused on the journey, the milestones achieved and the thrill of the adventure that you take your eyes off the cash.  Bad things happen when you have no cash.  Similarly, when riding a bike enjoy the journey, take on the challenge, savor the wind in your face, but always keep one eye of the gas gauge. Don’t run out of gas. Bad things can happen when you run out of gas.

To adventure seekers, whether it be as an entrepreneur or as a motorcyclist, I say, “Choose wisely, pack carefully, look forward not back, learn how to handle a lot going on, stay focused, but be flexible as needed, know when to open up the throttle and when to throttle back, and don’t run out of gas! Enjoy the ride.

Edward Hughes, chairman & CEO of Aculon, is an entrepreneur, CEO, investor, teacher, advisor, board member, father, partner, competitor and motorcyclist.

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