We Are Tribal

Most of yesterday (Friday) was spent on an 11+ hour flight from Cape Town to Munich.  Dead in the middle of the work day crossing time zones in Europe and the USA.   On a Friday, no less, which would normally see multiple dramas and here I was stuck without Wi-Fi access.  In our hyper connected world, it’s difficult enough to sit through a meeting or meal without glancing at our phones.  Eleven hours feels like a life time.  That was easily the longest I’ve found myself unplugged from the world for anywhere near that long midweek in probably five years.  When cut off from the world for this long, all matter of thought rattles around the brain - ranging from family emergency to missed business opportunities to losing an important client.  The lousy movie selection didn’t help calm the angst, as there was little to take the mind off the myriad disasters that could await me upon return to the connected world. 

Running a small organization – one that has experienced a lot of change over the past 24 months – forces one to wear a lot of hats and spin a lot of plates.  Even with an out-of-office message warning the sender that I would be both traveling internationally the past week and without service for gaps of time, I fully expected to find dozens of messages addressed only to me and requiring my immediate attention.  I have a reputation as a quick responder and have probably spoiled more than a few people over the years who just assume I’m always on call. 

Eleven hours later, on the ground in Munich and reconnected to the world, my inbox quickly jumped from 22 unread messages to 573.  Additionally, there were three voice mails, five WhatsApp messages and two Slack messages.  No texts, so that means no family/home emergencies.  That’s an immediate relief.  The WhatsApp and Slack messages are mostly informational (i.e., no action required) and are sorted during the taxing to the gate.  The e-mails will take more time to scan for anything requiring attention, but the number of messages is well within the daily volume range – keeping in mind that when the plane arrived in Munich it was 3pm back in Florida and therefore I could expect a couple of hundred more mails to fill the box by the time my head hit the pillow five hours later.    

Though there were a handful of minor dramas and urgent messages requiring my direct attention/reply, the world did not end – at least not on this day.  This all serves as a bit of a lengthy lead in to this week’s blog.  The separation anxiety faced during those 11 hours unplugged from the world reinforces the fact that we are social animals.    We desire connectivity.  We are tribal, by the very same nature.  It’s how we have survived as a species. 

In the business world, the need to stay connected reaches beyond your internal company/colleagues to the external network that includes the clients and partner service providers – those who facilitate the flow of goods and services.  Beyond just servicing an account and providing timely information, it’s important to learn as much as possible about the specific industry segment and the players involved. This helps build a broader and more diverse community or tribe who can assist each other with information and problem solving.

My trip to South Africa was a chance to connect with old friends and colleagues.  South Africans are warm and hospitable people who easily and eagerly welcome you into their homes and their world.  While these South African farmers and exporters compete against each other in the marketplace, they work as a team (or tribe) to safeguard that market access and to improve their collective bargaining leverage.  They look to trusted partners as part of that tribe.  While always friendly, respect needs to be earned.  That comes via shared experience both socially and when it’s time to do business. 

As is wont when old friends get together, discussions turned to reminiscing – a few brandy and Cokes and a few shots of Jager help to jog the memories while building bonds.  Invariably those discussions circle back to seasons past and the colorful characters who inhabited the world of shipping in years gone by - the good old days.

Most of those old dogs are gone - forced out by age, but also by heightened competition and over-capacity on the carrier side.  While container shipping has allowed international trade to explode globally over the past 30 years, it has also created an arms race to the top in vessel size and at the same time to the bottom on freight rates.  This pressure has forced consolidation and created the need to create new efficiencies that has us rushing headlong into a fully automated shipping environment.  This also means fewer people on the ground who can take the time to understand what is actually being carried in those boxes.  There is a certain romance lost to the industry and a disconnect on the part of those who sell the carrier services or are responsible for moving the boxes.  There is little sense of the forces that are driving those specific volumes or lack thereof.  There is only a macro view of the market.  There is only a need to fill slots.

While carriers continue to increase reefer container capacity and investment in the kind of automated technologies they believe are necessary to drive the volumes, they are often overlooking the basic understanding that the fruit world is quite micro in its very nature. 

Every single cavendish banana commercially shipped in the world is genetically identical - originating from a clone - yet each growing region faces its own production, political and commercial challenges.  A problem in one production area can create opportunity in another.  Farmers must be gamblers at heart, since they are often planting on speculation - on crops that may take five years to produce market ready product.  By that time, they could face an entirely new marketplace full of new competition, changing consumer habits and dramatic currency fluctuations. 

Farmers and exporters go into each new season with certain expectations on volumes, market and pricing.  Best efforts may often be thwarted by weather, competition and numerous other factors.  Carriers gear up basis expectations.  They position equipment, allocate space and may even change rotation or port calls.  It’s a square peg in a round hole.  Not a perfect marriage, but one that each side is forced to accept.  Working communally (tribally) would help to improve results on both sides, but a commitment on the carrier side needs to come from a senior management level – as it means an investment in staff invested in becoming part of those tribal communities and making service decisions based on that shared information resource. 


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