Business Lessons from the Vikings

There was once a general who led an invasion of boats to a foreign country. As his troops readied themselves on the beach for battle, he ordered that all the boats be burnt. This was his way of removing any thought of retreat as an option. It proved to be a winning strategy.

There was once a general who led an invasion of boats to a foreign country. As his troops readied themselves on the beach for battle, he ordered that all the boats be burnt. This was his way of removing any thought of retreat as an option. It proved to be a winning strategy.

Because I am currently in Denmark, I am reminded of an earlier trip to Norway when I told this story to a group of franchisors, consultants and academics. My point was there is a big difference between having a job and owning a business. Franchisees, like the troops in the story, are driven by a unique mixture of fear, commitment and pride. Because of their financial, emotional and legal commitments they cannot just leave when the going gets tough (unlike employees or even franchisor executives). For the franchisee, retreat is not an option and it is this raw commitment, what is sometimes referred to as "skin in the game", that drives higher levels of performance.

As I was in Norway I decided to make the story more "culturally appropriate" and so adjusted it to being a story about Vikings. I remember thinking what a flash of brilliance this was as I turned the original general (who happens to be the Chinese general Xiang Yu) into a fierce Viking chief. Normally the story evokes positive responses such as grunting and head nodding. However in this case it was met with stony silence. I put it down to a language barrier and continued with the talk. My wife, Ann, who was in the audience also later commented on the repressed reaction to the story. I again brushed it off, saying they obviously didn't understand my point.

Several days later our host, Borge Nilssen from Effectum Consulting, took Ann and me to visit a Viking Museum. Among the many artefacts from this impressive race of warriors were several Long Boats filled with original Viking armour and weapons. I commented to Borge it was amazing how well everything had been preserved and he explained that after a battle the Vikings buried their fallen soldiers in the Long Boats along with their armour and weapons. As we turned to walk away Borge quietly added with a good humoured smile that, because the Long Boats were regarded as sacred, they would never have been burnt.

At that moment Ann glanced across and gave me one of those special looks that only wives can give to remind their husbands they are not as smart as they think they are! One moral of this story is franchisees don’t need your motivating as much as they need your respect and empathy for the commitment they have made to your brand and business model. The other moral is don’t try to be too clever when communicating simple messages.

By the way, on the topic of measuring the impact of "skin in the game" we are completing a research project to empirically compare the performance of franchised units with company run units. If you are a franchisor with company units and would like to be included in the study, and benefit from the findings, please contact Rebecca Mintern at rebecca@franchiserelationships.com.

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