Be Like a Duck

Several years ago, when my husband and I bought a very busy little janitorial company, I didn’t know much about marketing or customer service. One typical day, when I was pulling my hair out, panicking, and trying to smooth over a bad situation with a customer, I opened a card I’d received in the mail that morning, from my mother.

On the front was a cute little cartoon caricature of a duck floating happily on a pond. Across the top, the caption read, “BE LIKE A DUCK.” Across the bottom were the words, “Calm and unruffled on the surface.” When I opened the card, there was a similar picture, but it showed the duck’s feet under the surface, with lines to suggest lots of motion. And under the cartoon the caption read, “… and paddling like hell underwater.” I found a push-pin, and parked that card on the wall right above the phone that morning, and there’s where it stayed, for the next three years!

It became a company philosophy, we talked about it so often. Two years later, when our little janitorial business had grown to include 15 full-time staff and half a million dollars a year in cleaning contracts, “Be like a duck” was still the office ‘mantra!’

I hope you’ll forgive the profanity, to get the point. “Be like a duck … calm and unruffled on the surface, but paddling like hell underwater.” That’s exactly how I needed to run my business then, and that’s exactly how I still run my (very different) business today.

When I get a call from someone wanting to book a cruise today, they will never know … that I can’t find a pen to write down their number, or that I’m balancing a hot pot of supper on my arm, or even that I just had a fight with my husband. They will never know that I’ve got a bill-collector standing at the door, or that the baby’s crying in her crib, or … (place your current crisis here!)

And when they ask me a hard question, like “Can we put a balloon arch on the boat?” I say, “YOU BET!” — and then figure out HOW, once I’m off the phone. Or … “My aunt really wants to come on the cruise, but she has a heart condition … will she be able to lay down if she needs to?” “YOU BET!” … and then I figure out HOW.

The wonderful thing about being like a duck is that it helps build confidence in your ability to handle any situation you may find yourself in. Thank goodness I’d had some practise at being like a duck, because my duck-like ability passed a crucial test a little while ago.

We had a family aboard, and they’d had a wonderful day cruising and beachcombing on a nearby island. By the end of the day, the weather was starting to change, and we had an almost two-hour cruise to get home still ahead of us. My husband and I suggested to the family that we needed to pack up and get going a little early.

Sure enough, within twenty minutes, the skies had darkened considerably, the rains began, and the waves were growing under the hull. Michael and I knew it would be a test of our teamwork and navigational skills to get the boat safely back to the harbor … but we weren’t about to tell our guests that! They paid good money to be in good hands … and they WERE, but we still had to prove it.

By the time we brought the Wind Walker ’round the Point into the safety of our little bay, it was pitch-black, in a torrential downpour and in 5-foot cresting seas. Our clients had NO IDEA that we had ever been in any danger – because my husband and I stayed calm the entire time, and just did what we had to do … concentrating on our instruments, consulting the charts, watching for the beacon lights at the harbor entrance. Our guests simply thought that they had just been treated to the ultimate West Coast experience.

Little did they know that we were, almost literally, paddling like hell underwater!
Author Marilyn Guille owns Comprehensive Virtual Editing (CoVE) Services, which provides press release writing and distribution, general and business writing, editing, and ghostwriting services. Guille has been a professional freelance writer for two decades, and lives on a classic boat on which she and her husband do sightseeing charters. You can check out her website at