June 1, 2009 Chris Fuller

Inheriting or taking over a new team? Try not to flip the sled!

When I was first learning to Mush a dog team, I flew to Nome, Alaska. (This is the finish line for the Iditarod Dog Sled Race) I met some great people and linked up with Nils, who became my mushing ‘Sensei’.

I went through the initial learning steps and then it was time for me to run my own team.

For the first couple of days, the team was only 6 dogs and it seemed, fairly, easy. Since the Mushers in the Iditarod run with 16 dogs, we added a 7th to my team. To make a long story short – in the first turn out of the kennel, as we were turning left the sled hit a bump (a tree that was hidden under a number of feet of snow) and I flipped the sled! For the next minute or so – I was holding on to the sled for dear life – not wanting to let go of the sled and jeopardize losing the team – and hoping that no one was taking pictures!!! (For more on this incident, you can read about it in the book)

The lesson(s) about being too rigid and “flipping the sled” early in running a new team are valuable for anyone taking over a new team or running a team for the first time.

1.) Take time to get to know your team

The dynamics of adding the additional team member and the ripple effects were things I should have considered. When running a new team, take time to get to know the players. Learn each as individuals AND how they interact within the team (watch this dynamic closely). How they are as individuals may change once they get back into “the pack”. Who are your new players? What are they like? What are the team dynamics?

2.) Learn the terrain.

Had I known about the buried obstacle and been strategic about it – I would have worked on an alternate route or devised a plan that would reduce that possibility. What is the business terrain? Are there some rocky points ahead?

3.) Don’t be too rigid or make changes too fast.

Without going into great detail, with the new team of Sled Dogs, I started out of the kennel standing on the brake. The previous days, I started on what is called the ‘drag’. The ‘drag’ is much more fluid, the ‘brake’ much more rigid. Had I not been so rigid, I might have survived the “bump” in the trail. As leaders, we value ACTION. We, generally, have the plan in our mind that we believe will yield success – if we can get it implemented. This plan, though, may not have been formed in this new department, division, plant, company, etc. It is, most likely, based on our previous experience and in order to make sure we have the right fit, it’s going to take time and insight. I have heard of several high level CEOs that informed the board of directors that they would not be making any major changes to the operation within the first year of their new leadership position. It was going to take that long to, really, understand the terrain and the team. Your team will probably not be this large and the learning curve may be shortened to 90 days. How do we strategize the first 30, 60, 90 days of our new leadership position?

4.) Let your team get to know you.

Hold informal sessions, meet once a week with your closest staff, eat lunch in the company cafeteria or with different people as much as possible. Try not to have an agenda. The purpose of these is just for them to be able to ask questions and for you to be able to hear what’s on their hearts and in their minds.

Just a few thoughts this morning on starting the race right and for those of you that have asked about strategy and starting with a new team.

Have a great day!

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