New Leadership and frozen rivers…

Running my team behind Nils, he took his sled down the embankment and onto thin ice. The dogs crossed fine, but I could see the cracks in the ice and watched as the ice flexed under the weight of the sled and the rear part of the runners broke through. It seemed like slow motion as I saw the water wrap around the runners…

With the speed of the team and the rest of the frozen river being solid, it was a momentary dip, but knowing that I had to cross that same section of ice was unsettling.

Nils knew the terrain, how deep the water was, how the sled and the dogs would react, how that same area felt the day before, etc. In fact, he had been in that area and down that path for years. I needed to rely on his knowledge of that terrain.

Yesterday, we talked about the terrain of mountains and then checkpoints and equipment – more of, what I would call, immediate Operational Terrain. Today, I’m drawn to talking about the Cultural Terrain.

An organization’s Cultural Terrain consists of what they believe and how they behave. Behave as in behavior/action not behave as in obedience. It’s more about the DNA – with a caveat or twist.

Knowing the organization’s history – their background, how they got here, the path they took – the path of the Lead Dogs and Wheelers on the team. All of the information you can learn about this will allow you insight into their pattern of thinking (as individuals and as a group). The reason this is important is that it goes back to their “lens” that we’ve talked about before. Their “lens” is their “beliefs” and “beliefs” drive “behaviors”.

Frozen Rivers.

Frozen Rivers are those things in the organization that have solidified over time and are now “frozen solid” in the minds of the people. It has been termed corporate ‘Sacred Cows’ and can include anything from products to methodology to hierarchy and communication channels.

Having an understanding of these and the willingness to allow the sled to ride on some of this for a “season” is a mark of maturity. Make your list of things that need thawing and work for that thawing to occur as natural as possible. I say, “ natural as possible” knowing that at some point you may have to break through some ice – but that point is not early on – or you’ll get so distracted about breaking the ice – you’ll stop running the race! Key points to thawing – understand that there is an undercurrent and if you feed the undercurrent with the right beliefs and methodology, etc. – the top will thaw organically – from the bottom up!

Full day today – so we’ll need to pick up ‘Snow-Less Patches and the ‘Icy Barren Coast’ later today in a second Blog – or tomorrow.

Remember – enjoy the trail, enjoy the team – and enjoy the Adventure!

Break out the map!

Thinking about the upcoming terrain is important. Not knowing how your new team will react in those situations can scare the heck out of a new leader. Worse for the new leader would be if your team knew what was just over the horizon and failed to let you in on it.

The earliest part of the race is organized for the public fanfare of the ceremonial start, the “Big city”, the lights, the dignitaries and the send off. For the most part this area is intentionally sculpted for ease of start. Streets are covered with snow and the path is clearly marked while “Race Officials” make sure the interference is minimized.” This will, soon enough, end and taking the time to get the “lay of the land” is an important step to staying right side up.

No one would dream of being hired the day before or the day of the race, jump on the sled with 16 trained athletes capable of pulling 300 lbs each or around 5000+ lbs easily as a unit. However, in business, that’s about the size of it, right? We are promoted in a pinch and need to deliver incredible results fast, in difficult settings, with daunting obstacles.

In the Iditarod Dog Sled Race, there are a number of different terrains that teams face. Looking at just a few of those today and tomorrow can help.

Step 1 – Break out the map.

The primary method for understanding the terrain is to break out the map. A map will have all of the necessary information and with some insight will be incredible useful if you’ve never run this trail before. If you have, it will be the place where you record your refined strategy.

1a of breaking out the map is to study the key or legend. The key or legend is the filter or standard that allows the proper perspective. What may look like no big deal on the map may be, in reality, a life or death section of the trail.

With obstacles and terrain, the first question I would ask goes to timing. What is the next section of the trail and that becomes the immediate focus. From there, comes developing the game plan and all of the standard planning phases (short, medium, longer) but first, we need to know the next quarter mile – or in my case (when I flipped the sled coming out of the kennel) the next 100 feet!

Big Rocks first!

One of the major terrain areas is the Alaska Mountain Range. Since this is one of the most daunting obstacles – you’ll want to know how much time you have before starting up the range? Again, this is where you need the perspective of those that you report to and those that report to you. What looks like a hill on the map, can be a 6200 meter (20,000 ft) mountain. What is the first major hurdle? What is the major event of the year? When will these occur? What does our annual business cycle look like? Where are we in that cycle? Where are we about to drive off a cliff?

For me the largest obstacles were easy: Don’t hit the supply building and don’t hit the cabin.

Checkpoint and equipment!

The next question would be: Are we equipped for such a journey? What supplies will we need? How long do we run before the first stop? Am I properly outfitted for this? If not, where can I get the right supplies fast? Checkpoints are symbols. Stations are where you check in with race officials, find out if your timing is in line, get a fresh change of clothes, grab a little rest, but most important of all – refuel.

If you or your team runs out of gas (emotion, motivation, physical stamina, burn out) or your sled (department/division/company) runs out of gas (Capital, funding, resources, cash flow, support) – your journey is over – over before it has gotten to its’ “Burled Arch”.

Hopefully, you were able to do your homework on the sponsors of the sled (the company) before accepting the musher’s position – to make sure they could properly fund such an adventure – but even when you’ve checked it all out things can go wrong and economic “storms” can blow in and wipe it out!

Much more to cover on this – frozen rivers; rough, snow-less patches; gorges; and the icy barren coast…

For today, think about the terrain in front of you, who can help shed light on what that map looks like in reality and does anybody on the team see a mountain or cliff in the next run. Talk to you tomorrow!

Learn the team first!

More than one leader has flipped the sled and had their race derailed by failing to learn dynamics of the new team.

At first blush, everyone will have their game face on (whatever that means to them). Some will come running up eagerly waging their tales and promising that they are the best dog in the kennel. They were meant to race. They were overlooked and underutilized by the last ‘Musher’ and they were just waiting for a new musher like you. This may be the case or it may take some time to realize that they are just licking one boot while ‘watering’ the other!

Others may come charging toward you with their teeth bared and their bark as loud as they can muster it. They will make all kinds of noise and let everyone in the kennel know that, regardless of who they install as the ‘Musher’, they are the real force to be reckoned with. In a vacuum of power or transition of power, they may be trying to leverage the opportunity to increase their status in the pack. Some of these may believe that they should have been promoted to your position and may tell you that. It’s ok – if their bark is worse than their bite, they will calm down when they know that you are not insecure. If you show weakness, they will smell the blood in the water and your days will be numbered. If you, immediately, start fighting someone’s going home in a body bag! At this point, you need the rest of the pack on your side – or it could be you being air-lifted out. Stay calm, look them in the eye, affirm their belief that they are a leader in the pack and then prove them out. Over time you’ll reel them in – remember the loudest skeptics can become the greatest and most vocal champions! If they do bite – you’ll drop them at the next closest checkpoint and the rest of the team will applaud you for it.

Most will sit back, wary of the new leader, waiting to see how many changes they will have to endure before you leave (through promotion or failure) and another takes your place. They are the cautious compliants. Time will prove your commitment to them and endear their commitment to you. They commit slow but once they do, they commit deep.

In any case, you will need to know the players that you have on your team: their capabilities and capacities. You must learn their “skill and will” to make sure that the race strategy on your clip board (coming in) is realistic for right now. If you, immediately, put your race plan into action without learning your team – you could flip the sled. And if I can be so honest – it’s your fault if you do. It’s not that they sabotaged your success – they were not at the right place, time, or mindset to implement that game plan and it’s the musher’s responsibility to know the team before leaving the chute. You’ll get there – hang on! You have great plans and dreams – and you’ll get there – it just may take a little more time to get started on the front end but you won’t lose time face down in the snow.

Early on – just take time sitting in the kennel – own the kennel – it’s your kennel. Take time to learn your people and give them time to learn you. Yes we need to get started. Yes we hunger for action and adventure! Yes we want those early wins! Just trust me on this one – flipping the sled early on is not pretty and it can cost you more than you want to pay.

Thanks for hanging out around this leadership “campfire”. Let’s talk about the terrain tomorrow.

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!