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Thursday, August 30, 2012

Leadership: On Developing Teams - Are you alone on the Ice?

[Also available as a podcast]

Alone on the ice, surrounded by mountains and snow in the darkness. The faintest sliver of moon is barely brighter than the thousands of stars overhead. A cold, clear sky on a windless night, -16C/3F outside. I am dressed warmly but a small shiver escapes me.

Feeling very, very small indeed.

I am standing in the middle of Lightning Lake, British Columbia, Canada. The light of the stars is bright enough for me to easily see the contrast of light and dark - brighter, actually than I thought it would be. An igloo stands a ways back, off to my left. 

I check my watch. Time to go in.

I turn and walk in silence, a hundred paces back the way I came - where I join the rest of the scout troop I am leading. They have retraced their own steps back to the circle.

Technically I was not really alone - however with everyone separated and facing away from each other, looking only at the sky, the lake and the mountains, it was very easy to imagine you were indeed alone out there.  

In absolute stillness.

We waited for the last few to join the circle and then we quietly shared observations of the experience. Most felt small, insignificant, alone in the vastness - but also not alone, either. They were not talking about the other members of the troop hundreds of feet from them - they were feeling small, but also part of their surroundings.  Maybe the start of a sense of belonging to nature, and a few did not feel as cold standing there as they did on the walk out onto the lake.

The interesting part of the whole exercise was that from being and feeling quite alone out on the ice, we walked back to camp with a deeper connection from the shared experience of being alone in the universe - together. And I am quite sure that each of them will remember the experience as long as they live.

There is no one prescribed way to build a team, but the common thread in all successful methods is in doing things together. Whether you are leading and developing the youth who will be the leaders of tomorrow, or working with already-grown-ups, the principle is the same.

Teams grow and bond (and sometimes break apart) through challenges and the shared experience of building or accomplishing things - together.

Developing a Team

I was a Scout Leader for almost 11 years. I started as a youth member as a Cub and then continued on through Scouts and Venturers to Rovers, when each of us assisted other groups as adult leaders. My first few years as a leader with the Scout troop were learning years; I made a lot of mistakes and learned from them. The troop was a pretty steady size through the years as youth entered from Cubs and then moved on to Venturers (if they continued with it). We did the camps, skills training, all of that - and it was rewarding to see the kids learning and gaining self-confidence.

Around half-way through my years as a Scout Leader, we gained new kids and their parents as leaders, which is usually how it works. However, that year, we gained an exceptional Leader in one of the parents, who had moved with his kids up from Cubs. The leadership team flourished under his guidance; we felt supported and energized and together we were able to put on an exceptional programme that year. The following year he surprised me. He refused to be the head leader again. He insisted that I should do it - me, the youngest of them all, in my early 20's. All of the other leaders were in their thirties or more, some with other kids older than the scouts. Worst of all, they all supported his endorsement.

What were they thinking?

No Going Back

I was terrified.

What if I screwed up? What if I embarrassed myself in front of the other, much more experienced adults? Would people take me seriously? I suddenly felt a lot younger than 20-something. I felt like a kid. I wasn't ready for this!

However, there was no going back. They would not take "no" for an answer. My sentence was to be carried out, starting the first week of September that year.

Building by Stepping Back

I did not know it yet, but the other Leaders were following the adage "It's better to build a boy than mend a man." I was not a boy any more, though I suddenly felt like one in the face of this challenge. But the principle is one that I have tried to use myself on a regular basis over the years, because it works - and it is the only way that society moves forward.

You need to build up your replacements - the next generation who will take over from you, who will (in theory) in turn help raise up the generation after that.

I made a lot of mistakes that year. Far more than I had made in all the prior years as a leader. Of course any of the other leaders could have done the job, or even stepped in to clean up after me, or even taken back the reins. But they never did, even though a few times in the first few months I secretly wished they would.

The mistakes I made were not really "big" in the scale of things; nobody was ever at risk and the evenings and camps went off fairly smoothly with the leadership team working together. But to me - as my first time as the "Main Leader" (or "Skip"), every mistake seemed big to me, with all eyes watching.

I kept waiting for the shoe to drop. But it never did. The other leaders supported me, coached me, mentored me - but did not embarrass or chastise me. It was an amazing year - I learned an incredible amount, and even more in the years that followed as we worked together. I grew in confidence and ability all the while - and I also wanted to prove them right in putting their faith in me. I still made mistakes here and there in later years - but they always helped me out.

They wouldn't let me be anything other than "Skip" for several years. In time, l left the group when I finally had my own baby at home and time pressures and priorities changed.

It was a humbling first-hand lesson in "Building by Stepping Back" - seeing potential in another person, putting them into a position where they have no choice but to grow and develop - all the while encouraging them, building them up and not letting them quit.

They were, without question, all Exceptional Leaders, for which I am grateful.

Don't Give Up - And Don't Touch the Reins

When you are working with people on your team - youth, adults, it does not matter - you need to have extreme patience as they gain experience. They, as I did, will make mistakes. Probably a lot of them at first, and fewer as time goes on. Most people want to do well, to prove to themselves and others that they can do the task, and be good at it. Few people plan to be screw-ups.

In fact, if someone feels that they are continually a screw-up, it is often not their fault - the fault most likely rests soundly with their leadership. Here are some key ingredients to ensuring that your new team member can flourish in whatever role they are assigned:
  • Give them the full Job Description
  • Give them the Tools
  • Give them time to Learn
  • Encourage Questions
  • Let them make Mistakes
  • Support / Coach them
  • Don't Step In
  • Give them latitude to Grow

Give them the full Job Description
Most people will be frustrated if they are given a task without a good description of what it is they are supposed to do. If you have not clearly told them the goals or objectives, you can't expect them to deliver. Some will quit and move on, others will stay and struggle noisily or slide backward in silence. So tell them clearly what it is you want them to do from the outset.

Give them the Tools
There is nothing more frustrating than being assigned to do something, and then not be given the tools, resources or authority to do so. The "tools" will vary, but whatever it is they need to get the task done, you should provide for them. The trick is if you know at least some of the tools they will need, to have them available at the beginning - and when they recognize what else they need, be willing and able to provide those as well. This might include training, so be prepared to invest the time and expense for them to take it.

Give them time to Learn
Learning something new takes time. The time will vary from person to person based on their skills, aptitude and background - but they will take some time to ramp up before they can start performing well on the task. Of course, they can't take forever to get up to speed; if they are having trouble doing so, it might be a skills gap, or they might not be a good fit. So be reasonable in your expectations - but if they seem to be struggling, make sure they are clear on the description and have the tools available to them before you pounce.

Encourage Questions
"There are no dumb questions" is an approach that will get you better results than persecuting those who seem to ask "dumb" obvious questions. The answers may be obvious to you, but give the team members the benefit of the doubt that their questions are sincere, and they are not just mucking about. If you put down or dismiss the "dumb" questions, this will more than likely cause them to shut down and not ask the next questions - the really important ones that may make a difference to the outcome of your project.
Let them make Mistakes
Let them know that making a mistake is not a punishable offence. (Well, unless it is a reaaally big one, or if they intentionally screw things up, maybe). We all make mistakes as we learn and grow and try new things. But making a lot of small mistakes and learning from them early on can prevent some biggies later on. I know I have learned a lot more from my mistakes than my successes. Learning from your mistakes makes for a stronger team - and if you encourage an open, sharing environment, others in the team can learn from each other's mistakes rather than them all having to make the same mistake on their own schedule. 

If you look to some of the great inventions of history, those often came out of a "mistake" - a side effect of an experiment that did not quite work out, or "happy accidents". So encourage mistakes - it could even lead to the Next Big Idea for your company.

Support / Coach them
This one is important, and is a delicate balancing act for the leader. Early on, you will need to be around more, checking on them for progress and to see if they need anything, any clarifications on the task, tools or resources. Also make yourself available, ad-hoc or scheduled times, whichever works for each team member. However, don't smother them. The art of coaching and mentoring deserves volumes on its own, but let's sum up by saying you will benefit from knowing when you need to be there close by - and when you need to step back. As the team matures and becomes more self-motivating and more self-sustaining, you will often be best to step back further out of the works, but keep track of things and make sure they know you are available when they need you.

It also goes without saying that coaching does not equal chastising; sometimes you might want to yell at the team member for something "really stupid" that they did - but unless it is a very serious concern, try to avoid criticizing as much as you can. It takes months or years to build up a team - and seconds to destroy it. If you do need to correct a team member's behaviour or work approach, look at less confrontational ways to go about it, and start with something positive.

Don't Step In
It is very tempting to step in and "help" the team member do something they have not quite gotten the hang of yet - especially if you used to do it yourself. Resist the temptation. Let them try and work it out themselves - and if they ask for help, give them specific help and then step back. No baby ever learned to walk by having their parents do it for them.

Give them latitude to Grow
Odds are, the team member is going to approach the task in a different way than you would. Unless it would negatively affect the work result, it is usually best to let them figure out a method that works for them. They might hit a wall and have to go back to the way that it is normally accepted to do the task - but sometimes their fresh approach with new eyes will reveal a much better way of doing things. So don't stifle creativity unnecessarily - unless it does seem to be putting the deliverable at risk.  (Some people just like to figure out new ways to do things just because they can).

Note: In some countries, if you hire a contractor to do a job and then you proceed to tell them in detail HOW to do the job, you can be sued for Breach of Contract. The reason being is that you hired them, as an expert, to do a specific job. How they do it is up to them - as long as they produce the result (within safety and legal limits and regulations as applicable). They are the expert in doing that task, after all.

Not exactly the same situation when you are dealing with a team member, but you get the idea.

If you support your team members, provide them the tools and give them clear direction - they will often out-perform your expectations. They may even go on to become a High-Performing team.

If your team can accomplish that, it's a sign of good leadership. The credit does not all belong to you though - yes, the team achieved that level with your guidance. However you could just have easily prevented them from accomplishing what they had by making poor leadership decisions. So don't get cocky! There are no guarantees on what will happen with the next team.

Your High-Performing Team Gets Stale

Eventually, after your team has been working together for some time, you may reach a very high-performing level (Not all teams do). When you do, you will be able to accomplish some pretty amazing things - and the team could be a key differentiator for your company in the market.

But there is a risk with High-Performing Teams. If they are not presented with new challenges to work on, they could get stale if they are a long-standing team. If the tasks become repetitive, your team will lose interest, and lose their edge. Eventually, the team will dissolve as one after another they move on to new challenges.

This might be an inevitability - you might have a team that reached a high performing level during the project, but then the need for the team is removed. You can't keep them together on this project, so you have two choices:

  • Try to get them involved in the next project together, where they will have a big head start on working together effectively, or
  • Seed them throughout the organization. When you have people that have been part of a high-performing team, they will want to try to replicate what worked for them in their next team. You might end up with multiple new High-Performing teams as a result. Not all of them will pan out, but if you are able to expose more people to what it is like to be part of a High-Performing team, you have a better chance of spreading it to the reaches of your organization - and that may truly differentiate you in your market segment.


A quite different Troop walked back to camp from the center of the lake. Much more subdued and contemplative than the noisy bunch of kids that were chatting away as we walked out onto the ice earlier in the evening. In some small way they had changed that night - matured, or at least become more aware of the world around them. A small step towards leadership - you cannot lead others by only looking at yourself. Unfortunately, all too many of the activities that our children participate in these days are the exact opposite - self-absorbing video games, texting, online chats and social media that insulate them from direct personal contact with others. There is no substitute for the real thing - human interaction and learning to observe others. I look around me sometimes and wonder where the next generation of leaders will come from - and how they will manage.

That was my last year as Skip with the Scout Troop, and the last year working on a regular basis with that particular leadership team. A wonderful shared experience through all of those years - both working with the leadership team and the support they provided, and witnessing the accomplishments of the youth in the Troop as they outperformed our expectations within their smaller Patrol teams. Anyone who has low expectations of the capabilities and skills of a 10-13 year old never met any of our Scouts.

Note: The igloo was a real one - someone had carved the blocks out of the firm snow earlier in the day. We all took turns going inside it - and it definitely was warmer inside than out. The whole camping weekend was a great experience - and it stayed cold enough so that we did not have a problem with thawing and slushy snow. Nothing worse than trying to dry your gear outside when the temperature is around 0C/32F. Wet gear is not only inconvenient, but dangerous in those temperatures and below.

Good luck with your projects, and my advice today is not "Go jump in a lake" but "Go for a long walk on a lake" - just make sure it is winter, and check the ice thickness before you go.


  1. Great post Skip. I like your thoughts on leadership.

  2. G., I love your blog. Currently involved in IT QA/Project Management and sending the URL to everyone here.

    Thanks for the words of wisdom...

    -- your cousin from Calgary :-)