Talking with Sled Dogs – Leading from Behind (Part Two)

Sled Dogs in Snow

Continued from September 13th

Planning is not the same as action

To add to the next phase of adventure, Will arranged a midnight outing with light snow thrown in for extra fun. The first thing I noticed was that all the preparation and planning had only a vague correspondence to really doing it; planning was safe, a concept, an ideal, easy, no strain on anybody. A very low level of commitment.

In our fast-paced organizations, I sometimes see enormous attention to planning as if it were the real thing. That’s not to say that it isn’t important, just not the same. Furthermore, with an eager team who knows what they are doing, long planning becomes distracting. It’s as though the team says, “Get on with it or let us go home. Being in this harness is fine as long as we’re doing something!” The more fun the better; and, in this case, better means running. Besides, if we’re going into unknown territory, planning simply can’t be perfect.

Really get to know your team

Before this whole system went into action, there were a few more details. Since the dogs were more skilled than I, it was important to take time to get to know them before expecting cooperation. In this case getting to know each other simply meant spending time together doing the simple tasks of living. Literally it meant cleaning the yard where they’re kept, feeding them, and clipping their toe nails. For dogs, the latter is a very intimate act and, if allowed to do it, I was clearly making progress. It was their choice!

The simple relationship created by simple acts of service and time spent hanging out together skijoring provided a crucial foundation. In an organization where I managed a group of consultants I once helped with a simple task of opening hundreds of envelopes from 360 degree feedback forms. While doing it my boss walked in and chastised me for wasting my time. The task was beneath my position, she said. Well, so was scooping up dog litter, but when push came to shove the relationship I built made all the difference in the world.

Making the leap into action

There comes a moment when it’s time to move from planning to action. During the harnessing phase, a stout rope holds the sled and dogs to a full size pickup. To move out, one stands on the sled’s runners and pulls a trigger release. The dogs know what’s coming and bark, howl and jump in a frenzy of anticipation.

I stepped on the runners, grabbed the release trigger, and …stepped off. My body seemed to know that once I released the sled, I was no longer in charge. So, I went unconsciously to Will to ask a question. Any question would do; I didn’t even have one.

Embrace the edge

This is the edge of faith. Faith in my teacher, faith in the dogs, faith in the snow on the ground and the weather, faith in myself and ultimately faith in the relationship I had with the dogs. This is the edge of action – a different domain in which I’m really along for the ride into their territory. My leadership was not of my own doing alone – it would have to be more like a dance with a partner who knows the steps better than I. I’ve also experienced this as the edge of coaching when the client takes over. Some coaches call it leading from behind. Perhaps our job is merely to release the team. If we don’t let go, the team is ever dependent on our wisdom, which is inadequate for them to live on.

High performance teams have an innate need to perform

Will advised me to either get on and go or put the dogs in the truck. The greatest number of fights occurs when the dogs are hooked up and anchored. They are committed to work, i.e. running. And when they don’t get to do it they turn to their next commitment: settling who’s in charge among them – and the cost to the loser and winner is high. How often do we create teams of capable people, only to let them sit idle with vague purposes and tasks? Or, worse yet, occupy their time in areas to which they are not committed? (I think of a parallel here of people who attend staff meetings in which nothing important happens – no tooth and claw but lots of whining).

At last, I pulled the release, said my Hail Mary’s and flew down the dark trail. It was exhilarating! Snow flying, dogs barking briefly, then silence except for my quiet epithets.

Join Us Next Week For More About Sam’s Arctic Adventure!

This article was written by Samuel P. Magill and was originally printed in Flawless Consulting Field Guide and Companion by Peter Block

Talking With Sled Dogs – Leading From Behind (Part One)

Sled Dogs in Snow

Imagine coaching a group of highly committed individuals who have worked together for a long time. They know the territory better than you do and are more at home in the particular business environment than you are. What’s more, they are so skilled at their craft that they work from an instinct that is not immediately obvious. They are alert to changes in the situation that you miss entirely. If that isn’t enough, they know whom the real movers and shakers are in the organization and don’t pay much attention to people who wave their arms a lot without effect.

I’ve experienced this as a manager, consultant and coach, but the scene described above did not occur with other people. It happened in Calgary, Alberta, with sled dogs while visiting Will Black, who teaches leadership to people by placing them in unfamiliar environments. The experience exposed me to a culture rich in relationships, purpose, invitation, and faith. And it exposed me to my own needs for control.

A Leader Isn’t Always In Front

There’s an old saying, perhaps from China, that if you want to be a leader, find a parade and get in front. Part of the difficulty of working with sled dogs is that there’s a fast moving parade, but the human is at the back of it, being dragged through the snow. It was certainly the most challenging “coaching” engagement I’ve had and it brought new meaning to the term “flawless”.

Like most engagements, this one had several phases: the test ride, the plan, relationships, the jump to action and review. The test ride was like riding in a flight simulator – it’s safe with a taste of the real thing. The plan was just that – what we planned to do. Relationships had to be formed in advance since there would be no time once we jumped to action. The jump to action separated talk from the real thing. The review anchored what I had learned so I could use it again.

The Test Ride

Before going solo with a team of dogs, I needed to get a feel for the team and the medium. So Will took me out with nine dogs. He was the driver and I was freight. Each dog, he said, produced a force of 300 pounds. Nine dogs deliver 2700 pounds of thrust – enough so that the “driver” cannot physically control the team.

Too Much Talk Can Lead to Confusion

My first lesson was to be quiet and watch. How many times do we think as leaders and coaches that we have to say a lot to show we’re in charge? In this case, too much talking confuses the team and leads to their ignoring what the leader says– a phenomenon that also happens in our human teams. After a quiet ride, Will offered me the chance to ride on the sled’s runners. I was to continue to stay silent and let him do the talking because the team knew his voice – I was a stranger. An experience I had in a large manufacturing company came to mind, where managers were reassigned regularly as if they were interchangeable parts. Then management wondered why no one listened.

Keep Your Team Engaged

The next part of practice was a sport called skijoring. Whoever invented it is fortunately not available to me. It involved my body being hitched to two dogs while my feet were locked into cross country skis. I am not a novice at cross county, but after spending the first hour being dragged on my face, I wanted a change. This lesson called me to balance between saying the word “stay”, and keeping the team interested in the project and my voice. They looked frequently for Will and the other dogs (who were off having fun) until I demanded stopping.

Agree On Some Ground Rules

What was the coaching lesson? Go out on a practice run to see what the team does when it’s working well – before intervening. Get into their medium AND insist on a few ground rules. Say what you mean – and then be quiet. When I was tired of being on my face, I first worked only on the rules of stopping and staying stopped. I put my skis across the trail and held them there until all was quiet. I practiced getting up without being pulled forward. Then, and only then, I said “hike” – quietly was enough. I’m not advocating for coaches to be rule makers, only that we must come to some agreements about language and ground rules before doing substantive work.

Join Us Next Week To Read More About Sam’s Arctic Adventure!

This article was written by Samuel P. Magill and was originally printed in Flawless Consulting Field Guide and Companion by Peter Block

Coaching Practices for Executive Teams

Business Meeting Discussion

Executives are very smart people. They are typically experts in the subject matter of their organizations and they take their work and time seriously.  The good ones work very hard and are not easily swayed by others’ opinions. Consequently, the use of an outside facilitator or consultant to work with the executive team is often resisted. In my view, the resistance makes sense. Far too many consultants fall into the trap of challenging the executives’ expertise and some tell the executives what to do. Sometimes it works. My approach is different.

Create a conversation.

In my 28 years of working with leadership groups, I’ve learned that my job is simply to create the conversations that will allow them to get work done better than they can without me. I work closely with the executives before their meetings to find out things like:

What is the most important thing to accomplish?

How do they normally work together?

What lead up to considering a consultant / facilitator / executive coach?

What are their usual frustrations with meetings?

What would add enough value to the meeting to warrant paying for my services?

There are many more questions dealing with the right sequence of work, the areas likely to produce conflicts, the clarity of executives’ roles, the dynamics of executive interaction with the next level of management and with the organization, the pace of the meeting, the agenda, and so on. Also important: what is my relationship and role relative to the most senior person in the room. What I want is a partnership that enhances their existing capabilities.

Observe and reflect.

Learn while doing real work. The most important thing I teach is how to observe your own dynamics. When executives learn to observe and reflect on what is happening in their meetings in real time, they gain control over their own processes. My job is to help them learn how to do that. When it is appropriate to offer a leadership theory to help broaden or organize thinking, I’ll provide it. If I don’t know what to do, I’ll go find out.

Learn what is unique to your executive team.

There are enough similarities between senior leaders across organizations that my experience with the following groups has given me a good start in preparing to work with you:

Senior Leaders of Navy Undersea Warfare Engineering and Maintenance, Keyport, Washington Leaders in this division became concerned with schedule slides and wanted help to increase accountability among their employees. They have been discovering that a new level of cooperative relationships and task management is needed to allow the existing commitment to excellent to be displayed. My task has evolved to coaching the senior team more than consulting.

The executives and 100 person leadership team of Boeing Computer and Support Services. While this group no longer exists in the old form (1988 to 1996) it was exciting to work with cutting edge computer science experts, software engineers and the airplane manufacturing environment. There were times they did not agree with each other!

Executives of the American Association of Family Physicians and the American Board of Family Medicine. Physicians are not easily persuaded by others’ ideas or by people who are not physicians. This work required setting up new conversations and getting out of the way while holding them to their agreed purpose.

Executives of the Boeing Employees’ Credit Union. These smart, dedicated people run both a disciplined financial organization and a fast paced customer service program. Decisions have implications for a lot of people – just as each meeting they hold.

Executives of Multicare Health Systems, Tacoma. The combination of medicine, finance, information systems, physical plant and the lives of patients makes leaders like these the most challenged of all executives. My work was to help them align the vision and certain process improvements while involving 1200 employees. They received an award for their work.

Executives of Port Blakely Properties, Seattle. Repeated engagements have allowed me to shift from simply a facilitator to a real time coach for this dynamic, multi-faceted company.

Senior leaders of the Washington State Department of Health (Secretary of Health). Over a period of several years, I helped them find the trees in a quickly changing forest. A big part of my job was to help them slow down enough to think. I was told that when I was room, at the table,  their dynamics changed for the better.

Working with an outside consultant is good practice.

Schedule a meeting with an executive coach, preferably in person, also by telephone. By the end of an hour you will have a good assessment of whether the coach will fit with you and your executives.