Thursday, June 14, 2012

The way back to the trail

As many of you know, I have a tradition of leading unusual (I like to think memorable and impactful) team meetings.  Last week was another example of a great meeting that included a learning experience centered on Dr. Seuss’s “Oh the Places You’ll Go!” I’ll save that one for another essay, but to say the least it got people thinking in a very different mode.

This story is from more than 5 years ago, in a different team setting, at a different company, but with some lessons that I find very applicable today.  It was in the fall of 2006, and I was leading a very diverse team who were facing tremendous challenges both organizationally and competitively.  The business was behind plan, competitive pressures were high and there was talk of future reorganizations.  I decided to bring the team (of about 15 folks) together up in the mountains in North Carolina, and include a variety of readings/exercises & experiences centered on overcoming challenges and obstacles.  One of these experiences was a 5-6 mile hike along the Bartram trail (accompanied by readings from William Bartram’s journal from 1774) up Scaly Mountain.  It’s a hike I had done a number of times with my family, challenging but beautiful.  It normally takes 3-4 hours with magnificent views of the southern Appalachians from the top.

We got off to a bit of a late start, only arriving at the base of the mountain at 1:30 or so that afternoon.  What also added to the challenge ahead was that it was about 48 degrees and it had started to rain.  Not to miss a metaphoric moment, it seemed that it was all adding up to an even greater set of examples/experiences to reinforce our ability to face challenges/overcome obstacles/ and create success. The hike began in earnest!

The real problems didn’t manifest themselves on the way to the top.  We worked as a team, helping the slower folks make their way, stopping appropriately for water and snack breaks on the way up.  It took a bit more than 2 hours but we made it to the top and had a talk about the challenges we were facing in the business and in the company.  The discussion was excellent and I could feel the team starting to break down the issues into smaller pieces (see the previous essay “Aunt Lorraine’s Law”), everything seemed to be going so well!  As I paused I realized it was not almost 4pm, the rain was increasing a bit, temps were starting to come down and it dawned on me that if we didn’t move quickly, we wouldn’t make it down the mountain in the light of day.

We moved out and started back down the trail.  The momentum down was a bit better than the way up and we were making good time, not feeling the need for too many breaks.  About half way down the clouds started to settle down onto Scaly Mountain.  The base is at about 3800 ft, with the peak a bit above 5000 ft above sea level.  I was amazed how thick the clouds were and how much our visibility was limited.  After just a few minutes, we were actually in the clouds and could only see a few feet ahead.  As the leader (and the only one with any experience on Scaly Mountain) I was at the head of the team, leading the way on the trail.  I don’t know what triggered me but at some point I realized that we were not on the trail anymore; somehow we had drifted off the path and were walking somewhat randomly in a very cloud rainy chilly forest.  Time for immediate action and NOT a leadership freak-out moment!  I immediately stopped and shouted for everyone to freeze, not to move a muscle.  Luckily the team actually thought it was one of Bill’s crazy team exercises and everyone immediately stopped in their places.  I walked down the line, finding the last person and put my back to their back so I was facing 180 degrees away from where we had been heading.  Quietly and calmly I explained that we were off the trail, not sure by how far, and that if everyone just turned around to face my back, we would simply retrace our steps to regain the trail. No one said a word as they did an “about face” and started following me back the way we had come.

We were all so relieved when we regained the Bartram trail in less than 10 minutes, though those minutes were some of the longest I can remember.  All kinds of images had begun to race through my mind, all of them negative/all of them critical; but I kept reminding myself that the best thing I could do was to keep working our way back to the trail and that’s indeed what we did.  With a lot more care, and everyone keeping an eye for the color blazes on the trees marking the trail, we worked our way all the way down, back to the cars in the parking area and gladly made our way back to a warm fire, fresh clothes, a delicious dinner, and a night of stories indeed!

What makes this story come back to mind is that we all face challenges every day and always will.  Even after a tremendous success, challenges and obstacles will find their way into everyone’s path, some expected and many not.  Just like the drift off the path, many times we aren’t sure how we got into some type of challenging situation, though a core lesson is to recognize the issue quickly and work to take IMMEDIATE action.  As was the case on the Bartram trail that fall afternoon, ignoring the problem/hoping that it would handle itself/being paralyzed by fear/ or a host of other possible responses are disastrous options.  Work to recognize problems faster and faster, take action with similar alacrity and I am confident that it will help you find your way “back to the trail!”

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