6 Lessons about Leadership and Teams From a Challenge Event

I was invited to join the Martin Grant Homes team who were taking on the Three Peaks Challenge to raise money for a local charity. A member of their original team had dropped out and it took a mere 20 seconds to agree to take part. I was delighted to have been invited. But despite my initial enthusiasm, I had some niggling doubts that the eight weeks available to me from ‘Yes I’ll do it” to D-day might not be enough time to prepare.  However, as a firm believer that it’s during tough times that your true character is revealed, I ploughed on in pursuit of the learning and insights I knew I would benefit from. I wasn’t disappointed. I learned a lot about myself and my amazing teammates and I’ve shared the highlights here.

The Challenge

Our mission was the UK National Three Peaks Challenge which involves climbing the three highest mountains in the UK, within a 24 hour period. This meant traversing Ben Nevis (at 4413ft) in Scotland, followed by Scafell Pike (at 3209ft) in England in the evening and Mount Snowdon (at 3560ft) in Wales the following morning. Travel time of 10 hours is allocated which means a total window of 14 hours for completing all 3 mountains. My total climb time was just under 15 hours, and I’m happy with that, especially given the training time constraints. Most importantly, it was all for a really worthy cause, Cherry Trees in Guildford.

Cherry Trees provide home from home respite care for children with a wide range of disabilities and illnesses, allowing them to enjoy a range of experiences whilst providing their usual carers with some much needed rest. Thihttp://www.martingranthomes.co.uk/s charity is very close to the hearts of the Martin Grant Homes team, and as a small charity, they knew the help would make a real difference. It was an honour to help raise money for this cause so may I publicly say a big thank you to Chris Hamilton, Managing Director and the team for inviting me to take part.

Leadership and Management Insights

I found this challenge tough, we all did, but it was exhilarating and fun as well. All that’s great, but what did it reveal about leadership and management? And what can we use to make our teams more effective

1. Being Prepared Is Not The Same As Feeling Prepared

I didn’t feel prepared at the start of the challenge.  I had sourced everything I needed, equipment, information, and I had a great team that I had worked with, but possibly because I was a late joiner, I didn’t feel completely prepared. The uncertainty didn’t prevent me from starting the event. I’d put in enough preparation and training and I could rely on the expertise of the guides and the shared knowledge gained from the team because I asked a lot of questions.  The camaraderie of the team throughout was the glue. More than that, I was confident that every member had each done enough, prepared enough, compared notes enough, so we had a collective confidence about making it happen.

What does this mean for teams? Well, I have often observed managers who want everything to be in order, alphabetised and organised before getting started.  The directions are clear but the dialogue goes only one way. The tasks become so important the camaraderie and momentum become lost and the team loses confidence.  Achievement is the result of action. Plans are important, resources are too, but a sense of achievement comes from results. So no matter how organised a manager is, if they don’t allow the team members to question for themselves, and own their part in the team, they may not feel like they contributed to the best of their ability and where this shows up is in their absence or detachment in the next challenge.

2. Tension Is An Energy Thief

Steeling oneself for an important meeting or difficult discussion is an essential behaviour in business. It’s what creates a calm and centred approach where focus and resolve can be deployed to handle whatever challenge you face. But there is no place for tension here. The initial energy boost of adrenalin that tension and edginess bring, are not sustainable outside of tackling immediate problems, and instead sap your energy reserves.

During the ascents, there were times when I needed to dig deep to keep going, and my natural responses were to take larger steps, grit my teeth and keep moving. But I learned that taking smaller steps, relaxing my whole body and breathing steadily ensured I could keep moving consistently.  This was particularly important when the weather was colder. It also meant I made better decisions. In this case, it was about where to place my feet for each step (I wasn’t the only one, I found out later, that had underestimated how much concentration that would take at times!).

It was when our guide explained that steeling yourself for a challenge is a relaxed motion that I drew the parallels between how I have seen such variation in how people approach difficult situations. Detachment, smaller steps and consistency achieve better results. It affords better decision making to take the next right move, so next time you or someone you know is in that ‘I can’t stop as it’ll all fall apart if I do” place, then a pause and a new decision is likely to be more helpful than continuing the current form.

3. Use guidance, stay focused

This has never been more obvious or true for me than in this challenge. I had never traversed a mountain before, let alone three, which meant I had no way of really comprehending what we were really about to do. I’d received guidance and read up on it, yet I still underestimated the agility needed to move around the terrain, and how different it was from walking uphill for a long time. So, I had to place my full trust in the guides to take us up and down the mountain, make use of their advice about when to stop and take in some water and some nourishment and follow their lead. If my part was to keep moving and make good decisions about where to put my feet, so be it – but it was the night climb that showed how important those two things were. I tried to follow where my guide stepped, and on the way down I lost my footing a few times because I was looking at his next step, not my immediate next step. I wonder, how many times when working together we fail to be in the moment, right now, for the current step, judging or paying attention to someone else’s moves, when if we avoided that distraction, we would be able to focus fully on making our own contribution more effective.

4. Share Your Expertise So It Can Be Used By The Team

Our guides on the challenge were very special people, without exception. These guys had grown up climbing mountains from childhood. They knew the terrain, how to navigate it and had fitness and stamina that went way beyond the capabilities of even our strongest team members. Fascinated by their innate ability I asked Sean, our main guide, what it would take to make him tired and for his legs to start aching. He thought about it for a while, and he said “I struggled a bit after the marathon distance across the Italian Alps”. Wow! Sean ran up and down the group for the entire challenge, checked where we were, how we were all doing and that we knew the where to go next. We relied on him to get us through safely and on time. At no point did he discuss his abilities unless asked. He demonstrated it and shared his knowledge so we could benefit from it. This was true of every guide we had, each one a true leader in their own right. Not an ego in sight.

I remember arriving at the bottom of Scafell Pike, a bit bruised and very grateful to one particular guide that helped me re-group my thoughts, steel myself and carry on up to the summit. He had my personality pegged from the start, and he knew what to say to help me make my own decisions.  There was no “you can do it!” shouting, no threats and most importantly, he didn’t say I could definitely do it. He said if I really wanted to, he could show me the way. He was an influencer first and foremost and it worked.

It made me question how many business owners, line managers, team leaders really understand how to connect with their teams so they can assist them through the challenges they face. The compounding impact on team performance across organisational life, when such a core characteristic is missing, is huge.

5. Incremental Changes Are The Key To Success

 We were encouraged to take it one mountain at a time, one phase at a time, one zigzag and one step at a time. While obvious when detached from the situation, this became more important once the challenge was underway.  There were points when I didn’t worry about whether or not there was a summit to reach, I just focused on the next phase, the next zig-zag, the view from where I was.  It resonated with me that this dialogue is obvious at the start of say, a big change, or big project, but often once underway, we might forget that a team member may need reminding about why they’re working on something and without worrying too much about the big picture sometimes, they may need just a little motivation to do what’s needed next. The small achievements that keep us moving forward lead to the big achievements and an achievement mindset won’t be developed, without the encouragement that comes from having achieved something. Even if it’s just taking the next step.

6. Focus on core, strength and agility in combination with each other

 To tackle the 3 Peaks, a strong core was important and trained legs were essential, but strength in my upper body also made a difference to my ability to cope with some parts of each mountain. I could use my upper body to pull myself up, make good use of my arms to lean on my sticks and jump down the larger steps that my legs weren’t long enough to reach (there continue to be references to my little legs!). I had no idea before the challenge that my upper body would be needed in this way. I’d never seen the size of the steps!

When I think about this in a business context, I wonder why we often recruit and train our people to have strength, core skills and high experience but not so much about how someone might be able to adapt when faced with a challenge they haven’t come across before. We have agile methods but don’t necessarily look for, or develop agile mindsets and attitudes. Then we spend time overcoming resistance to change.

The Teamwork Tonic

I struggled to keep up with the others. They were all fitter and stronger! In all cases determined and inspiring people. They were a joy to be around, but I just couldn’t keep up. As someone who enjoys leading the way, I learned a lot about the discomfort of feeling outside of the group in this situation. I didn’t need help to get up the mountains and I had many offers of help, to carry my rucksack, for example. I just needed an extra hour and a half across the 3 mountains in comparison to that group. I also needed to accept that fact and work within it, both for me and for the team. If I stretched myself enough but stayed within what I could do, then we were more likely to complete the challenge, no rescue operations required through over-exertion and no heroics needed. It didn’t really matter why that was – that learning could come later. What mattered was that I understood my capabilities at the time, adjusted what I expected of myself, made a new plan and communicated with the team.  I kept my own pace and at one point, was accompanied by my own guide as the team went on ahead. We all completed the challenge. I’ve learned that many teams don’t all complete and often someone is left on the bus. My team members never faltered nor did they doubt that I’d deliver. And deliver we did.

What next?

We’re now collectively thinking about a new challenge. We have bonded as a high performing, agile, resilient and relationship-based team with a strong sense of camaraderie and mutual respect for each other. We also had a lot of fun along the way. So there’s an appetite to repeat the experience together.

In organisational life, this was a true representation of what we believe leadership and management is all about. People working together towards a common purpose with a clear vision, a strategy and the right resources are important. But, give people the freedom to be themselves and contribute wholeheartedly based on what they are really capable of delivering and they will begin to grow together and want to deliver again and again.

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