Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Dog Sleds and Teamwork -- Or How a Team of Huskies Made Me a Better Manager

Years ago, before beginning my management career in health care, I trained our four Siberian/Alaskan huskies to pull a dog sled. My motivation was to allow our toddlers to enjoy the winter wilderness with a smile on their faces. Kids love dogs, and a down sleeping bag wrapped around them makes for a nice trip in the back country.

Now this is going to be dangerous: I’m going to share some insights on working with a team of dogs and how that might have some relevance to working with people when you and your team have a goal in mind. We love our dogs, but we should have at least that same love and respect for the people we work with, don’t you think?

There’s always a first time when you and the team get together to try something new. Each one of the huskies individually would instinctively pull on my ski-joring rope when I went cross country skiing. I thought getting each of them to work together would be a piece of cake. But the first time I hooked up the four dogs in their harnesses it was a disaster! The dog I chose for the leader was Junior, the oldest and alpha male of the group. Strong beyond belief, he was always the aggressor in the yard. I assumed that the others would follow his lead. Wrong. Junior would stop pulling to turn around and snap at or fight with the others. Harnesses were tangled, none of the others wanted to pull.

I was quickly growing frustrated -- and so were the dogs. I decided to “punish” Junior by putting him at the back, in the “wheel position” – the first dog immediately in front of the sled. I chose the youngest dog (Togo) with the mellowest personality of the group for the lead. Lo and behold, much to my surprise and delight, the team ran with the characteristic excitement and enthusiasm of a high performing sled dog team! Junior loved being in the wheel position because he could keep an eye on the others, and it was the best position for the strongest dog. The others (Wiley and Lupe) appreciated being able to run faster. The dynamics changed very quickly among the four of them.

Over the years, you learn valuable lessons about teamwork. Don’t expect your team to do something that you wouldn’t do yourself. Got a hill to climb? Get off the runners and run up the hill with them. Lost and unsure about which trail to take in a whiteout? Trust your team. Their instinct is correct and deserves your trust and faith. Praise them for a job well done. Keep the momentum going. Don’t slam on the brake suddenly and stop the forward movement until you’ve crossed the finish line.

I noticed that every time I stood up to use the footbrake to slow the team down, I’d lose my balance, and sometimes fall, bringing the team to a complete stop. “What’s your problem?” they seemed to be saying when they looked back to see why we weren’t moving. One day I asked a veteran sled dog driver how he managed to avoid falling when using his brake.

“I never use it until the race is over. I stay low like the dogs, dragging my feet or knees. Standing up on one leg, and raising the other to stomp on the brake, elevates your center of gravity, and makes you unstable.” I have no idea how that relates to our teams at work, but I thought it was interesting.