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Climbing Mount Everest With a Team Who Failed Me

The title sounds dramatic, doesn’t it?

Those who know me, know I like to travel far and wide. You’d be forgiven for thinking I actually participated in a tourist expedition to climb the tallest mountain in the world!

The Mount Everest Climb was a shocking simulation team exercise I participated in at the Harvard course  called Leading High Growth Businesses. 

I described it as shocking because of what I learned about what keeps teams from the top.

The outcome and the learnings from this exercise are not far from my thoughts all this time later.

Like most simulation games, we were put into teams, assigned roles and challenged to win. My team was no different. Made up of other business leaders, we were all willing and ready to be the first team to the top.

My role was of the team physician. I was responsible for my team being healthy and able to make the climb each day. I relied on what I knew to be warning signs of fatigue, frostbit and other dangers, but I also needed my team to tell me if they weren’t well.

Let me give you the shocker – we failed – we “died” before we made it to the top, we didn’t even make it to the first camp beyond base camp. However, the reasons we failed are not (I assure you) obvious reasons or dramatic reasons.

I had a winning team:
We were each capable at handling the role/tasks assigned
We each had a good mindset about our abilities
We each wanted to be on the team
We did not fight with each other, there was no control issues or power struggle
We had enough supplies

Here’s why we failed – we kept information from each other. But we did it unknowingly.

What does that even mean?

Well, here’s what it wasn’t… it wasn’t a case of “Joe is really getting on my nerves so I’m not briefing him on my part”.

What it was, and this is so obvious to me now, was that we all had information we didn’t think was important or valuable enough to our goal of climbing Mount Everest. So, we unknowingly didn’t share it.

When I say we did this unknowingly…we really did. We unknowingly kept information to ourselves that seemed of very little use to anyone. We all have this kind of information, information we know but either think it is common sense, easy, simple, obvious, or not really “information”.

Here are some of the things we kept from each other (and why - as explained during our debriefing).

We made data entry errors (remember, this was all a computer simulation game) and didn’t know we made an error/typo until later.

We did not realize how that typo affected the information we would get next or our team members would get next. When we realized how our data entry errors may have affected our team members’ information, we didn’t say anything because we were not sure what exactly the negative effects were.

Each of us were what you may call type A. The desire each of us had to make it to the top made us ignore warning signs of ill health or dangerous weather changes. Although we were supposed to, we didn’t advise each other of our low oxygen, how we felt each day or other news that could deter our mission.

We had two chiefs – when the person in charge of the expedition got sick, there was not an official hand over to someone else. A team member decided to step up unofficially and assumed two roles, then proceeded to not do either role all that well.

We were too focused on the end game, summiting the tallest mountain in the world, making us delusional about each step of our progress. We powered through thinking we could get to the top on enthusiasm, not skill. We thought enthusiasm could overcome health problems, low oxygen levels and inclement weather patterns.

Now, think about what your team members know that they are not sharing because they don’t think it is valuable enough because you are leading the charge to your own Mt. Everest summit.

You can only get this hidden knowledge out of your team if you know how to ask and they know how to share and feel safe to do so. Not physically safe, but psychologically safe.

Think about some of the obvious things you know how to do and by holding this “obvious” information back from your team – it’s keeping you from helping them get all of you to the top. Yes, the leader is responsible for this behaviour too.

Here are the ways to unlock the valuable information everyone in your company has. Think about how to get your team members to do this with everyone on your team and all the teams in your business:

Share goals – share what you are working on and how you do it and what might be getting in your way.

To you, your process or what your responsible to do each day may seem obvious. To others, they may be hearing this information for the first time and have had no idea about an area of your business they’ve never been exposed to.

I remember sharing with a colleague how every closed sale for one of my best sales people took 4 calls and 6 emails, he had it down to a science. My colleague was stunned that sales didn’t close on the first meeting (she, as you can imagine, wasn’t in sales). She told me that she immediately had so much more empathy for the persistence it took to close a sale after hearing this story.

Identify priorities – with everything feeling like a priority today (and let’s be honest, some people treating everything like a priority) the team has to know what their 3-5 priorities are. They can better focus their efforts when they know where the team is headed.

Listen – not just waiting to talk, really listen to hear what is and isn’t being said.

Be willing to share – this comes after “listen” because often you can hear what another really needs and how to help them. Share what you know, share your insights, share your expertise. Particularly share the things that seem really easy and somewhat “common sense” to you -  these are the things that are golden to others.

Know each other’s goals – this is different than sharing your goals and assuming everyone heard you. Being able to say “I know Ralph needs to increase sales by 2 clients a month, Jim need to get inventory down by 3% each month…” is knowing your team member’s goals.  You’d be surprised how you’ll start to see opportunities and think of ideas to help your team members, the more you know what they’re working towards.

It’s not the big things we do wrong, it’s the little things we don’t get right that keep us from leading the team to where we need to go. Consider implementing these five steps into your team process this quarter

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