My view from the back of the sled

While the 2018 Alaska Iditarod was in full swing earlier this year, I was in Colorado seizing the opportunity to take a backcountry dog sledding tour at Krabloonik. With a brief orientation, an experienced musher and a team of driven animals running in tandem for the pure joy of the travel and the motivation of reaching a destination, I experienced a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

There is no shortage of information when searching for the analogy of a dog sled team with human work teams. But I have to say that until I was actually sitting in that sled, watching the unity of the pack and experiencing the rhythm of their movements, I didn’t truly understand the magnitude of their team spirit and mechanics.

Though the dogs most definitely form a team, each one has their own unique skill that is equally important to the success of the team’s journey. The strength of the wheel dogs (those harnessed closest to the sled) pull weight, while swing dogs help set the pace and drive the rest of the team. The leader dogs communicate with the musher on speed and direction based on conditions of the trail.

The sled dog team at Krabloonik

Swing dogs travel directly behind the leaders and typically are “in training” for that role in the future. They “follow the leader”, a term which sometimes carries a negative connotation in our society. In truth, it is a misunderstood and undervalued role. There is no time wasted vying for the lead; rather, the followers substantiate the work of the leaders by maintaining the steady pace. Stated simply, every member of the team is important, plays a critical role and motivates the other members.

Before this adventure, I could have easily researched dog sled teams and written a blog post comparing those teams to the ones I work with every day. It would have been a meaningful, relevant post with a beneficial takeaway for the reader. But the experience of watching the dog sled team in action – feeling the power of their run, observing the interaction between the dogs, picking up on the non-verbal cues between the leader dogs and the mushers – these left a marked imprint about the impact that teamwork has on the finished product, the customer experience, and the ability to reach the destination.

As leaders, we often succumb to the weight of responsibility we feel in ensuring our teams function to capacity. We want to step in and change the course if we think the team is not on the most efficient path. We want to prove our leadership by posing a better idea.

Sitting on a sled behind a team of dogs, I was in unfamiliar territory and I had no choice but to trust that the team would get me to the destination safely. I was merely a human along for the ride. My job was to enjoy the scenery and be fascinated by the work of the pack – and to let them do the job for which they had been trained.

As a leader, do you have enough confidence in your teams to sit back and enjoy the ride?

Knute Rockne photo

Knute Rockne, 1921

A typical Friday night in high school would find me hunched on a bench in the locker room anxiously awaiting the kickoff of that night’s game. Our football team, many of us lifelong friends since kindergarten or younger, was ready to listen to the inspiring words from Coach William McElveen. We anticipated something profound and motivational, along the lines of a good Knute Rockne or Vince Lombardi speech.

At the close, Coach would ask us a simple question, “Where would you rather be?”

William McElveen was not only our coach; for many of us he was our hero. He would pose that question to us as our families and friends were in the stands, waiting to cheer us on to victory. Pumped with adrenaline, we were ready to take on any opposing team. At that moment in time, there was nowhere else we would rather be.

Coach McElveen emphatically made the same statement; in fact, he told us he wished he could be right there on the field with us. We were all where we wanted to be and where we expected we would be at that point in our lives. Those words and that vision have stayed with me my entire life.

As the end of each year approaches, we have a tendency to reflect on where we have been and where we are going. We look back and measure the year in days, weeks and months. We list accomplishments, we measure growth and we quantify successes, and if all of these numbers add up, we assume we are in the right place. Those are good disciplines to pursue.

But, suppose we also ask ourselves, “Are we where we expected to be?” and “Are we happy with how we got here?” If the answer is still a resounding “yes,” then we should appreciate it, celebrate it, and enjoy it.

But what if the answer isn’t a resounding “yes”? What if there are some doubts, or some yearnings for something different? “Where” isn’t just a physical space – it is a mindset, it is a time frame, it is our dream. Our level of passion for what we are doing should be a part of the answer to those questions. If the answer does not come quickly and assuredly, then it is time to make a change. It is time to determine “where” you really want to be.

Coach McElveen assured us on those Friday nights that there was nowhere else he would rather be. Teaching and coaching were his passions and he was making an impact on so many of us. It was obvious he was where he was supposed to be. At the conclusion of his pep talk, with a bit more serious tone, he would say, “Let’s take a minute.” He wanted us to take a minute to reflect on where we were, to give thanks for what we had, and to make the commitment to give 110% on the field.

Coach McElveen’s high school teaching and coaching career is not the end of his story, though. In 2008, an article by Roy Roberson appeared in the Southeast Farm Press. It stated, “After a short but successful tenure as a high school history teacher and football coach in Bishopville, S.C., McElveen came to understand he was living the wrong professional dream”.

Coach McElveen was also a farmer, starting out with a few acres and a John Deere tractor. Twenty-five years later, he was honored with the Farm Press Peanut Profitability Award for the Upper Southeast States. His farming operation had grown to thousands of acres of peanuts, cotton, corn, wheat and soybeans. William McElveen was still the same person, but he decided to adjust his “where” to realize his full potential and utmost satisfaction.

“Where” do you really want to be? Think about it before you answer. If you can honestly say it is in the here and now, take the time to appreciate it and live it to the fullest. If you come to realize your “where” isn’t where you expected to be, then I challenge you to make the change that will bring you to the place where you will thrive, where you will be happy, and where you will be willing to give 110%.

Happy holidays to all.

 

Note: William McElveen died on December 17 after an extended illness. Thanks for the lessons, Coach — I’ve never forgotten them.

Coffey-Rigby Livery Stable, Manning, SC, from the South Carolina Department of Archives and History

As a child, our family’s yearly Thanksgiving meals took place in Manning, SC — population 3000, complete with the Manning Cafe, McCabe’s Barbecue, Brogdon’s Store, and a public library built in 1910. Manning was built near the headwaters of Wyboo Creek in South Carolina lake country, and home to the annual Striped Bass Festival. Manning hosted our entire family for the Thanksgiving meal — and I grew up in a very large family.

My mother was one of nine children, and my 20 cousins, 16 aunts and uncles, various other family friends, and of course my brothers and I would show up for the feast, all sitting at different-sized tables spread throughout my aunt’s home. As one grew older, one could be graduated to the Big Table, the table where all the Grown People — the adults — sat for the Thanksgiving feast, conversing about wise things, and catching up on all the family stories and news.

Courthouse in Manning, SC from the South Carolina Department of Archives and History

The funny thing is that, though I inevitably grew older, I never grew old enough to have a seat at the Big Table. I was one of the youngest, and there was always too little room, and too many family members for the limited seats at the main table.

Of course, you can never have too many family members. Not really. And my cousins and I had our own fun, and probably got away with more mischief since we weren’t under the eye of the adults. And family meals always prepare you for taking your seat at the Big Table, in time.

Today, in many ways and in a variety of contexts, I am finally sitting at the Big Table and I’ve received more than I ever dreamed I would. Perhaps a part of growing older is realizing how much you have been given, and how unexpectedly it has been provided.

This week will be filled with abundance. The Wednesday before this Thanksgiving’s feast, I will be engaging in one of my favorite past-times — cooking. Later on I’ll head out to where some family members have been gathering together, preparing for the big meal and enjoying the outdoors.

Cooking and the outdoors pale in significance to the family and friends I’ve been given, both the old friends who have been with me for a lifetime, and the new ones who have traveled a shorter journey with me.

I am thankful for my health. I don’t take it for granted — so many are not given such a blessing, and I’m conscious of it more every year.

I have experienced a relentless pace of blessings over the years and I am grateful.

Those blessings in my personal life have clearly been a part of allowing me to have blessings in other areas, the biggest part of which has been my work. The most obvious place where I’ve taken a seat at the Big Table is at Elliott Davis — truly a grand and spectacular feast of people, some 750 and more, spread through nine offices in nine communities, all of them different, but in some ways, just like Manning. Each of our communities has its cafes and barbecue places, its historic library, its particular geographic setting that shaped its formation, its big annual celebrations to recognize what is near and dear to each of them. It is a very big table — and Elliott Davis employees, including me, all get to have a seat at that table.

For all of this and more, I am truly grateful.

But I’m also grateful for this insight, one that applies to our workplaces, our families, our hobbies, our communities: it’s not so much where you sit at the table but with whom you are enjoying the meal.

Yes, there are many people at the table, and it is large and grand, and there will always be room for others. It is the company we keep that is the real blessing.

You’ve read it – “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

You’ve heard it – “Culture is everything.”

You’ve said it – “It’s all about the cultural fit.”

Firms and organizations are continually in search of team members, clients, people, and groups who are the perfect fit for their corporate culture. Cultural fit is discussed and analyzed and put through the strainer every day.

There is no doubt that a good fit with our corporate culture is a key ingredient for success when bringing on a new team member, when welcoming a new client, or when aligning ourselves with an organization or group. But does the fit truly have to be perfect or do we need to consider what other factors might make a good fit close to perfect?

When we are in the market for a new pair of shoes, we know the size we need and we can pick out a pair that appeals to us. It might be the color or the style that attracts us, but the determining factor in whether we make a purchase is whether or not they have our size in stock. And if they do, we try them on – we walk around the shoe department for a minute making sure there are no pinches or other red flags that warn us they might not be the perfect fit.

With people, however, we have to follow a gut instinct and hope for the best that they are, indeed, a perfect fit for our culture.

Or do we? Is the perfect fit always a necessity with people?

For a shoe purchase, we have to have the right fit, and we have to like the color and style. Why? Because those attributes are going to enhance our wardrobe. We need those shoes to match other items in our closet. We want them to add flavor to our attire.

Part of the process of interviewing potential team members or clients can parallel the process of shoe shopping. There may be something that interests or strikes us initially. It may be the way they dress, an interest or hobby of theirs, or their rhetoric during an interview. We make a connection and we try to determine if they will indeed be a fit for our culture. But unlike those shoes, we don’t get the opportunity to try them on before we make the offer or sign the contract.

We may indeed find out that although they are not a perfect fit for our culture, they have the ability to enhance it. Whether it is a unique skill set, credible experience, or innovative thinking, we find that their contributions make our culture shine a little brighter. Like that new pair of shoes, they are a quality addition that complements the other wardrobe items.

Perhaps when we are assessing people, whether a new team member or client, we need not ask if they will be a perfect fit for our culture, but rather if they will add something. Will they be an enhancement to something great that we have already developed? Will they bring their own brand of sparkle that improves our product?

If we have developed a good culture, we will always be looking for ways to make it better and stronger. So although someone might not be the perfect fit with today’s version of our culture, they just might be the enhancement that results in the new and improved version.

pioneers, American history, log cabin

First log cabin, Douglas County, Nevada, from the Historic American Buildings Survey

What images come to mind when you hear the word “pioneer”?

I was recently in Gunnison, CO on a trip with my sons when we stumbled upon Gunnison Pioneer Museum. It wasn’t on our exploration agenda, but we were staying across the street and made an impromptu decision to check it out.

As I expected, there were many artifacts from the 1800s. This was not a small, one-building museum. There were original houses and cabins filled with incredible displays of period clothing, weaponry, farm implements, arrowheads and mining equipment. There were numerous railroad exhibits. We saw items like school desks with inkwells, a milk wagon, an ox cart and farm tools. These are the images the word “pioneer” conjures when I hear it.

What was most surprising to me was that even though it was billed as a pioneer museum, there were artifacts and displays up to the present time. This included the introduction of cameras and electric trains and kitchen appliances – stuff that was invented in my lifetime. I took pictures of these items to share with my brothers – things like a stereo resembling the one my parents owned and the hand held beater that was a staple in my mom’s kitchen. It was a trip down memory lane.

The big “wow” factor to me was that all these items and inventions became a part of my life. I never thought about them being a part of history. They simply assimilated and became the norm. Seeing them now in a pioneer museum made me realize that future generations will see these artifacts and, most likely, will smile and shake their heads at their antiquity thinking that what they have now, in the present, is the best it will ever be.

History is being made every day. We live it, it evolves and it never sunsets. In our personal lives, something new comes along and we rush out to buy it. In our business, an innovative concept is introduced and we want to be the first to test it. At the time, we think it might be the ultimate, but it is only a matter of time before the “new and improved” version comes along and the prior one becomes “history.” And when we have the opportunity to look back, 30, 40, 50 years or more because we happen to stumble upon a pioneer museum, we understand the impact and that we were, indeed, a part of our own history in the making.

What items from your personal history have you not thought about lately, but recognize as pioneering?

Recently someone asked me for a favorite quote for business and my response was swift.

“There’s always one more thing you can do to influence any situation in your favor — and after that one more thing, and after that….”
— Lieutenant General Hal Moore

In the best or the worst of situations we can choose to focus not on our circumstances but on an unrelenting drive for improvement and action. In good times, we don’t need to sit back and admire our successes — we can continue to learn and grow. In dark times, we can recognize that there is always some additional step that we can take so that, inch by inch, we may move out of dire situations.

image of Lieutenant General Hal Moore at la Drang, leadership in dark times

Lieutenant General Hal Moore at la Drang

Lieutenant General Hal Moore had a long and distinguished career of service in the US Army. He was most noted for his military prowess in the Vietnam War, particularly in the Battle of la Drang, about which the movie We Were Soldiers Once was filmed. In that brutal and seemingly hopeless battle, Moore led 450 soldiers to an improbable victory over 2,000 Vietnamese troops.

Moore’s quote reminds me that, though some things are beyond our control in both the worst and best of times, at least some actions and decisions are in our own hands. We don’t need to feel powerless even in times of desperation — we only need to incrementally act, grow, and change, one step at a time.

What’s your favorite quote for business (and life)?

 


Our firm is gearing up to host our 7th annual Drive Business Downtown event. Subtitled “a celebration in the heart of Greenville”, we team up each year with our Class A minor league baseball team – the Greenville Drive. Through this event, we have perfected the art of combining a day game, a business leaders networking luncheon, a mentoring opportunity with young professionals, and giving back to our community.

Our downtown business community is a unique group. Collaboration and idea sharing is commonplace among our members. We support each other’s efforts and we celebrate each other’s achievements. This annual event is not only a time to celebrate our city, but it is a reminder that we have an obligation to preserve our asset. In order for our businesses to continue to thrive in our downtown, we need to ensure its sustainability.

Many of us chose to locate our business within the downtown area for a host of reasons. Here in Greenville, SC, our downtown is teaming with a variety of locally-owned restaurants, several community theatres, a symphony, a venue that hosts well-known musicians and Broadway shows, a burgeoning arts district flush with studios, a host of festivals happening year round, several live entertainment venues and a school for performing arts. These are housed along tree-lined, wide sidewalk streets culminating with a single-cantilever pedestrian bridge over our prized Reedy River waterfalls. Add in a zoo, a concert arena and lots of building projects that increase the array of affordable downtown housing. Clearly, Elliott Davis Decosimo is fortunate to be headquartered in downtown Greenville.

Our event is an annual reminder that as business leaders, we must not only preserve our assets, we must serve as role models to our young professionals who will someday take over the leadership reins. We have instilled a culture in our firm that includes financial and volunteer support of the arts and other non-profit organizations in our city. It is our job as leaders to ensure this culture is passed down to our young professionals. It is our responsibility to lead by example.

What leadership legacies will you leave behind for your city, state, and region?