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?

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?

In an earlier post (Smart Reading Topics) I mentioned one of the values I hold dear — the importance of reading widely both in one’s field as well as out of it. I particularly enjoy reading history and the expanded field of vision it provides of other people’s experiences. Reading provides insight into others’ achievements and failures which means I can glean tips on how to enhance my personal achievements and hopefully limit my failures.

A military career is one in which wisdom, competence and discernment assume life-and-death importance. An email composed by retired four-star General James Mattis in which he referenced the importance of learning from others went viral back in 2003.

“… The problem with being too busy to read is that you learn by experience (or by your men’s experience), i.e. the hard way. By reading, you learn through others’ experiences, generally a better way to do business, especially in our line of work where the consequences of incompetence are so final for young men.

Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before. It doesn’t give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead.

Throughout his military career, Mattis marched into conflict situations armed with the experience of others he studied while reading books such as The Siege and From Beirut to Jerusalem. He drew upon lessons learned while reading about the life of Gertrude Bell in Seven Pillars of Wisdom. He can cite specific lessons from his readings which he has applied in unique situations to make life and death decisions.

Although conference rooms, corporate offices and work stations do not have the immediate and mortal significance of battlefields, it is still important for business leaders to recognize the impact their knowledge, experience and decisions can have on the lives of others. In some small sense, we are responsible for the livelihoods and work satisfaction of many human beings. We have a duty to take that responsibility seriously, learning from others as best we can so we can limit costly mistakes.

What lessons have you learned from others? Are you using what you read to help you succeed?

In the midst of a horrendous storm in Washington, DC, on January 13, 1982, Air Florida Flight 90, laden with ice and snow, crashed into the 14th Street Bridge and fell into the Potomac River after taking off from National Airport. I can remember being glued to the television, watching live coverage of the recovery efforts. Passengers were floating in the bone-chilling waters, struggling to survive.

Priscilla Tirado was one of those passengers and though a helicopter line was dropped to her, she couldn’t hold on as she succumbed to freezing waters. Lenny Skutnik, an employee in the Congressional Budget Office, routinely drove over that bridge every day. On this day, he stopped at the scene of the crash and watched in horror along with hundreds of other onlookers. When he saw Priscilla Tirado’s struggle, he impulsively dove into the ice-clogged river and pulled her to shore. He didn’t think about it, he just knew a human life was about to be lost and he was compelled to save it. It was the right thing to do.

Two weeks later, President Ronald Regan gave his State of the Union address to our nation. As always, first lady Nancy Reagan sat in the balcony, this time with Lenny Skutnik by her side. The President pointed everyone’s attention to the balcony and spoke about the heroic act. He used this as an example of what was right with America and that our best days were ahead. It was the beginning of a presidential tradition and every year since, during the State of the Union address, there is a “person in the balcony” who is singled out and recognized for their actions.

Ordinary people perform extraordinary acts every day. We see it here in our firm – team members putting others first because it is the right thing to do. It may be going above and beyond for a client, it may be an act of community service, or it may be mentoring younger staff to help them achieve their goals. As leaders, we need to have individuals in the balcony and to recognize them for doing the right thing. These individuals don’t do the right thing for glory or recognition, but because they share common values and are fostering a culture from which we all benefit. We need to let them know they are recognized and their acts are appreciated.

We should always seize the opportunity at every meeting, gathering or event to be pointing to someone in the balcony. Who will be sitting in your balcony the next time you have a meeting?

In a recent post I linked to my piece on the psychological challenges of culture change published in Dialogue Review.

One of the items left on the cutting room floor and not published with the article was an interview with an Elliott Davis Decosimo client, David White, then-President of Shealy Electrical Wholesalers. David was kind enough to respond to some questions about the challenges he experienced with Shealy’s own culture change. Since I found his responses insightful, I’m posting the interview in two parts so that others can read his experiences. Part I was posted on Monday; this is Part II.

How did you as a leader work through those challenges? What decisions did you make?

We are working through them now. Trust is built over time and through positive experiences.

As a group we defined roles, explicit responsibilities, and accompanying expectations for each position. I have communicated these throughout the organization and built an executive compensation plan to support the company objectives.

As a leader I look for opportunities for our leadership team to spend time together in teams creating strategy, developing innovative solutions to problems, and supporting customers.

Did the culture change your company experienced improve your company’s position?

It has improved our company’s position. Our challenge has always been to provide a unique, meaningful set of solutions and services to create a great customer experience. In earlier days our customers had a generalist from Shealy who tried to manage the entire customer relationship. While that generalist philosophy has its benefits it also has its risks.

The risk we tried to eliminate was of one person “owning” the customer relationship.

Today we have an account manager who acts as a quarterback and directs a team of specialists to engage with the customer at the appropriate place and time. The customer benefits by having product and application expertise more readily available. We benefit by having a deeper, broader relationship with the customer through an array of Shealy contacts which leads (we hope) to better customer retention, more share, and better margins.

If you were to do it all over again, what might you do differently?

I would try to push accountability deeper into the organization faster. As we grew I maintained too much responsibility for developing strategy, defining objectives, and managing outcomes. In order to identify and develop more leaders I needed to let them play the game and not over coach.

What one or two primary principles of managing culture change would you offer a CEO whose company is experiencing significant culture change?

Communicate frequently – be as transparent as possible with information. It’s better for people to know than to “guess” or “think” they know.

Communicate more than just the “what” or the “how” – spend time communicating the “why”. When implementing change or driving culture it’s helpful to have those affected by change (or who feel that they are having change imposed on them) to understand the “why”.

In my last post I linked to my piece on the psychological challenges of culture change published in Dialogue Review.

One of the items left on the cutting room floor and not published with the article was an interview with an Elliott Davis Decosimo client, David White, then-President of Shealy Electrical Wholesalers. David was kind enough to respond to some questions about the challenges he experienced with Shealy’s own culture change. Since I found his responses insightful, I’m posting the interview in two parts so that others can read his experiences. I’ll post Part II on Tuesday.

At the time of the interview, Shealy Electrical Wholesalers, Inc., established in 1945, was a $225 million supplier of electrical products and services to customers in the construction, industrial MRO and OEM, utility, retail national account and international contracting segments. Shealy was a closely held S-corp with 18 locations throughout the Carolinas and 340 full time employees. (Shealy is now with Border States Electric, an ESOP company in North Dakota, and Doug is Executive Vice President there.)

What strengths does your company have — what does it do well?

We have developed a culture that manages rapid changes well – we are able to identify a new opportunity (customer segment, product segment, customer, product, etc.) in the marketplace and have the ability to quickly engage, make a decision and execute a plan to take advantage of that opportunity. We are not afraid of taking a risk or trying something new.

We have a well communicated strategic/shareholder vision supported by specific, achievable long and short term initiatives. The organization, from top to bottom, has embraced the vision and strategy.

We have a strong, well-respected brand in our market, and long lasting relationships with some of the most coveted customers and suppliers in the industry.

What weaknesses does your company have — what might it do better?

We, at times, have a tendency to be more opportunistic than strategic with sales – we will shoot at anything we see rather than act intentionally with our strategy and selectively with our efforts.

What one or two major instances of culture change has your company experienced?

We’ve grown from 3 to 18 locations in the past 12 years and have built a matrixed sales organization that requires the leadership to trust one another and to work collaboratively. We expect the organization to act as “one Shealy” and not 18 independently managed business units. The combination of rapid, intense growth and the different structure has involved significant culture shift.

As we’ve grown we have developed more managers and a larger leadership team. These managers had a wider range of responsibility when they worked in smaller organizations — they pursued a wide variety of activities. One challenge for those managers at Shealy is to learn to work with a more limited range of responsibility.

What were the primary challenges of that culture change?

A matrixed organization requires trust and collaboration – leaders must be selfless and put the interests of the customer, supplier, and fellow associate in front of their own.

Trust takes time to develop, particularly when you’re an acquisitive organization that is continually bringing into the company new leaders and ideas with each acquisition.