Post by George Johnson, Vision Coach & Chief Vision Officer at The Team Coaching Zone

I recently went dogsledding in the Superior National Forest outside of Grand Marais, Minnesota and it was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It was a bright, sunny day with the temperature near zero. We were lucky to have fresh snow from the night before, and we dog sledded 17 miles in about 2 hours. As a customer, the whole experience couldn’t have been any better.

The CEO and owner of the company was Matt, from Grand Marais Dogsled Adventures. He’s been taking people dogsledding for 14 years, and keeps 31 dogs under his guidance.

What I didn’t expect to learn from this adventure, however, was that Matt and his dogs would teach me some valuable lessons about leading teams, and bring to life some of the things I’ve read from Dr. Ruth Wageman. In her book, Senior Leadership Teams: What It Takes to Make Them Great, Dr. Wageman discusses these three essential factors for any team:

1. Are they a real team?

Dr. Wageman states: “Real teams have clear boundaries. Everyone knows who is a member, and who is not. They have stability and members have the time and opportunity to hone their ability to work together. And they are highly interdependent with members relying heavily on their colleague’s special knowledge, skill, and experience in the work they do together.”

The first mistake leaders make is in putting teams together that aren’t real teams.

Matt knew which dogs would work best together. Many of the dogs had been together for over 10 years, meaning they had plenty of opportunities to hone their abilities to work together. He knew which dogs were leaders, and put them in front of the team. Other dogs had other strengths, such as stamina and were placed where that strength could best be used.

2. Do they have a compelling direction?

“The team’s purpose is not merely the sum of the individual member’s contributions. Rather, it is challenging, it is consequential, and above all, it is clear,” Dr. Wageman writes in her book.

The team had a compelling direction: it was to take us 17 miles in just a few hours. It was consequential, and there was a certain path to be followed. And it was clear, every dog knew where we were going.

3. Do they have the right people? (in this case, dogs!)

Dr. Wageman says “In the most effective teams we’ve worked with and studied, members are selected by the team leader based on what they bring to the table. Do they add value to this team and its unique purpose?”

Matt changed teams every day. He constantly evaluated who would be the best for every team he put out. Oftentimes, this is where executives slip up. They don’t evaluate who should be on the team, they pick a team and stick with it for too long, or are simply unwilling to move people to other teams.

Matt spent quite a bit of time deciding which six dogs would be in each team. He had 31 dogs to choose from, and he knew which ones would be best for our trip on this day. If one dog is not contributing to the team, he would move him to another team.

Who would have thought that a day of dogsledding would materialize these lessons from Dr. Wageman in such a clear, compelling manner? Sometimes life’s lessons come from the most unexpected places.

Interested in learning more from team coaching experts like Dr. Ruth Wageman? Subscribe to the Team Coaching Zone newsletter to receive a wealth of podcasts, blogs, webinars and resources to keep you in touch with the latest in team coaching. Learn more about the Team Coaching Zone here!

George Johnson has been coaching executives and their teams on vision and strategic planning for over 15 years. He is a partner and Chief Vision Officer for the Team Coaching Zone.

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