My sons and I decided to go four wheeling up in the White River National Forest on Saturday in our recently acquired Land Rover. What transpired over the next five hours was a wonderfully rich experience that, looking back, I realize had many lessons for managing through problems at work. We piled into the car around 3 PM with our dog Abby, some snacks and water. The boys were brimming with excitement to put the SUV through its paces on Pearl Pass, a favorite local jeep trail. We arrived at the start of the climb around 4 PM and began climbing. For the first hour of the climb, everything was going smoothly and the vehicle was taking everything we threw at it. Then, on one particularly rocky, narrow incline, we all heard a loud hiss and the vehicle eased down to the front left side. The driver’s side front tire had a giant side puncture and was completely flat.
After 45 minutes of locating the spare, the jack, etc. and trying different jack positions, along came some help from another four-wheeler, who coincidentally happened to the Parts Manager of the dealership where I had purchased the car. We soon got the car jacked and the tire off, but there was not enough height clearance with the rock configuration to remove the wheel off the axle. So, after replacing the bolts and backing the car to a more suitable spot, we managed to re-jack the car, remove the flat and replace it with the spare. We thanked our new friend John, backed down, turned around and away we went towards town on our spare. Within two miles, the spare went flat.
We moved the car off the road and took stock of our situation. By now it was 7 PM and we were fifteen miles out of town without a working vehicle. No cell signal. And of course, just when you REALLY need a good Army Chinook helicopter, there were none to be found, just like a cab in the rain in Manhattan. So, we gathered up what we think we would need, cell phone, dog, blanket, Smartfood, a water bottle, phone numbers, etc., moved the car safely off the track, locked it, and started walking down, the boys in great spirits with the notion that this was becoming a real adventure. Within half a mile, we met two women, Paula and Sarabeth from Denver walking up the road. We told them our story and they agreed to drive us close to town where we would reach a cell signal to call for help.
Once in cell range, which was virtually ALL the way back to town, we called Scott, our salesperson from three days earlier for an assist. We learned that although our new car comes with roadside assistance, there is no such thing as “offroadside” assistance. Paula and Sarabeth did not want to leave us stranded, so they agreed to drive us into town to our favorite pizza restaurant, Brunelleschi’s as it was now nearly 8 PM and the boys were getting hungry. At the restaurant, I let the boys tell our saga to the owners, Gil and Emily, which they clearly relished. While eating dinner, we reviewed all that happened and all the GREAT LEARNING that took place. An hour and a half later, we were all safely back at home, thanks to a cab that would allow dogs, although the Land Rover was still stranded in the forest high above town.
Now, let’s review several of the lessons we learned and how they are relevant in a business context. I am sure there are more, if I thought for a few more days, but these are the ones that come to mind right away.
1. Start dealing with the problem as soon as it becomes evident.
As soon as the first flat became evident, we immediately changed course and began to address how we were going to change the tire and get going. Obviously, we had no choice. We were way out of cell phone range and no one was around to help us. However, in management, often we choose to set aside a problem or refuse to face the brutal truth of a situation. We don’t want to look bad in front of our peers. We hope and wish that the situation would resolve itself, when in fact in most cases it keeps getting worse. As the old adage goes, “Problems never get better with age.” Therefore, as soon as a problem presents itself, deal with it!
2. Review and marshal all the resources at your disposal.
After the second flat, when it became clear that we were going to have to walk out of the forest for help, we reviewed everything that we would need for any eventuality. Water, snacks, cell phone, emergency numbers, flashlight, fleece blanket, dog and leash, car keys; we gathered all these things up before setting off. Once we began walking, we realized we had overlooked one critical resource available to us: other campers who could drive us out to a cell signal. When confronted with a major problem at work, consider all the resources you have in crafting a solution. These might be budgetary resources, human resources or even timing issues. When you look broadly and creatively at all the resources available to you, I’ll bet your challenge will not appear so daunting and you will be well on the way to arriving at a solution.
3. Remain flexible and creative in the face of challenges.
Numerous times throughout the process of changing the first flat, we were forced to adjust and re-think our approach creatively as issues arose. When embedded rocks in the road prevented us from properly positioning the jack under the car, we found flat rocks to support the jack. When it was clear after the first effort at jacking the car that there was not enough clearance to remove the flat, we rethought the whole plan and moved the car back and away from the giant rock that blocked the wheel. When the car was raised high enough on the jack and threatened to slip, as we were on an incline, we propped the rear tires with large rocks to reinforce its position. These are just several examples. In all cases, we chose not to despair or gripe. We learned from the current challenge, thought hard about all available options and adjusted accordingly.
4. Maintain a positive attitude throughout the ordeal.
From the first realization that we had a flat, I tried to maintain a very positive attitude, not only for my sons, but for myself, as well. I thought out loud “What a beautiful place to have a flat!” as it was spectacular. “At least we’re not on a crowded highway, at night, with cars whizzing by five feet from my back” I further noted. In any corporate crisis, negativity adds no value. A negative, whining team member or one who constantly dwells on the downside only serves to sap energy from the remaining team members. Also, positivity is contagious and attractive. All people far prefer to work with teams populated by other positive people.
5. Keep your team together.
After the second flat, when we realized that someone was going to have to go for help, we briefly considered whether the boys should stay with the car, as it could be a long walk. From my experience as an outdoor leader, I threw that option out immediately. In any wilderness outing, the first priorities of an outdoor leader are to keep it fun, keep it safe and at all costs, do not split up the group. Thus, we chose to all hike out for help, including the dog, together. The metaphor for business in managing through a crisis is to pay close attention to the mood of the team and keep the team in sync. As you move through the process, ask yourself “Is the team still on the same page? Is anyone losing focus or veering away from the desired goal?” Do what is necessary to motivate those who are not pulling their weight or, worse, subtly sabotaging the efforts of others. You need to keep the team together to achieve the best performance.
6. Ask for help.
Originally, when we began walking out, I had mistakenly assumed that a cell signal would be available soon as we descended. Once we began our descent, it became obvious that we would have to ask for a lift from another camper. Often, in a business context, when faced with a crisis, we avoid or put off asking for help. When we ask others for help, we allow them to serve. And through service, we all feel better.
7. Acknowledge and reward team members.
At dinner that evening, I thanked my sons for their cooperation, patience, great attitudes and good behavior throughout the day. Also, when we went back for the car on Sunday, we left a bottle of wine with a thank-you note at Paula and Sarabeth’s campsite. In business, we often get so busy and frenetic, we forget or fail to take the time to pause and thank those that helped contribute to the success of the team. True leaders always acknowledge team members and share credit.
8. When you successfully navigate a crisis, you strengthen your firm’s culture.
When I spend time with my sons camping or traveling, I call that time making memories. We are together investing our time and resources in creating memories for them that hopefully will last a lifetime. In a business context, when a team, a division or the whole firm triumphantly tackles a challenging problem, they create a story. Over time these stories of successes accumulate and collectively become the folklore, the culture of the firm. Employees come and go, but these stories endure. It is through these stories that the values and principles of a firm are passed down. And without values and principles, a firm has no foundation.