Learning about teamwork in real time, while doing something useful – it’s been my dream assignment.
Leap Up – an 18 month Leadership Programme for high potentials from across Europe. Six three day workshops – five in one year, then a six month break to cogitate and a final workshop to review and celebrate success – made the ideal learning experience. Link that with a client who was up for something different and you end up building Lead Mines in cupboards and making Tardis doorways!
It’s all in the relationship
I met Yvonne Pokropek, Executive HR Director for DB Schenker, Region North (at the time) many years before the work began. We liked each other immediately and stayed in touch over an occasional glass of champagne when she was visiting the UK from Sweden. A few years in, we were chatting over a chilly glass in the St Pancras Champagne Bar when she told me of a leadership programme the Region wanted to run. They had thought to wait out the recession, but now realised this was exactly the time to be encouraging and challenging their future leaders. And it turned out she wanted to design and run it with me.
It was the perfect brief. The senior team had discussed the needs of the business and defined the content. How it was done was totally up for grabs – and the more interesting and engaging it was, the happier they would be. Perhaps it was the fizz, but the ideas came flowing out of us both and we soon had the first pass of a programme to die for.
Getting buy in
For the process to work, we needed full buy in from the stakeholders. So we invited participants and their managers to a one day workshop so they could create a joint contract agreeing how they’d work together to ensure greatest learning. The contract had to include what would happen when the manager was longing to say ‘we’re too busy for you to go away for three days’. We wanted participants to be allowed time to focus on their learning away from day to day demands; we also wanted to engage managers so they would make best use of the learning back in the workplace.
Cross country working
We realised that part of the job was to build links across the business and increase cultural understanding, so we decided to hold each workshop in a different country, based on where participants came from. Each visit would include some experience of the city – no more would we just go from airport to hotel and back again. We would also invite the CEO of the country to talk with the group and take dinner, so they could share experiences together. So we worked in Riga, Warsaw, Helsinki, Paris, Copenhagen, Budapest, Dublin, Tallinn, Gothenburg, Oslo ………..
Finally we would keep the programme as active as possible. Which leads me to:
How teams work
We waited until the fifth workshop to focus on team work. By then the other topics of leadership, coaching, strategic thinking, change and culture were under their belts and we could incorporate it all into one activity. We just needed something that would push them out of the familiar.
This was a gift for me. I’ve never liked the idea of taking a group of highly talented people and asking them to build a bridge across a stream with a piece of string and a flip flop. What a waste – when they could be doing something productive. So one day, when working with the Exec team of the YHA, I leapt on a comment about their need for volunteers. What if I could provide a group of 16 high performers for a couple of days – could they use them?
Turns out this was an opportunity for everyone. They have a highly innovative manager at Losehill Hall, Castleton, a hostel that provides active education for schools in the Manchester area. Set in the countryside by the Blue John Mine, for some kids this is their first experience of sheep and cows in the fields – or outside the dining room window. They come to learn about history and geography through direct experience and the hostel is always looking for new ways to help them learn. Alistair, the manager, is full of brilliant ideas but needed some help putting them into action.
After many discussions and a very damp, rainy visit, we arrived with our group of Europeans. They knew they would be sleeping in a bunk (but in their own rooms); they knew they would be doing something to help children learn. Other than that they were in the dark.
The Lead Mine:
The first morning we explored how teams work – what can go really well and why; what can easily go
wrong and why. Then the moment arrived. Alistair came to give the group their commission: “I want you to build a Lead Mine in the cupboard under the stairs. You have until 4 pm tomorrow when the children will come and see what you’re done.”
As mouths dropped open, I could see brains getting into gear. Some went directly to the detail – what tools have you got, can we use nails or screws; others went to the big picture, needing to understand how it would be used; while others just went a delicate shade of green.
Every two hours we stopped proceedings to hold a teamwork review. This was when we could explore the impact of using strengths; effective listening; rushing to action; levels of communication within the team and with the primary stakeholder. Taking time out forced them to stand back and consider their behaviour and actions – both individually and as a team.
When all was complete, the children came to view. They climbed up the ladder made from scavenged bits
of tree, scrambled through the narrowed passageways, dug deep and found their piece of lead amongst the stones and had a thoroughly good time. The group were so delighted and some tears were shed. Favourite moment? The child who asked “How did you build all those tiny spaces?” Only to be told “Well, we first developed our strategy…”!!
Year two and Alistair needed a doorway to guard the entrance to the Lead Mine. Why bother with an ordinary door when a Tardis will do? First challenge was to introduce a diverse group to the idea of Dr Who. I thought the programme was pretty universal, but it turns out they had no idea who he was. So after our first dinner together, we sat around the TV with a glass of wine to watch David Tennant’s entry as the new Doctor.
The process was underway and the Tardis was emerging nicely. But turns out it
was only when a class of kids lined up in the corridor that the group really believed how important this image is in our Brit culture. The word went up from one child who spotted the giveaway blue through the glass. “It’s the Tardis” she yelled and a buzz shot through the line.
As they rushed in through the door, with the blue light flashing and the music thrumming in the background, our group were amazed and delighted. But the most touching moment was when a little disabled boy managed to make his way into the Tardis and down through the Lead Mine. As he emerged, he said to everyone who would listen – “this is the best day of my life!” There was not a dry eye in the house. They felt so proud of what they had done and delighted at seeing it so well received.
Years on, we’re back round to the Lead Mine
It’s been interesting to see how the Alumni have kept the secret. Each year the group arrives not knowing what to expect and each year they have delivered: Viking ships, giant sized board games, thatched roofs for the Iron Age house bread ovens and wood store… and finally last week, an extension to the Lead Mine accompanied by winch, grinding stone and ore cart.
What have we learned?
We learned that participants thoroughly enjoy doing something meaningful. That they learn well when they see the point of what they’re doing and that the memory holds true for years.
That filming the event provides a meaningful reminder that they can share with their families and colleagues. For one participant, it’s his kids favourite DVD.
That it’s really easy to get caught up in delivery and forget the stakeholders. Using the Systemic Team Work Model from AoEC as a review process was a real help in keeping this front of mind.
That active listening is one of the most important tools for leaders and managers, because communication is such a blunt instrument.
That teams can’t shift into high performance without courageous conversations. One team famously got to just one hour from delivery time with 50 hours of work to do. Only then did they come out of silos and do some straight talking. This led to reorganisation of task and roles – and a deep breath at 4 pm with it all complete.
That cooking dinner together is great fun – even at the end of a busy day – and still teaches about team work.
That you can’t beat supper and a pint in a British pub when the task is done!
How DID we do it??
When I look back to that first session, I’m amazed. We had no idea how it would go. I’d never done anything like this before and never worked with Alistair or at the hostel before. I had no idea if the team would deliver on time or with quality. It was tense. But it was also great fun and fascinating. I had a great team of facilitators with me and the constant support and determination of Yvonne who was always clear and unrelenting in her drive for something exceptional.
As ever, reorganisations bring change and we all move on, but the memory of the Lead Mine and the Tardis will sustain. As one participant said last week: