Matching Your Team to the Task

As a leader, you’ll often have the responsibility of completing a task that is greater than you can accomplish yourself. Of course, you’ll want a cross-functional team that is up to the fight. Or, perhaps you already have a team in place and you want to discover the best way to use the talent you’ve got. Either way, your challenge is to find the best match between your team and the task and lead them within Intimate Proximity. To illustrate what you should consider and mistakes you should avoid, I’ll draw upon dog sled racing as a useful metaphor.

First, let’s understand the task at hand. The goal of dog sled racing is to have a team of 12 to 16 dogs pull a sled along a designated path in the fastest time. The journey will be fraught with snow, ice, water, wildlife, and other unknown obstacles. Your team has to be prepared for just about anything.

Now, let’s pick some dogs (using the same criteria that many leaders use when selecting members of their teams). Your first choice may be the Golden Retriever as they are one of the most popular breeds around. They’re absolutely adorable and can even be trained to catch a frisbee. Who wouldn’t want that kind of fun around? Unfortunately, Golden Retrievers are prone to hip problems later in life and wouldn’t be able to pull a heavy sled very well. Plus, they can be rather whiny when things aren’t going well. Lastly, their good nature and love of fun can make them easily distracted. Probably not the best choice on the trail with so much going on around them.

Next, you might get the idea that what you need is a real go-getter: someone with a bias for action! You might consider a wild wolf. After all, wolves are the epitome of savage strength. They’re extremely cunning and powerful as they hunt down and kill their prey. They don’t answer to anyone outside their pack. However, wolves tend to not play well with others. If you’re not the alpha male, they will try to dominate you. They’ve also been known to eat their own. Please protect the rest of your team (and yourself) before you pick a wolf.

Lastly, you consider the Common Mutt who just happens to be around. He’s been out on the trail many times and already knows the ropes. He’s very loyal since he has nowhere else to go. Plus, you don’t have to do much to take care of him since he doesn’t expect much. Still, you’d have to admit that he wouldn’t be your first choice; you’d be settling for him. Given his breeding and size, he can’t really pull that much or run that long. All in all, the only reason he’d be on your team was because he was already there.

Knowing that these three just aren’t going to meet your needs, you consult with a trusted advisor. She asks you to reconsider the requirements of the task and make your choice based upon a dog’s natural talent and then train for the skills you need. Her top recommendation is the Alaskan Husky.

After searching the internets, you come across comments from lots of owners who have had nothing but bad experiences with Alaskan Huskies. First, they say, you have to know that the breed is not officially acknowledged by the American Kennel Club. If that prestige is important to you, you would have to look elsewhere. Then, you find that they are really hard to keep indoors and read many stories about them destroying their owner’s furniture when left alone. Lastly, you discover a few owners who complain that their Alaskan Husky just wouldn’t seem to respect them when given simple commands. In your mind, these are LOTS of red flags.

You bring these concerns to your mentor who reminds you to focus on the task’s requirements and the dog’s natural talent. The Alaskan Husky loves to be outdoors in the snow. Cooping them up indoors makes them agitated and prone to acting out. The reason why the AKC doesn’t register them is because they’ve been interbred with many other dogs specifically for dog sled racing. This dog has an inbred need to be part of a team running and pulling. Finally, this breed only responds to strong leadership and then, very well so.

Now that you’ve made up your mind to fill your team with nothing but Alaskan Huskies, you have put the right dog in the right spot. A dog sled team typically has four major roles for the dogs: Lead, Swing, Wheel, and Team. Mismatching the dog to the position will only get you and your team frustrated and frustrated teams rarely win.

The Lead dog must be your fastest and most intelligent. Not only will he set the right pace, but he’ll be able to help you make decisions in finding the right path for the whole team. The Swing dogs are responsible for following the leader and helping the entire team navigate turns and obstacles. They may not know exactly where they need to get to in the future, but they sure know what the team needs to do right now. Your Wheel dogs are the strongest of your team and they’re positioned right in front of the sled. They’ll help get the heaviest and least flexible part of the team (you and the sled) through the course. Of course, you’ll need your Team dogs. They’re the ones who are ready to follow the leader and pull with all of their heart. Your team wouldn’t be complete without them.

The late Susan Butcher, a dog sled racer, used to be made fun of by fellow mushers. She was a slight woman in a “manly” sport who was seen as “babying” her dogs. She believed in the year-long care and training of her dogs and the results spoke for themselves. At the beginning of races, many mushers had to make their teams start running. Susan had to use an anchor to keep her carefully selected and loved dogs from running: they wanted to do nothing else. Susan is the only woman to have won the Iditarod four times.

Today, most successful mushers follow her guidelines. To win, you must have the right team and provide plenty of hugs, the best food, bedding, and treats. You must remain close to your dogs year-round in order to know which dogs belong in which position on your team (or perhaps not at all). You have to be able to read all of their non-verbal cues and provide them strong and caring leadership. Susan’s example became the rule, not the exception.

While we may not have to brave the Iditarod’s blizzards and angry moose, the business challenges we face are often so arduous that we need a team to tackle them. By carefully matching your team to the task and leading them within Intimate Proximity, the strong leader can dramatically improve his or her chances at winning the race both today and in the future.