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Teamwork is King at the Tour de France

Category: Teamwork

This week I have been following the Tour de France because our family friend, Edward “Ted” King, is riding for the second year for Team Cannondale. Ted is our son’s age, I coached him in youth soccer and his mom and dad are friends of ours. And Ted is on the team because he plays his team role very well. More about that in a minute.

Like many of you, I like to ride my bike for exercise, but for relatively short distances – 11 to 20 miles. On a good day I average 16 miles per hour up and down small hills. Amazingly, it is not uncommon for professional riders in the Tour de France to average 24-25 miles an hour for five hours up and down much larger hills.

Monday, for instance, was the 10th stage or day of racing (there are 21 stages altogether finishing in Paris.) On that day they were riding in the French Alps near Mulhouse, France where they start at an elevation of 600-700 feet and go up and down seven mountains with the highest reaching about 4,000 feet.

Pro Cycling is a Team Sport. Ted is a member of the Cannondale Pro Cycling Team. While there are 28 riders on the team, only nine (now eight) race in the Tour de France. Their captain or best rider is Peter Sagan, who has won the green jersey two years in a row and is leading again this year. The green jersey is awarded to the rider with the most points gained for daily stage placement and sprint races. The yellow jersey goes to the overall time leader.

The goal of the team is to help the captain or best rider win. Each rider has a role. Some are sprinters that help pace and draft the leader. Some are good climbers in the mountains and help the leader by pacing him. Some riders hand food and other things to the leader.

Ted’s Role on the Team. Ted is neither going to win the Tour de France nor is expected to. His role, however, is to help Peter Sagan win or score points. He will be a pacesetter for long stretches and sometimes be featured in breakaways. During certain timed stretches where Sagan has a chance to earn points, Ted will be the one pushing him.

Last year Ted had a bad accident in the Tour de France that eventually caused him to leave after just a few stages. However, this year he is strong and still in the race helping Peter Sagan win points.

So when I think about Ted’s hours of personal conditioning and work mostly for the benefit of Sagan, I see a great example of how to be a selfless teammate!

July 15, 2014 15:03

Nothing Like a Good Duel to Settle a Dispute

Category: Ethics

Today, we are used to our politicians taking shots at each other, mostly through third-party ad campaigns. Imagine, however, if Vice President Joe Biden got insulted by some personal comments made by past Secretary of Treasury Henry Paulson and then challenged Paulson to a duel with pistols.

Sound crazy? It happened on July 11, 1804 when then Vice President, Aaron Burr, shot and killed our country’s first Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton.

The duel has interested me since I was a young man. Recently I have read about the duel’s details in Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis and Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. And I continue to wonder, how could two intelligent political leaders actually go outside and shoot at each other?

While it is hard for us to imagine today it was expected in society at that time that when men of upper classes were offended by the comments of other men, they would duel each other for the sole purpose of defending their honor or the honor of their wife or family. These high-class duels usually involved intentionally missed shots, but not this time.

What Caused the Duel? Hamilton had disliked Burr for many years and often spoke and wrote negative things about him. Hamilton thought, and some historians agree, that Burr was incompetent and was solely motivated to do things for personal gain. When Burr found out that Jefferson wasn’t going to include him as Vice-President on his 1804 ticket, Burr decided to run for governor of New York against Morgan Lewis. Hamilton said and wrote many things to discredit Burr at the outset of this campaign.

What brought the dispute to a head was when a private letter from Hamilton to someone was summarized in the newspaper as, “General Hamilton and Judge Kent have declared in substance that they looked upon Mr. Burr to be a dangerous man, and one who ought not be trusted with the reins of government." Burr demanded Hamilton deny the statement, and Hamilton did not. Being dishonored, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel.

Both men had histories of dueling, so the duel challenge was not surprising. However, in the past the duels were non-events when the participants either didn’t shoot or shots were deliberately missed.

The Duel. In 1804 it was illegal to duel in New York, but not in New Jersey. So these governmental leaders, who were from around New York City, did the only responsible thing, they crossed the Hudson River and held the duel in Weehawken, New Jersey. The duel was carefully organized so as to protect both parties from murder charges if one should die in the process. Historians mostly agree that two shots were fired, one from each. Many believe Hamilton shot first, but rather than shooting into the ground as was customary, he shot above Burr’s head into some trees. Burr then shot Hamilton in the abdomen. Here is what Joseph Ellis wrote in Founding Brothers:

“Hamilton did fire his weapon intentionally, and he fired first. But he aimed to miss Burr, sending his ball into the tree above and behind Burr's location. The bullet only skimmed Burr's ear. In so doing, he did not withhold his shot, but he did waste it, thereby honoring his pre-duel pledge. Meanwhile, Burr, who did not know about the pledge, did know that a projectile from Hamilton's gun had whizzed past him and crashed into the tree to his rear. According to the principles of the code duello, Burr was perfectly justified in taking deadly aim at Hamilton and firing to kill.”

Hamilton was transported alive back across the Hudson, where he died the next day. Burr left the scene with his assistants. He was later tried for murder in both New York and New Jersey, but both cases never got to trial. He eventually went back to Washington where he continued to serve as Vice-President until March 1805. After leaving office he continued to do unethical things, even tried for treason by President Jefferson, and was forever discredited. He lived until 1836.

Yes, Burr won the duel and lived for 32 more years. But in the duel over reputation, most agree Burr lost. And sometimes, even when you win, you lose.

July 08, 2014 15:12

7 Productivity Tips for E-mail Communications

Category: Organization

There were several days last week when I felt like I was drinking out of a communication fire hose. I spent the early part of the day before 7AM getting caught-up on e-mails and working on detailed tasks. Then I went into a four to five hour meeting and came out to find 70 – 80 e-mails and four text messages waiting for me.

It seems like this is becoming more common and has grown exponentially. The number of hours I need to deal with communication is now a significant part of my day. Sometimes I feel like the quality of my work is suffering because I rush from communication to communication.

Do you ever feel like this?

In a recent article Your Scarcest Resource, published in Harvard Business Review, the authors (Mankins, Brahm, and Caimi) wrote about how business executives today have to deal with 30 times more external communication than they did in the 1970s. They noted that the executives in their study have 30,000 annual communications today versus 1,000 in the 1970s. I remember those days. There were really only three ways someone communicated with me – by telephone directly (no answering machine), by letter, or face-to-face. When I left work, work communication for the day stopped until the next day.

While dealing with e-mail can make me feel unproductive, I try to do two things that help me feel productive – (1) Use e-mail management ideas from David Allen and (2) schedule thinking/training time when the e-mail gets turned off.

David Allen's Tips. In David Allen’s terrific book, Getting Things Done, he shares with us many tips for managing e-mail and not letting it manage us. Allen reminds us to keep our “inboxes empty” and try to touch as many e-mails as possible only once. Here are five tips I find helpful:

  1. Delete useless e-mails immediately. Although they only take-up one line in your inbox, they take-up “psychic” space. If you have many e-mails to go through, sort the e-mails using the “From” column heading and then delete bunches of e-mail at once. Allen writes, “When in doubt, throw it out.”
  2. Complete e-mails that can be handled in 2 minutes or less. These e-mails are short ones that are either quick reads for you or require quick responses.
  3. File. If you “need” to hold onto these and other e-mails, file immediately in logical folders other than the inbox.
  4. File remaining e-mails in one of two types of folders. Allen writes that all remaining e-mails are those that require action – either after you receive more information from someone else OR by you soon. He suggests creating two folders where you will immediately store each type of e-mail. The first folder might be called "Waiting for" or something that works for you. The second type of folder could be “Read Respond.” I prefer to use two types of folders for this last category - “aaRead” and “aaRRR”, which for me means “Read, Research, Respond.” I use the “aa” at the beginning so that these folders appear at the top of my folder list.
  5. Schedule meaningful time regularly to handle e-mail in these last types of folders. Depending on your schedule, you need to set aside regular time to process e-mail stored in your Action Needed files.

Thinking Time/E-mail Off. The more I read about the time management topic, the more I see leaders scheduling 10-20 percent of their time for thinking, planning, and learning. When they do this they turn-off their e-mail and schedule a later time to process that communication. I try to do this (like right now when I am in a local McDonald’s finishing this blog and my e-mail is unplugged), but find if I don’t schedule it, other priorities quickly absorb my time.

Finally, I want you all to take this Steve Wood e-mail littering pledge, “I promise not to automatically hit ‘Reply to All’.” I have practiced this most of my 20 year e-mail career and with rare exception it works. I only hit “Reply to All” when (a) everyone is trying to make a collective decision or (b) when the information in my response is needed by everyone.

Now, I’m off to open my e-mail inbox and see what’s happened since I shut it off.

June 30, 2014 15:10

Leaders Should Do Pre-Mortems Not Post-Mortems

Category: Leadership and Management Lessons

Over 25 years ago a friend and I closed on a business deal that was the worst deal we ever made. Before we got to the closing there were many “yellow and red lights”, but I didn’t see them…I kept moving towards the closing. I have subsequently referred to this as “transaction momentum”, which is when there are so many forces pushing everyone toward a closing that you fail to back-off when you should. I learned many lessons from that experience and now regularly use a form of pre-mortem analysis to stop and think before closing.

The Challenger Disaster. Recently I heard a podcast on Freakonomics called Failure is Your Friend. In the podcast they recounted the experience of Allan McDonald, who was the senior person from Morton Thiokol at the launch site in Florida when the Challenger disaster occurred on January 28, 1986. Morton Thiokol was the manufacturer of the o-rings on the Challenger, which failed that day and caused the explosion.

Allan McDonald was the only person who spoke-up the day before the launch and was ignored that day by NASA and overruled by his supervisors. The reason he spoke-up was that the temperature the night before the launch was expected to drop below 32 degrees and the o-rings had not been tested for outside temperatures that low. Since NASA had a policy then that you had to “prove something would fail” in order to stop a launch and McDonald could only say, “the o-rings had not been tested yet in cold temperatures,” the launch couldn’t be stopped. McDonald refused to sign-off for the launch, but his supervisors did. The launch went off and we all know what happened.

The post-mortem investigation discovered that the o-ring materials didn’t expand and contract effectively in very cold temperatures, and frankly Florida rarely had those low temperatures and no one thought of that. Once o-rings are frozen, they don’t expand properly to stop gases from flowing – and the leak of those gases led to the explosion.

Pre-Mortems. In his book Seeing What Others Don’t, Gary Klein describes two questions we can ask of a team before they get to the end of a project or the launch or the closing. Before you ask these two questions, you want the group to understand that everyone wants to understand what might happen and what you can do to minimize side effects. Everyone needs to feel safe giving feedback – no one will be criticized for their comments.

The two questions are:

  1. Close your eyes. We are now in the future, right after the launch or closing date. The project has failed. Write down all the reasons you think it failed. (Give everyone only two minutes to write down their reasons. Go around the group and ask each person to share their top reason.)
  2. Then ask the group to take 2-3 minutes and write down what they would do to make sure the project is successful. Have the group share their ideas and have participants expand on the ideas of others.

Many organizations have developed “post-mortem” procedures so they can learn what went right and wrong after the project is finished or launched. Often the people involved feel pretty badly if things go poorly and sometimes get fired. Wouldn’t everyone be better-off if we stopped along the way and asked pre-mortem questions?

I wish I had done that 25 years ago.

June 11, 2014 10:02

Boys in the Boat and Wells of Strength

Category: Core Values

Effective leaders know the emotional capabilities of their team members. They know their strengths and insecurities. They know when to push and went not to. One challenge is to understand how deep one’s well of strength is. This past week when we lost Maya Angelou I listened to an old interview in which she talked about her life, which had very difficult early years. If anyone had a deep well of strength, it was she.

I often wonder why some young people overcome early abuse and challenges and some don’t. And this brings me to Boys in the Boat.

I just finished reading Boys in the Boat. This is really two inspiring stories in one. The first is about the 8-man University of Washington crew that rowed for a gold metal in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. And while this is a great story about teamwork and how the “boys” in this crew prevailed in front of Hitler, it is the second story that really grabs your heart. That one is about one of their strongest members, Joe Rantz, who had a remarkable well of strength.

The Crew’s Success and Gold Metal. I really knew very little about rowing as a sport until I read this book. The Boys that won 1936 Olympics were in a boat with eight rowers and one coxswain. There are also races with single rowers, two rowers, and four rowers. It is mostly a team sport that requires strength, coordination, technique, stamina, and mental toughness.

The Boys, who rowed together most of their career and were all underclassman at Washington, spent most of their time in practice. Over their career together they would race only 28 miles, but row a total of 4,344 miles and 469,000 strokes or about 107 strokes per mile.

Their coach, Al Ulbrickson, who was very quiet, had great insight into human nature and was very skilled at matching the talents and strengths of rowers. Like syncronized swimming, rowers must be in complete sync to win. And Ulrickson knew how to sync the rowers on each boat.

The 1936 Olympic race was 2000 meters long (about 1.25 miles) and took 6 minutes and 25 seconds. These Olympics were in Berlin and were set-up by Hitler to try and fool the world about what a great and open country Germany was. The Germans tried to fix the race by placing the U.S. and British teams in lanes that had the worst wind and waves. But in the end, much to Hitler’s dismay, the Boys won by six-tenths of one second over Italy and one second over Germany (See photo of the finish to see how close the finish was.)

Joe Rantz – A Well of Strength. The real human interest story in this book is about Joe Rantz. Joe, who is standing second from the left in the team photograph, emerged as the strength of the team. Ulbrickson, at his retirement in 1959, recalled how when he put Rantz in the Olympic boat in 1936 he could see the boat “take-off.” What really captures our hearts, though, is to read about Joe’s life up to that point.

Here are just a few notes:

  1. His mother died when he was only four. His grief-stricken father, Harry, sent Joe from Washington to live with an eastern aunt, where he lived in an attic and contracted scarlett fever.
  2. When Joe is seven, his father re-emerges and re-marries, and Joe goes to live with them. They have three additional children. Faced with many domestic pressures of the time, the second wife tells Harry to choose between her or Joe. Harry chose her and arranged a deal with the local, one-room school headmaster for Joe to live at the school in exchange for chopping wood and maintaining the fire. To eat Joe had to work in a local kitchen in exchange for food. Joe was 10 years old.
  3. The family later reunited only for Joe to be abandoned again - this time the family drove away from a house they had built and left Joe sitting on the front steps. He was 15. He would remain there living on his own until he graduated from high school.

By the time Joe was in high school he had a true love, Joyce. She seemed to instill in Joe a life purpose and she was always supportive because she knew how often he had been abandoned. They both went on to the University of Washington and had to work their way through college (they didn’t have scholarships for sports then.) Joe lived in very poor conditions, but he was used to that.

During his rowing career, Joe’s boat won every race it entered including the Olympic Games in 1936 and the IRA Regatta in 1936 and 1937. He graduated with a degree in chemical-engineering in 1939 and married Joyce right afterwards. He later worked for Boeing, where he designed elements of the B-17 used in the war effort. Later in his career at Boeing he worked on numerous NASA projects. Joe Rantz died in 2007 at age 93.

When I finished the book I came to understand how Joe filled his well of strength. Why don’t you pick-up the book for a good summer read and share with me what you think!

June 05, 2014 11:14
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Steve Wood is the President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Leddy Group and Work Opportunities Unlimited Inc. (WOU). In addition, Steve provides strategic planning and organizational development consulting services to clients.


Prior to joining the company, Steve spent 17 years in the banking industry where he was promoted to Senior Vice President and Senior Commercial Loan Officer.



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