I’ve just finished the most marvelous week in Nova Scotia, competing as a member of Canadians Abreast, a national breast cancer survivor dragon boating team. You may have been asked to compete as part of a corporate team at the festivals that have sprung up across Canada in the last decade. For the uninitiated, dragon boating is done in teams of 20 – ten pairs of paddlers that sit side-by-side and row in unison to move the wooden boat forward. If you ever get a chance to paddle on Lake Banook in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, take it.
Of course, the nature of the sport makes it an ideal metaphor for teamwork. When the team is not working together you hear the smack of wooden paddles and suffer from sore knuckles. What’s unique about the Canadians Abreast team is that we come together from diverse teams across the country just to compete. At each venue the team is a whole new rooster of paddlers. It’s exciting and fun – and this week it reminded me of some teambuilding fundamentals that are particularly applicable to cross-functional and ad hoc project teams.
At the start, egos get in the way. Coming together from all over the country means that everyone has been trained to paddle differently. Each person thinks their home team way is the best, and they will lobby for that method. When we first get in the boat for a practice, you hear grumbling: “that’s not how we do a start” or “our coach says never to do that” and “who decided this was a good strategy?” The conversation is covert and conducted guiltily, as everyone wants to appear to be the consummate team player. Even seemingly small differences, like the words shouted by the drummer to instruct the paddlers, becomes a source of contention and confusion. This is when the leader needs to be concrete and confident. Don’t assume that everyone knows what “hold the boat” means or what position the paddle is in for “ready, ready”. Spell it out. Over-ride initial concerns with the adage; let’s just give it a try this way and see how it goes.
We notice people’s faults quickly. Tension is high in a competitive environment. In the forming stage of a team we can’t help but compare ourselves to others. As we paddle we look around, see weaknesses and are dismayed. Everyone wants to be on a winning team. Realizing that we are dependant on the performance of others is frightening. I think our critical mind also wants to reassure us that we might have some shortcomings, but we surely aren’t as bad as another! Criticism is a way to boost our own self-esteem or begin to prepare in case of defeat. Good leaders show total support and unconditional regard for everyone from the start. They don’t encourage backbiting or complaints. At the same time, they have a way of listening for real concerns that will impact performance. Between the practice run and the race we find that the Coach has made some adjustments in seating positions – slight changes that accommodate differences and are introduced without fanfare. That’s the mark of a sensitive team leader.
You need to know what’s core and what’s not. Like most professions, dragonboating has defined tools and techniques. The paddle is unique, and some paddlers bring their own because it is proportioned to their height. Basically, you need to push a lot of water, fast, and stay in sync with the person ahead of you. Everyone needs to do that. Whether you drop your entire hand in the water, or stabilize yourself with your left or right foot – that’s personal style. When a mixed team comes together you need to be really flexible and resilient. Identify the unchangeable core, and drop whatever preferences get in the way of the team’s success. You must accept that you won’t be able to paddle exactly the same as you do at home – heck, you might be in a completely different position in the boat. But you better be able to adjust quickly and work with the rest of the crew.
Generosity builds team spirit and rapport. In every team there are people whose natural kindness and concern for others makes the work fun. The person who usually paddles left, but agrees to move to the right to balance the weight in the boat. The person who hands over their water bottle in the heat to someone they have just met. The paddler sitting behind you who pats your back encouragingly and says “pass it along”. The person who takes a bandana from the suffering sidelined paddler and agrees to carry it in the boat as a good luck token. All these small gestures and words create a sense of strong team spirit.
The first race cements the team’s common goal. The Friday practice is a time to prepare; to get comfortable in your new position and get the lay of the land. We ended up stuck on the rocks at the shore during practice, an important lesson before the actual race day. During practice we joked and enjoyed being on Lake Banook. Everything changes on race day. This is when you feel the team come together. During the Saturday race we keep our ears, eyes and hearts in the boat. We eagerly wait to hear the finish time of our first race. Although we had a common goal before the race (to win) we now have a something that is truly ours to strive for. Now we want to beat our own time in the next race. Leaders know that having an agreed upon team charter doesn’t instill passion, even if everyone signs it. It is in actually doing the work that the team comes together.
Fun outside the boat translates to harder work inside the boat. At every dragon boating festival there are dinners and lunches and sightseeing get-togethers. These social settings give paddlers a chance to get to know each other in new ways. We swap stories about survival, about families and about our home teams. We show our individuality in the way we dress (we’re in team uniform when in the boat). When next we get in position to paddle, the person in front of us is known to us as a fellow human being. It’s easier to get into sync with them. We want to give our best and not disappoint our colleagues. And, win or lose, we have chosen to be on this team together.