Earlier this year, Scott Kress led an expedition of 53 ill and injured soldiers, civilian team members (including Olympians), guides, media and film crew on a ski expedition to the magnetic North Pole. The largest group to ever attempt such an adventure, Scott recorded insights on team building along the way:
From a team building perspective we are very much in the forming stage at this point. We are just starting to build the relationships that will form the foundation of our team culture. Our aim will be to accelerate our development to a high performance team as this will be critical for safety, success and enjoyment during this expedition.
From a team building perspective this was a storming day with a bit of forming as well. Storming is not always conflict oriented and can be a very positive stage. This time is used to gain clarity on team roles and to ask questions. This is an essential step in moving towards high performance.
Having 24 hours if sunlight makes it difficult to sleep deeply.
Today would once again have elements of Forming and Storming. We are still very much in the initial phase of our development as a large team and the formation has only just begun with our individual PODs. As a leader at this time my style is fairly directive. I know the team culture I want to create and the skills that need to be learned. There is not a lot of room for debate here. I am also focused on using an Affiliative and Visionary leadership style to paint a picture of success and to build strong emotional bonds within the team. I believe that relationship is the foundation to all high performance teams. People must know, understand, respect, and trust one another. Without this foundation the team will never become high performance as these factors will become critical at some point and if they are not there this is where the team will stall.
Today was a continued Forming day as we did not fly into our start position as intended. One more day to continue to build relationships and team build. Low clouds and increasing wind at the landing zone postponed our flight and then grounded us for the day after the 2pm weather report.
Our day did not go exactly as planned and this was the storming. Storming is not always conflict-oriented, sometimes it is just when you need to deal with the stress and disappointment of plans not going your way. As a team we had to support one another as some people were more emotional than others. As a leader I need to keep my team focused on our culture vision and our end goal, engage them in dialogue, answer their questions and reassure them. This can be a difficult time for a leader as the team sits idle waiting to do their job. They must be kept in a positive mindset so they are ready to go when the time is right.
We finally make it to the ice and start the norming process of team building. We are doing what we need to do, but there is still a lot of learning and refinement to take place. Storming also pops in and out as people struggle with things and emotions rise from being tired and hungry. As a leader I focused on being a calming influence on the group, being a coach and a mentor and keeping us focused on our culture vision.
As we started out the group quickly spread out. I kept my POD together so we would be close on this first march of the expedition. The first 2 days are critical as this is when most skills for living on the ice will be learned, this is when we really start to bond as a team, and this is when our team culture and norms will form.
We trudged on and on and at 7:00pm we stopped for the night. I was exhausted from the effort and my team was also quite tied… We had become quite strung out this day and some people near the back were feeling upset that there was not enough communication coming from the front, there was no clear plan for the day and that plan was always changing, and that we were traveling too far and long. Much of this was the emotions of exhaustion, but some was the normal process of figuring out how to travel and work together as a team in a new environment. As guides we observed, met, discussed, and adjusted the plan accordingly.
Team building analysis: as you can see we went through a lot this day. Forming continues to take place as we learn and build relationships, Storming happened when emotions got strong and when plans changed, Norming was there as we grew and refined skills, and Performing had to be there to cover the distance that we did. All in all, a great team day. I was proud of my team and all the other PODs as well.
For hour after hour we skied, growing more tired with each step forward. Some team members started to hit the wall and need to be helped by those that were stronger.
Eventually we saw the flag fluttering in the distance and thanked God we were there. It was 8:00pm and we had traveled 21km. Everyone was tired, but happy. It was good to know we could cover this distance as this is what would be required to make it to the pole for our extraction date.
All I all a good day. Tough but good. We are really starting to form as a team and today had some elements of Performing for the first time. Roles have been defined and a routine has been established. When we roll into camp things just happen and we are getting pretty smooth about it. There was some Storming as people hit the wall physically, but this gave way to good food, a warm tent, and good company. I am happy with where we are as a team. We have defined a culture vision and are now making it a reality. This flows very well from our Deliberate Success Model which I use with the corporate teams I help develop and coach.
Beautiful, absolutely, exhausting and humbling, 100%.
As the day wore on my speed slowed and the steeper uphill sections became a mental game of survival and determination. Nobody was going to let this uphill grind beat them. After six hours of upward ascent, and 8 hours of pulling, I spotted camp in the distance and a prettier sight I had rarely seen. Over all we had skied for almost 10 hours and moved 23km closer to the pole. What a day!
Not much to say today from a team building perspective. It was just a long hard day and thankfully everyone knew what they had to do and we worked well together. We are in a good spot as a team by this point and as a leader I am focused mostly on maintenance.
We had determined that in order to avoid skiing through the blizzard we would need to make it to the pole today. This would mean a big push, but we had proven we could do it.
We had a long way to go and not a lot time to get there. We trudged on and on and the group stretched for well over a kilometer from front to back. Some people seemed to have excess energy and others were out of gas. One kilometre from the pole we stopped and all gathered as one group. In the distance across the searing flat white ice we could see the faint fluttering of the red and white of the Canadian flag that had been planted for us by the Rangers. I know for me this was an emotional moment as we were almost there. We had pushed hard, harder than any of us thought we would, and we only had a short distance left.
When we were about 50 feet from the pole the civilians fell back and let the soldiers step up to the flag first. They had all given so much of their lives for this flag it seemed only right. As they clasped their hands around the pole holding the flag everyone broke out in song. “Oh Canada” of course. It was a very emotional moment and it would be hard to find a dry eye in the group. Tough soldiers and business men alike were overcome with the joy, the accomplishment, the sacrifice and the passion that this moment represented. Speeches and photos followed, but soon everyone was getting cold. There was a strong wind blowing and the storm was at our heels.
A good day. The team had hit the Performing stage of team development no question and it did not take long to get there. With a deliberate approach and a good plan the journey to high performance can be greatly accelerated. This does not mean you will not slip back to Storming on occasion, or need some touch ups in Norming, but for the most part reaching high performance can be done at an accelerated rate. For us it was relatively easy as the vision, goals, and roles were clear. In a corporate environment, this is not always so straight forward and there are a lot of complexities thrown in. I would not say you can always hit high performance this fast, but it can be accelerated.
With the task complete and the accumulation of all the work I let my POD sleep late. After all we had earned it and we had nowhere to go any more. We stayed cocooned in our sleeping bags until 11:30 and then slowly started the chores for the day. The snow was blowing and the visibility was poor so there was no hope of flying out this day.
Ultimately, I think it was great that we did not fly out this day. This was a great decompression day and in the terms of team building it was the start of the Adjourning process. This is a reflection period where we examine the expedition and compare it to our vision and goals and see how we did. We extract learning’s and look for future application and it also provides a sense of closure to a great journey.
Around 10:00 the twin otter arrived. Twin Otters are renowned for their ability to land and take off just about anywhere. The twin landed and then drove back and forth over the landing strip a few times packing it down for the larger DC3. Soon after a second twin otter landed and we were ready to send out the first 2 PODs.
At the party, Paul, Tim, and Shaun said a few words and then Bjarne spoke. He spoke of what an amazing opportunity this had been for him. It was not too many years ago that he was lying in a hospital bed wondering if he would ever walk again. What would his life be like post injury? This expedition, and the support of the team had given him new hope in life that there is so much out there for him and that he too can help others who have suffered from the ravages of war transition into a new life. There was not a dry eye to be found in the group.
To read the full story of this adventure, click here.
To book Scott Kress as a leadership or team-building speaker for your next event, contact us or call us at 416-420-4525.