Soul Food: Build a Family, Not Just a Company

Teaching a group I'm instructing about the importance of the watershed, so that we can stay alive,integrating the concept of fun into a very serious lesson - water conservation. The white on the rocks show the extreme drop in water levels.
By Kaki Flynn
Lessons from Outward Bound

We all want to be a part of a strong tribe, and to know how to build one, right?

Our tribe and our family are what make this life worth it.

As a leadership trainer and wilderness instructor that has guided over 1,000 people over the past ten years - some for a few hours, and some for up to 21 days in the wilderness - you learn much about building tribes by learning how to really see people and by deliberately making sure people's needs are met.

Here's the great news: If you want to take time off from your corporate job and learn these leadership skills and other insights on your own by becoming a professional leadership trainer and wilderness instructor, great! That's what I did.

The toolkit you will get from this article took me 10 years to learn, five of those years "on foot" and five of those years living in a modified car, traveling from base camp to base camp back and forth across the United States.

Epic starry nights in the middle of the desert, snowboarding in the dark for "last call" on ski patrol searching for anyone injured, getting chased and stung by a swarm of a killer bee hybrid that stalks you and your group for days and infiltrates everything from nose to water supply, and being there when a woman finds the courage to try surfing after losing her dad to an ocean drowning when she was a kid.

Or you can simply read this article and invest in a pack of index cards.

The whole point of Outward Bound and NOLS isn't to disappear forever into the wilderness; the point is to take what you have learned into the city streets and real wild - the wilderness of people.

One of the best parts about spending that much time out in the wilderness with groups?

You begin to see people with a new set of eyes; especially the way we all interact with each other and what allows us to perform at the highest level.

Make sure the needs listed below are met for your team on a daily basis, and you to will feel as if you have developed a new layer of insight into what makes a team connect.

If and only if you commit to doing this activity for a month, that new layer of insight will appear for every team you are a part of, every conference you attend and even every social gathering you go to.

You will begin to see - just as myself and other instructors have seen out deep in the Joshua Tree desert or miles off of the Appalachian Trail with our groups - the difference in groups where you are able to get these needs met for a team on a daily basis versus teams where this is not a priority, create two different worlds.

Write these headlines down on an index card - one headline per card - or write them at the top of the page for each day on your daily planner.







This concept comes from the NOLS Leadership Educator Notebook, one of my favorite books because it contains a lot of core theories that are great touchstones for building a solid team.

While my training is an an Outward Bound instructor, many of my co-instructors have been NOLS instructors, an organization filled with extraordinary women.

If, as an instructor and team builder, you can find out how to meet these six needs of every member of your group, you will build a bond that feels as tightly knit as a family, and your group will enjoy spending time with each other and getting to that mountain or river or or hiking across the desert together, whether that mountain is an actual 14er or your teams top goal.

The link will feel, to some in the group, even spiritual.

The most important of these to start with, of course, is food.

As a kid, dinner time was sacred in our family.

As the seventh of eight kids our dinner table was packed with all of us and at least a few extra friends, relatives or neighbors, and so as an instructor I already came to the table valuing that time, although it wasn't until practicing this concept that I acknowledged how powerful that time together is.

This is an obvious one that a lot of new instructors undervalue.

So few families sit down and eat together now, it may be the reason instructors struggle to even have the faith to test this concept to see what happens, and buck against it.

We don't know what we don't know.

"Let's just get going - grab some bagels and go."

If they haven't experienced the magic of making meal times count, they don't get it, and won't commit to it. 

The course feels shallow and empty, and people start getting anxious to get home. 

Of course, they do. 

We didn't do the work to lay the foundation to get them connected.

Sometimes it's as simple as how the food is presented. 

"Gourmet" on a 20-day trip in the backcountry can mean a gourmet dark chocolate candy bar split between instructors while doing paper work at night after all the clients have gone to bed, or many times using craftsmanship in setting up the food and the kitchen. 

We make mealtime a major part of team building. Our team builds a cool kitchen out of what is around them - laying some rocks in a circle, or finding sheets of rock that can be used like warming plates.

We don't eat standing up, or scattered randomly around camp. 

We hold hands first, in a circle. 

A moment of silence for the day, thanks to the chefs for cooking, an inspirational quote and then we sit down and eat.

When I had my instructor training at the North Carolina Outward Bound School, my instructors had us prepare dinner in the pouring rain. 

It was lightening out, which can get pretty sketchy in the backcountry around the Appalachian Mountains.

Didn't matter. 

In full rain gear - these rubber yellow suits that made us look like giant bananas - and under tarps we strung between trees, we made a gourmet meal for us and our group.

I remember the meal still. It was delicious.

The rain made us huddle a little closer together under that tarp to eat, and under the tarps to sleep.

Later in the trip, we got lost in the rain in the fog at 2 a.m. You know what?

We were singing goofy songs. We slept in some random dry spot on a cliff we found, totally different from where we set out. We had fun setting up the tarps.

Of course, we didn't use the excuse of not knowing where we were to not make our meals the same way. 

Those meal times allow for check-ins, and provided a solid foundation to get the other 5 needs met.

That was in 2005. I still feel a strong bond with those instructors. You know why?

My instructors had made one of the fundamental building blocks to building a true team count - breaking bread together.

What does this have to do with those of you in the corporate environment?

This means carving out time to eat together in a healthy way at work, but it can also mean making sure the members of your team are home in time for dinner.

For example, while big sprints are going to be necessary for projects - what's going on if your staff is always eating lunch at the desk, or getting home late for dinner?

Can some process be made more efficient?

The 1 Pound Bar of Chocolate Test:

This small experience in the wilderness said big things about our team unity and meeting the entire teams needs.

We had a 1 pound bar of chocolate to share once we reached a key milestone in our expedition.

This included a logistician (logi) that we had never seen or met meeting us and taking us to a drop off point.

The team leader for the day took out the 1 lb bar of chocolate (plenty in that situation), and started dividing it up 14 ways - for each of the 12 people in training and for my co-instructor and I.

I hope you figure out the problem here before I tell you what it is, right?

If we had really been thinking about our whole team - we would have immediately divided up the bag 15 ways - without that logi picking us up and dropping us off, we would have had a 24 mile hike through the canyons and thick leaves that make up the backcountry surrounding the Appalachian Trail.

Ideally, you can develop a group that not just the instructors or project leads are thinking about meeting these needs - you get the group thinking about meeting these needs for each other.

Thinking Points:

  • Who are you eating with or not, both during the day and when you get home?
  • How do people at work treat food and mealtime?
  • A great one that gives much insight is a team where one team member has a need - a peanut allergy or something else - and how they are treated. I've seen this go well and been equally horrified at a teams callous treatment of a teammate. Very telling.
  • Invite a co-worker to lunch to get to know them better, or go ahead an schedule a meal after work with a friend to make you leave on time.

To all of you - here's to breaking bread with you in person soon.

1 comment:

Kaki Flynn said...

Thanks Radi8r, glad you enjoyed the post. It's shocking how little companies pay attention to these things.

Please feel free to list any resources you have found useful.

The NOLS Leadership handbook is outstanding.