Archive for November, 2011
Yesterday I went for my usual afternoon hike with my dog in an unfamiliar area of the Green Mountain National Forest. I wanted to hike all the way around Somerset Reservoir, which my guidebook said was “not recommended” because a bridge was out at the north end. But the guidebook was eight years old, so I figured it was worth seeing if the bridge had been rebuilt. If not, I could always turn back and go the way I came.
What ensued was a long ordeal that could have been pretty painful if it weren’t for the very nice hunter that rescued me.
What’s funny about this is that I spent seven years as a volunteer rescuer for a search & rescue team, including a two-year stint as the public information officer in charge of our efforts to educate the public on wilderness recreation safety. And yet yesterday I did everything I’ve always warned people not to do. I didn’t tell anyone where I was going; I left with no pack, thus no map, compass, GPS or survival gear; and I only left myself about five hours before dark, even though I knew the hike could take the full five hours (as it turns out it would have been more like seven if I’d made it all the way around). The temperature was in the mid-30s and I had no extra clothing or anything to make a fire with, nor did I have a headlamp. And the area I was in was completely deserted; I didn’t see a soul all day except for the hunter who finally rescued me.
I ran into the hunter just about the time I realized I had gone wrong somehow. I thought I’d crossed the bridge that was out, but I was mistaken. I was now on the West Loop trail heading north, but I thought I was on the West Side trail heading south. I was going further away from my car, which was parked at the Somerset dam, and it was 3:30, a mere hour from dusk. The hunter, Greg, stopped to chat with me as he headed in the opposite direction to meet his uncle for a pre-dusk hour of deer hunting. When I told him where I was trying to go, he scratched his head and looked a little worried.
“You’re an awfully long way from the dam,” he said. “And you’re going the wrong way.”
“So how do I go back to the dam on the West Side trail?” I asked.
“You can’t really do that without swimming, you have to cross some water,” Greg replied. “You’ve gotta turn back and go the way you came.”
I looked at my watch. That would mean at least two hours of travel after dark. Not a great idea, especially given all the river crossings and rocky terrain. If I’d had a headlamp it would have been viable, but without one it was pretty hazardous. As I stewed about my options Greg suggested that I hike out to his truck and wait there for him. He’d get me to somewhere there was cell phone reception.
Defeated, I hiked out to a dirt road where Greg’s truck was parked. There was a shelter there, with a small area map on the wall, and I studied it in vain. I had no idea where I was. I sat down next to the truck to wait. My dog, Jave, stared at me in confusion, trying to figure out why we would stop in the middle of a hike and sit on the cold ground.
By the time Greg showed up at 5:00, Jave and I were both shivering. Greg’s cousin Spike arrived a few minutes later and we drove to their hunting camp, a luxurious cabin (by hunting camp standards) with running water and electricity. There was still no cell phone reception, and the hunters thought my plan to call my brother was silly anyway; he would have a very long drive to get to me, never mind to get me back to my car. Despite the fact that it would mean an hour drive each way for him, Greg offered to take me back to my car himself. He even refused the gas money I tried to give him.
The kindness of strangers is a subject I’ve always meditated heavily on when I’ve run across it. Something about it always brings tears to my eyes. I’d like to think I deserved this kindness for all the years I volunteered on my rescue team, helping hunters, hikers, skiers and snowmobilers who’d made mistakes. But I also know that I’m one of the people who has no excuse whatsoever for making those kinds of mistakes in the first place.
And Jave agrees, given that he had to wait three hours to get his damn dinner.
Getting to Yes, by Roger Fisher and William Ury, is a popular book about negotiation skills and a favorite of consultants and trainers. In my mind, the most valuable nugget in the book is “separate the people from the problem.” When you ask participants in a training or team building session what this means, most of them invariably say it means to focus on the problem and not let people issues or emotional issues get in the way. But actually, it means just the opposite; the people issues are so important that you’ve got to identify, separate and deal with them first, or else you won’t get anywhere with the substance of the problem.
I was thinking recently about how to convince stoic employees of this point–employees who believe that emotions have no place in the office. Here’s a good story: a few years ago, my brother and I were struggling to hold on to a piece of commercial real estate that was no longer cash flowing enough to pay the mortgage. We’d been forced into a management contract with a company we didn’t want to work with, and we felt they were taking advantage of us and had failed to go the extra mile in getting the property leased up. It was a situation that had gone on for many years, and we were frustrated and angry, especially with the owner of the management company.
After about a year of negotiating with the bank and looking at various options, it came down to this:
1. We could lose the property to the bank; or
2. We could accept a deal from the management company owner, a man we’d come to think of as an evil manipulator, a deal that would make us more beholden to him and would prolong the management contract–and thus the unwanted relationship– indefinitely.
We chose to lose the property.
Not convinced yet that the people issues must be dealt with first? Then here’s one more detail: We lost 1.2 million dollars on that deal. And we still don’t regret our decision.
Jeffrey Saltzman’s blog this week talks about how we tend to base our assessment of organizations not on current performance but on the direction in which they’re moving. If a company is growing, we like it better than a company that is not, even if the company that’s not growing is bigger, better or more profitable.
He says the same applies to our current political situation. A politician perceived to be moving things in the right direction will get elected or re-elected even if the status quo is terrible.
The message then, obviously, is that complacency is death. It doesn’t matter how well you’ve been doing; if you stop setting high standards and moving toward them, public or consumer perception of your effectiveness will decrease. This is a message I’ve been delivering to teams for years. So you think you’re a high performing team? You’ve got it all figured out? What are you doing to keep it that way? If the answer is “nothing,” you’re not likely to stay on top of your game for very long.
Does this make it sound like we’re all on a hamster wheel, running to nowhere and never able to stop? Saltzman says the reason we value improvement so much is that themes like movement, change and renewal get our attention, and his research shows that these tendencies cross cultural borders and seem to be universally human. That’s an observation that makes it more palatable to me. It also reinforces another thing I’ve told teams for years: It’s not true that people hate and fear change. We simply hate and fear change that we perceive to be moving us in the direction of loss rather than gain. If you can effectively make the case for change moving us in a positive direction, people will buy in. In fact, they may even be enthusiastic about it.