Open Season… On High Performing Teams

Hey tribe ūüôā

This week I had a question come in from Moses, who asked about what it takes to build a winning team – so that’s what’s this week’s video is all about!

But before we jump right in, something else happened this week…

The reason my emails are late is that yesterday, right after recording my video to answer Moses’ question, we got our first fire call out of the season.

Now I’m a volunteer rural fire fighter down here in New Zealand – and when we get called it means we gear up, drive to the site and are then helicoptered in to chase some flames up and down the hills.  The work is steep, physically very challenging, and a callout could come at any moment.  We are just entering our busy season at home, and shortly the crews will be deploying out to Australia and Canada to help over there too.

So as I sat down to write my email to you this week I was reflecting on yesterday.  First off, there’s something slightly surreal about putting out tussock fires as the sleet-rain is coming in with hectic wind and snow patches underfoot.  But mostly I was reflecting on my team…

My brigade is like family.  There’s around 20 of us in the team and we have around a third women (which is high compared to other brigades).  We are all volunteers and we can attend anything from grass and scrub fires on mountain-sides like yesterday, through to medical emergencies and car accidents.  You get called up at the drop of a hat and I can tell you that when that siren goes off, you can’t help the adrenalin.

I think mostly due to the nature of this work, this environment, the real danger we can be in – our crew does a *lot* of work on building a team, making it safe to speak up.  And that’s what I was reflecting on yesterday.

As we grabbed our gear and listened to the pilot briefing yesterday, we all buddy-checked to make sure there were no loose straps and equipment before heading to the chopper.  First rule of helis, make sure everything is tied down so it doesn’t get sucked into a rotor blade.‚Äč‚Äč‚Äč‚Äč‚Äč‚Äč‚Äč‚Äč  Experienced fire fighters on the door to make sure we’re locked in tight with the wind and rain.

At the top, we managed to get both skids down this time (not the usual) and ‚Äč‚Äč‚Äč‚Äčbeing second off the chopper, we’d noticed my team mate wasn’t sitting on top of our bags – a potential that they could get whipped up into those blades as the chopper departed.  I gave him a nod (because you can’t hear a THING when the bird’s running) and we sat down on bags, smiled, waited for the chopper to lift off again.  As we did, he grinned and pushed my visor down so I wouldn’t get sh*t in the face from the downdraft.

Mop-up was pretty low-key (that’s the term we use for fire fighters following a blacked-out burn line and making sure all the little spot fires are no longer burning, so they won’t start back up again).  We split the crew – half up the hill half down.  Conversations all the way about who’s keeping up, can someone with a different hand tool come and dig something out because the shovel won’t do, how’s everyone’s body temperature (the sleet-rain was coming in pretty bad at this point).

Amazingly, with snow patches on the ground‚Äč‚Äč‚Äč‚Äč, rain coming in hard and a howling wind, we did come across the odd tussock patch that was smouldering away and kicked back up as we started trying to put it out.  Apparently the snow had come in over a fire in Twizel earlier in the week and started insulating the fire burning underneath it – a bugger to try and put out.

But we made it nearly to the top of the ridge without a hitch, when over the radio I hear “Dougie, this is Mike, wellness check?” – yep, our guys on the ground might be sitting in their cars with the heater running, coordinating heli buckets and ground crews but they never stop checking that we’re doing ok – got food, got water, you getting cold yet, when do you want extraction….  Which is great to hear when you’re struggling to see them on the ground below.

With the ridge looking quiet and the rain coming in really hard now, we headed back down the hill just after 5 to beat the darkness.  Our downhill team had finished ahead of us and were happy waiting till we were in the chopper, but around halfway down our descent, plans changed and they picked up the downhill crew first (I counted around 10 minutes and thought I’d hate to be sitting still in this weather).

We climbed in the chopper, soaked to the bone, steaming, grinning from ear to ear and it was skids up heading back home.‚Äč‚Äč‚Äč‚Äč‚Äč‚Äč

At the bottom we all got out, carrying gear as we go – and I feel a hand on the back end of my shovel from a mate who’s just making sure I was carrying horizontal – sometimes those slip ups happen when you’re moments from home.

So as I sat here this morning, reflecting, I thought of all of those little moments throughout what had only been 2 hours on the hill.  Little catches, little checks, no matter whether you were more or less experienced – feedback given without malice, a simple “pass the butter please” – and how seamless that had all been.  

‚Äč‚ÄčWhen I’m on a fire ground‚Äč‚Äč with my crew, I know they’ve got my back.  

‚Äč‚ÄčI know that if they’re bumping my shovel or putting my visor down, or tucking in a flapping radio – that it’s for the safety and wellbeing for me, my team, and for the whole.  And I reflected, how often have I been that lucky in business, in life.

I count¬†one¬†team where I’ve felt that magic.¬† I’m currently in the makings of a¬†second¬†– they just don’t come around that often.¬† But my fire crew are definitely that magic team.¬† They people you’d go into battle and walk over hot coals for (literally sometimes).¬† And so my question to you this week, is what are we all doing to create that team?

– D.

Extra links I mentioned in the video are here:

Dan Pink “The surprising truth about what motivates us” – – on individual and team incentives

David Marquet “On Greatness” – – a masterclass in servant leadership on a nuclear powered submarine

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