Whilst recovering from my own first nerve-wrecking ski lesson, I was watching a ski instructor expertly guide his nervous new charges to the bottom of the short gentle slope. This scene made me ponder the question whether there are any similarities with leading – and being part of – a team in a business environment. Are there any people management lessons that we can take away from the ski slope?
Competency and Responsibility
Ski instructors have to be assessed on their own ability and undergo extensive training before they are allowed to start teaching. Huge responsibility rests on their shoulders. Once in charge of a group of skiers, their role is one of patient nurture and control. They must keep their group safe at all times. This can be a daunting task. Skiers who are out control can be a danger to themselves and others. Sheer drops, rocks and other skiers are never far away and the trusting group has to rely on their instructors’ expertise and guidance.
Thinking about our own teams, aren’t the best managers those who ensure that they themselves have the necessary skills and knowledge to lead their team with confidence? We rely on their competency. Don’t we also expect our team managers to keep us safe, encourage our personal development and steer us expertly through difficult patches? As team manager you may feel understandably laden down by the responsibility of this task. This surely becomes much easier when you can confidently draw on up-to-date and effective leadership skills and display the necessary competencies.
Ability and skills
If you have ever had ski lessons, you will know that skiers are grouped according to ability. It would be ineffective, frustrating, and even outright dangerous for all involved to try to accommodate beginners and advanced skiers in the same group.
Team leaders, too, have to make sure that all team members are equipped with the necessary skills and access to the correct information to be able to negotiate their daily tasks successfully. If this is not the case, the team cannot run efficiently, mistakes are made, and simple tasks become frustrating. Apparent skill gaps must be closed – sometimes through additional training – before the team can function smoothly.
As a new skier, I look at the colourful dots gliding seemingly effortlessly down the slope with envy and longing. It’s obvious; the aim of each new skier is to advance quickly and learn to ski well –ideally without breaking a leg in the process!
We rely on our ski instructors to impart sufficient knowledge and provide us with the necessary opportunities to practice and perfect. Skiers progress and improve at different rates. Instructors have to pinpoint the moment when their charges are ready to move up a level into the next group and improve their skills further.
Don’t we expect our managers to similarly share their knowledge with their team members to enable us to perform our daily tasks efficiently? Keeping your team informed is particularly important in times of organisational change and when leading a relatively new team. It forms the basis of a trusting relationship. Above all, it is a necessity to enable the team to function properly and avoid potentially costly mistakes.
An observant manager who is tuned into the team, will spot a hard-working team member with exceptional talent who may be ‘ready to move up’. You would discuss possible developmental or promotional opportunities with them – whilst of course continuing to be sensitive to the needs of the rest of the team.
However, personal development is a two-way affair. Ski lessons are expensive. They are a financial investment into a future skill. Above all, learning to ski requires hard work, drive and a huge level of commitment.
Equally, we need our managers’ support, but if we really want to further our personal development in a work environment, we have to invest and display a substantial degree of effort, hard work and commitment.
Taking up skiing later in life has been a challenge. To begin with, I was even struggling with negotiating the drag lift. After an hour of inelegant descents and largely unsuccessful encounters with this troublesome piece of equipment, I was ready to give up. Without my ski instructor’s patience, firm but helpful corrections, and gentle encouragement, my frustrations might well have got the better of me!
Human nature thrives on praise; as long it is given in a way that is appropriate and sensitive to that particular person’s personality. Providing encouragement as well as fair and constructive criticism, when required, will earn you your team’s respect; particularly, if it goes hand in hand with acknowledging when the team have successfully reached their targets or indeed outperformed.
Keeping up and communication
As the group progresses, the ski instructor will take them into a more challenging territory and push their abilities. I have witnessed some ski groups where the instructor has pressed ahead and found at the bottom of the slope that some of the group had been left behind. Mountains are dangerous places! For that reason, most instructors stop regularly, keep voice and eye contact and make sure that none of their followers had an unexpected fall or are out of their depth.
As team manager, you also have to keep turning around to make sure that your team is still behind you and that you have not lost anyone along the way. Your team needs a clear strategy and goals. However, if you do not push forward at a pace that they feel comfortable with, coach them along the way and engage with their feedback, you may lose some good team members for ever. This is particularly important, if you take them into uncharted territory and towards new directions. Make sure that you take your team with you!
Like in a ski group, your team members have to make an effort to try to follow you, listen to information carefully and make sure that they have understood instructions correctly. However, as their leader, it is up to you in equal measures to find ways of keeping the group engaged, interested and connected.
Communication plays such an important role. Quite sensibly, unless we can find him an English instructor, my son will not attend ski school in Austria during our holiday. He does not feel that his German is good enough for him to be able to follow the lesson and understand what he is being asked to do. It would be a waste of money, frustrating and quite possibly counter-productive.
It is equally important that you and your team speak the same language – metaphorically of course – for your team to work effectively and efficiently. Your instructions and directions have to be provided in a clear and precise manner without any room for confusion or unhelpful generalisations. Otherwise messages will get lost or misunderstood. This could lead to a loss of your team’s trust and respect, as well as costly mistakes.
Listening is of course very much part of the communication skills set. A ski instructor has to be prepared to listen to his group’s concerns and answer any questions. In return, his charges have to concentrate to process his instructions. This applies to a business environment in the same way.
Oh and just one final thought, skiing is supposed to be fun… We spend a lot of time at work. Managers who are able to add a little humanity and comic relief to our daily responsibilities might end up with a happier team. Would you agree?
I feared that these observations might seem a little trivial and stale. However, reading the CIPD’s Employee Outlook from September 2013, I felt justified that they were still worth making. The online survey of UK employees explores the current state of trust in leaders and concludes that: “When it comes to important senior management attributes, competency (53%) is rated above all others. Being a good communicator (45%) is next on the wish list, with trustworthiness
(41%) rated as the third most important attribute”.
This list of parallels from the ski slopes is by no means claiming to be exhaustive. In fact, you may be able to think of many more? I would love to hear them.