March 11, 2014

Why a Founder Should Be as Prepared as a Marine Sniper

Gentlemen, let me start by telling you the next ten weeks of your life will be the most miserable stretch of your pitiful existence,” the instructor bellowed as he paced back and forth across the cement. My muscles, exhausted from holding my body in the push-up position for what seemed like hours, screamed at me to give up. Through the tops of my eyes I could barely make out the tan, dusty boots of the other instructors, lined up in front of the hut that contained the schoolhouse. “This is the most difficult training that the Marine Corps offers, and is the finest sniper school in the world. You have worked for years to earn a slot to this course, and over the next two and a half months, we’re going to learn which of you truly prepared for the pain we’re about to level on you.”

Of the thirty-two Marines beginning this class with me, every single one of them was the absolute best their platoon had. They were decorated combat veterans with multiple tours; many of them back for their second attempt to pass. Statistics said that over half of us would not graduate, and at that moment I thought I would be in the wrong half.

The instructor stopped pacing and turned to face us. His voice lowered, almost softened, and said, “We are going to push you to your absolute limits. We are going to test your physical stamina in ways you can’t possibly imagine. We’re going to take away your food, your sleep, and probably your sanity. We will make you calculate wind formulas until your mind spins and do our best to turn you on one another. Everything we do will be a test, and the moment you fail to meet the standard, you’re gone. There is no room for error. There is no quitting. …Men, I can only promise you one thing—that if you have the honor of graduating from this school you will be ready; ready to hunt men on the battlefield.”

The instructor was not lying. Sniper School was the hardest experience of my life. But, through it I became prepared physically, mentally and emotionally for the tough combat situations I found in the barren wastelands of Afghanistan. Throughout that seven month tour I encountered countless seemingly insurmountable challenges—from shortages of water, to fierce firefights, to gut-wrenching decisions of critical importance—but not one of those moments caught me without the appropriate mental, emotional, and physical tools to succeed.

What do the rigors of Sniper School and combat, and the challenges of entrepreneurship, have in common? Success in either requires careful, diligent preparation across three spectrums—physical, mental, and emotional.

” …we’re going to learn which of you truly prepared for the pain we’re about to level on you.”

Today as a budding entrepreneur (I am the cofounder of a nationwide nonprofit that rapidly responds to disasters, and the cofounder of a new mobile tech company) I am constantly pushing my physical limits—not the ‘ruck this fifty pound pack across that mountain’ type of limit, but rather the ‘it’s Saturday night at 10 o’clock and I haven’t slept in two days’ type of limit. You see, any entrepreneur worth his or her salt knows what it’s like to have a looming deadline that tests our endurance. What many don’t know, however, is that there’s a better way than another espresso to make sure you don’t collapse onto your keyboard. Physical fitness not only increases our endurance and makes us happier, it also gives us the opportunity to constantly set, work toward, and exceed challenges. It is a consequence-free opportunity to push ourselves to new heights and become accustomed to overcoming challenges—whether it’s a marathon or a hackathon.

Of course super-human endurance is only good if your mind isn’t just a box full of rocks. Mental preparation is critical to success, and it’s a lesson I’ve learned both on the battlefield and in the disaster zone. By no means does this mean that you should become a professional academic; in fact, I’m a proud MBA drop-out. What it means is that we must be fully cognizant of our knowledge gaps, and work voraciously to fill them. While in Afghanistan my sniper team devoured books on past Afghan conflicts, educating ourselves on the history, culture and methodology of the people we were facing. It wasn’t enough to know how to fight; success hinged on our ability to know why. The same can be said for any entrepreneur. Thinking of investing in real estate? Reading “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” and creating a pro forma isn’t enough. To succeed you must dive completely in—what are the school districts like? What shifts in socio-economic demographics have taken place over the last fifteen years? Who are the local elected officials? How might coming decisions (freeway expansion, zoning changes, etc) impact long-term value.

Finally we have the third, and often overlooked leg: emotional preparation. Many people get into entrepreneurship with grandiose dreams of four-hour work weeks and multi-million dollar acquisitions. They read success story after success story in Fast Company and Inc. Magazines…only to gloss over the ten tragedies accompanying each success. The emotional toll on entrepreneurs is both real and debilitating—will I make payroll this month? Are the investors on the board going to force me out? Will I FAIL? Preparing for these emotional stressors is sometimes difficult to conceive, however I have learned one important lesson after two combat tours and two startups: pay as much attention to your relationships as to your work. Time and again while deployed I saw good men become liabilities because they failed to maintain or manage their relationships at home; conversely, my new wife has been a sounding board and emotional bedrock for me the past four years. When things get tough she provides both reason and solace; however, when I fail to put her first I find myself battling my emotional war on two fronts and home is no longer an escape.

Enduring preparation is the key to any long-term success for an entrepreneur. Paying careful attention to each of these pillars—physical, mental, and emotional—makes one stronger, more resilient, and more apt to succeed.

March 11, 2014

5 Lessons Entrepreneurs Can Take From D-Day

Here are a few things today’s entrepreneurs and leaders can take away to improve their chances of success in business (and life).

There is no such thing as perfect conditions. D-Day was delayed because of foul weather, and was ultimately launched under still-foul conditions. The takeaway? You can wait all you want, but that doesn’t mean things will improve. You have to trust that the things you can control (the quality of your training and planning, for example) will trump those that you cannot (the weather).
No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy. Airborne troops missed their drop zone. Ground forces landed on the wrong beaches. The naval and aerial bombardment did little to disrupt Nazi defensive positions. Writing a business plan is a good exercise in strategy and theory—but don’t count on it being the key to your success. Your key to success will lie in your ability to improvise, adapt and overcome the conditions you have no way of foreseeing.
Massed force, narrowly and violently applied, will overcome nearly any obstacle. It’s the old ‘elbow grease’ phenomenon. Problems, no matter how challenging, often only require the will to apply repeated, dogged effort. That sale you can’t close? Put on the full court press. That product flaw you simply cannot figure out? Time to pull in the team for an all-nighter.
Only with great risk comes great reward. Launching the world’s largest sea invasion against a fortified enemy in sub-par weather? Sounds risky. It was. But, if ever the fate of the modern world hung in the balance, it was at that moment. You don’t save the world with timid maneuvers. In the case of entrepreneurs and Supreme Allied Commanders, fortune favors the bold.
Know, and accept, what you’re willing to lose. General Eisenhower knew that he was sending tens of thousands of men to their deaths. He also knew that failure could mean the defeat of the Allies in Europe. That’s a tough burden to carry. But, had he not accepted the reality of his course, he may not have had the fortitude to carry the battle through when his men were dying on the beaches of Normandy. As entrepreneurs, you have to know what you have on the table and accept that you may never get it back—whether your reputation, your retirement, or your relationship with your spouse and kids. Not accepting the risk of that loss may cause you to falter at your endeavor’s critical moment, and avoid the tough, but necessary, decision that puts it all on the line. You can only have unwavering commitment to the cause when you’ve assumed it’s already gone.

March 11, 2014

5 Lessons On How to Build High Impact Teams

n 2010 William McNulty and I joined a team organized by nothing other than fate. Less than twenty-four hours after a devastating earthquake struck Haiti, we began assembling a team of military veterans and medics to go down and render aid. Initially, four of us launched from three different airports in the States, and while en route each person added a new member to the team—a former Army Special Forces medic, a former Army Police Officer turned emergency room doctor, a family physician, and a Jesuit brother. It was a motley crew at best, but the original Team Rubicon was born.

That team that crossed the border into Haiti was unique. It was not deliberately selected; it had no prior experience working together; and it had yet to clearly define its roles and responsibilities. Still, that team had the opportunity to be high-impact. Why? Because its members had aligned passion, were willing to sacrifice enormously for a common goal, and faced circumstances with enormous stakes. After three weeks of operations on the ground in Port-au-Prince, our team had proven to be high impact. We’d discovered that we could repurpose military principles for use in disaster response, and in doing so maximize the impact of our aid amid chaos.

Over the last decade I’ve joined, led, followed or built a number of high-impact teams, and along the way I’ve learned some incredible lessons. Some I learned while following, others while leading; some while succeeding, probably even more while failing. Some have come from the military, others from college athletics. Some in the for-profit sector, while others in the nonprofit space. I’m going to spend the next few weeks writing about five of these lessons, and hope to start a conversation around what building a high-impact team really means.

Before we can talk about building high impact teams, we first need to understand what exactly a team is? Let’s establish a working definition: a team is a group of individual egos, united in pursuit of a common mission or goal, often forgoing personal advancement and comfort for the sake of the whole. Assuming we agree with this definition, teams require three things: individuals, a common goal, and a willingness of the individuals to sacrifice for that goal.

What is a high-impact team (HIT)? A HIT requires some special internal characteristics along with some environmental ones. First, a HIT must be faced with a daunting task or opportunity that has high stakes—the chance to turn around a failing inner city school, or commercialize a radical new technology- in other words, a mission for which there is a high chance and cost of failure, but also a potential for huge reward. That is the environmental factor. Next we have unique internal characteristics. The team must be foolish enough to think it can make a change, daring enough to try, and persistent enough to have a chance.

Foolishness, daring and persistence—these are the ingredients of a high-impact team. Many leaders will cringe and say, “I don’t want any fools on my team.” Given the right context, I’d agree. However, when I use the term foolish, I use it to refer to the dreamers—to those that look at problems and only conjure solutions, who look at obstacles and see only opportunity, who don’t ask why, but rather why not. Furthermore, high-impact teams require daring. Dreaming the solution or seeing the opportunity isn’t worth $*!% if you don’t dare to push the boat off the shore and sail toward it. Too often, incredible ideas and innovations go un-materialized because teams lack daring. Finally, we require persistence. Calvin Coolidge said it best when he stated:

“Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘Press On’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”

Persistence has the potential to pull teams through friction and past obstacles; beyond failure and toward success. Show me a team that has succeeded despite odds stacked against them and I will show you a group that doesn’t know the definition of quit.

Alright, so that’s what high-impact teams are and consist of, but how do you build them? Over the next few weeks I’ll be publishing a series of short lessons I’ve learned in five key areas:

Know your role (and the role of those around you)
Build trust through training, transparency and trials
Passion trumps talent, but culture is king
Embrace innovation and change
Build a brand that inspires
These five points don’t encompass all that it takes—certainly there are other lessons. However, through my experiences in college athletics, a Marine Corps sniper team, and as an entrepreneur, I’ve come face to face with these five time and again.

March 10, 2014

Know Your Role: How to Build High Impact Teams

Know your role. Barry Alvarez, former head coach of the Wisconsin Badger football team, used this as a mantra. “Know your role,” he would tell the players and staff repeatedly throughout the season, “Know where you fit in, know how your contribution contributes to the greater whole. More importantly, know and appreciate the roles of those around you.” For Coach Alvarez, this principle had two components. First, what is my role, and how does that role fit in and contribute to the success of the team? Second, what is the role of everyone else involved in this organization, from the starters to the equipment managers, and how does their role contribute to the success of the team?

As individuals, it is critical that we know the difference between the role we want, and the role we have. At Wisconsin I wanted my role to be on the starting team, but the role I had was a backup. So while it was critical that I maintain the initiative, work ethic and attitude of a starter in my pursuit of earning that starting spot, it could never come at the expense of playing my supporting role. I remember that as a backup I once had to swallow my pride and tutor a younger, albeit more talented, player named Joe Thomas. Even though Joe was competing for the same job as I, since I had been on the team longer my coach asked me to mentor him on the playbook—which I did, because it was my role.

In business, no matter how high we rise in a company or organization, we’re going to be asked to play numerous roles, and we may not like them all. Some we might think are beneath us; others may simply distract us from pursuing the roles we want. Is your company doing some restructuring that requires you to cede leadership responsibilities to someone else and take over some administrative functions? Have you been asked to participate in a multi-functional team that requires you to support rather than direct? Having the humility to accept, and excel, in these situations will not only benefit the team, ultimately these sacrifices will get noticed and lead you to greater opportunities down the line.

The second component of Coach Alvarez’s wisdom is just as important. In order for teams to function effectively, each member must understand and appreciate the functions of other members —and how it affects them. This can be done through active communication, but it’s not enough to simply explain what each team member does, and why it is important; more often it requires deliberately exposing people to each other’s daily work situation.

I recently spoke at a school year kick off meeting to all the administrators in the Milwaukee Public School system. They had asked me to come in to discuss this very topic—building high impact teams. While discussing this portion of team building—knowing roles—I asked the audience, most of them school principals, who had ridden the school bus to work within the last year. Not a single person raised his or her hand. I then asked them if they felt that bullying and violence on the bus ride to and from school contributed to a child’s inability to concentrate in the classroom. A series of nodding heads confirmed my assumption. I then told them two things: One, if you have not communicated to your bus drivers the critical role they play in a child’s ability to have a peaceful learning environment, how would they know? And two, if you have not ridden the bus within the last year, how can you take informed steps to solve the issue?

By not effectively communicating to the bus drivers their critical role in a child’s education, the administrators were missing out on a tremendous opportunity to empower those teammates to be a part of the solution. And by not putting themselves forward and exposing themselves to the point of friction, the administrators were oblivious to the day to day challenges those drivers faced in preventing bullying and violence– and how to overcome them.

The act of defining and informing roles can be particularly challenging at Team Rubicon (FYI, Team Rubicon is responding to the floods in CO now, click here if you’d like to support), where we deploy mostly volunteers. Since, unlike typical employees, these first-responders are donating their time and effort without expectation of monetary reward, they often come with a pre-conceived idea of what role they would like to play in the response. Their thought process is, “I’m willing to give of my time, so I should be able to choose what role I fill on this team. If not, then I won’t go.” To combat this occasional mentality, our leaders must be supremely effective and empathetic communicators. They must pull aside the volunteer who has been selected to help with administrative duties at the operations base instead of being assigned the preferred role of helping out with search and rescue or home demolition, and convince that person that the role they’ll play in admin is far more impactful. Typically the sell isn’t what the volunteer will get out of it personally, but rather what the large team will reap as a result. You’ll likely hear our leaders say, “The team really needs you to play this role even if it’s not quite as fun, and if you’ll do it, we’ll be able to get those fifty volunteers standing over there out to the field faster and more effectively,” before you’ll hear, “You’re going to love it!” – but, because our members are so committed to sacrificing their own individual needs for the good of the collective mission, this generally does the trick.

When you have a team comprised of individuals that understand and accept their role you are more likely to have a cohesive unit willing to work together. Furthermore, when individuals know how their role contributes to the success of the larger mission, they will embrace it and take pride and ownership in their tasks. Just as importantly, if they have a strong understanding of the larger picture, and how the quality of work done by others impacts them, they’ll be more likely to police the work of others. What you’ll find is a team with high levels of accountability.

Know your role. It’s critical whether you’re leading or following, building a team or joining one. Know the responsibilities and challenges of those around you. It will increase accountability and help you understand the complete picture. There’s nothing earth-shattering about this principle, but it’s the foundation upon which high-impact teams are built.

March 10, 2014

Passion Trumps Talent, but Culture Is King

2013 was a big hiring year for Team Rubicon (Team Rubicon (TR) utilizes military veterans to rapidly respond to natural disasters), as it saw us quadruple in size over the course of about nine months (of course this means that we went from a small outfit to a slightly less-small outfit). Over the last three quarters of 2013 we went from six full time staff to twenty-five, while adding dozens of contract and part-time employees along the way. Hiring that many people while that small in size—without an HR department and while continuing to respond to massive disasters like the Moore, OK tornado or the Philippine typhoon—can be an enormous challenge. It’s an even bigger challenge when your organization holds itself to an incredibly high standard in an effort to build a high-impact team.

William, my cofounder, and I learned some invaluable lessons while we worked to add team members to Team Rubicon. The first lesson centered on passion. Much of what Team Rubicon does is highly technical. Rapidly responding to major emerging crises requires a deep understanding of emergency management, often a broad knowledge of logistical and operational principles, and occasionally a high aptitude for specific functions, such as technical-rope rescue or confined space rescue. Because of Team Rubicon’s rapid growth and public recognition, many of our job postings in our Field Operations department garnered a deluge of over-qualified resumes that were pages long (side note: never submit a resume to TR over one page in length, I don’t care if you’re the former FEMA Administrator). Likewise, when we first posted a director-level position to build our military veterans programming department, we were inundated with applicants that had backgrounds in high-level program management, Ivy League MBAs and loads of P&L responsibility. But they all lacked…something.

That something was passion. These were undoubtedly great individuals, and most of them were likely passionate about something; but all of their cover letters failed to convey a passion for us, for Team Rubicon, for the veterans they were going to serve.

At a loss, and still in urgent need of a Director of Program Operations, we shifted our focus. Knowing that we were surrounded by Team Rubicon members that were oozing passion, we began to search internally. We ended up filling that Director of Program Operations position with a young Army veteran named Matt Runyon. Now, Matt is no slouch in the talent department, but he was admittedly not the most qualified candidate we looked at. What Matt had, however, was an undeniable passion for veterans, and a history volunteering for our organization. Matt stepped away from a leadership development program at a Fortune 100 company to join our team; taking on far more responsibility than he had at his prior job. Some outside Team Rubicon would look at the enormous undertaking Matt is tasked with and assume we took a chance on him, but we see it as quite the opposite. We knew what we were getting in Matt—a teammate filled with unbridled passion for his work, someone we know will show up on Monday ready to take on whatever challenge is presented him. Matt proves that passion and talent aren’t mutually exclusive choices, but, the lesson is this—passion trumps talent, all day, every day.

This was only the first of the hiring lessons we learned. We also learned last year that you can have individuals with unparalleled talent and brimming with passion, yet they still may not be right for the organization. The difference is in culture. It’s like a key that fits but won’t turn—you can keep trying and trying, jiggling it this way and that, but in the end you likely have the wrong key. Passion trumps talent, but culture is king.

One of our key hires in 2013 was a Digital Engagement Associate—a social media ninja, Facebook fanatic, a real tweet slinger. Team Rubicon had built so much of its brand equity on the backs of witty and transparent dialogue over social media, but the task had become too much for our single Communications Coordinator and two founders to take on. We needed someone dedicated to this single responsibility. We posted the job and went through rounds and rounds of “final” interviews; each round of “final” interviews produced a couple of candidates that were talented and passionate, but still not right. They all lacked that dash of spice we were looking for—the ability to join our quirky and unique culture. Unwilling to compromise on the ‘voice’ of Team Rubicon, we kept re-opening the position. Finally, after the third set of final candidates was determined I threw my hands up and stated, “We can’t keep doing this, it’s been too many months and we’re wasting too much time. Let’s hire one—they’re all good, they’re all passionate. ”

Mike, our Communications Coordinator, looked at me incredulously. Mike had been managing TR’s social media for over a year, it was his baby. “You’re kidding? I’m not handing this over to just anybody.” Mike and William convinced me to reopen the position. Two days later we received an email from one of our long-time volunteers, who was recommending that we interview a high school friend of hers, Bobbi, who was looking to make a career change. Bobbi’s resume was excellent, she’d been doing similar work for the Red Cross, and it helped that she was a fellow Wisconsin Badger. The cover letter she submitted conveyed the passion we were looking for, so we set up a phone interview.

Five minutes into the phone interview William, who was sitting next to me, scribbled a note on a piece of paper and slid it over to me. “I want her,” it read. We offered Bobbi the job that night. Culture, it turns out, is king.

It usually helps to carefully craft a few questions that will help guide your hiring decisions. These can be questions you ask a candidate, or ask the interviewers following the interview. At TR we have a few in our pocket that we find to be very revealing. As an example, during every interview we ask applicants to tell us a joke, any joke, good, bad or dirty. If they can’t tell us a joke we ask them to give us their best Dumb and Dumber movie quote. We then immediately shift gears and ask them to pick which of the following three words is most important to them and why: courage, integrity or loyalty. Often we’ll follow that up with a second set of words: determination, judgment or initiative. There is no right or wrong answer, but the reasoning can be very revealing.

Then, after the interview, William and I always ask ourselves two hypothetical questions. First, assuming their livelihoods allowed them, would that person have followed us to Haiti three days after the earthquake? Then we follow it up with, if that person had asked us to follow them to Haiti, would we have had enough confidence in their leadership to pick up and go? The answers to these questions are usually the final go / no-go criteria we use for offering someone a position.

If you’re in a period of growth at your company, in a never ending cycle of recruitment, or realize that you’re having trouble with retention, then pay close attention to these lessons. Building a High-Impact Team requires having the right players on that team. Think about where you are currently placing the most value during the process—is it on the over-inflated proclamations of responsibility found on an applicant’s resume? Or are you searching for that little nugget buried in the cover letter that conveys why a candidate would be willing to move heaven and earth to make your team succeed? Think about your culture. Figure out what makes your team tick and then seek those that can add to it.

Here are a few things to think about when trying to build a team along the “Passion trumps talent, but culture is king” mantra:

Read cover letters before resumes. A scarce resume will likely get tossed into the trash bin without a look at the cover letter. Reverse the order in case there’s something to the candidate that will put that resume in a new light.
When possible, hire and promote from within. If they’re already in your organization, chances are they’ve already passed the culture test. If you give people a chance—even if the position is a stretch for their current capabilities—you’ll ignite an even fiercer passion and loyalty in them.
Consider 360 interviews. HR departments are in love with 360 performance reviews, where an employee is rated by their bosses, peers and subordinates—why shouldn’t we do the same during the onboarding process? When we hired our first COO, Ken Harbaugh, we had Ken fly out to Los Angeles to spend a few days with our team. Of course we told Ken it was to make sure it was the fit that he wanted; just as important, William and I told our staff of our considerations about Ken and told them to subtly interview him throughout the two days. As soon as Ken left we solicited their feedback, asking them if they’d like to work for Ken. It goes without saying that we hired Ken and never looked back.
Sometimes people slip through the cracks. If you find yourself with a culture problem, address it immediately. Nothing will sour an office or organization faster than a poor cultural fit. It doesn’t mean that he or she is a bad person, nor lacking in talent or passion, but they simply aren’t a good fit for the team. Wish them the best, thank them for their service, and help them find a good fit.

March 10, 2014

Build Trust Through Training, Transparency and Trials

When I was in Afghanistan, it was not uncommon for my sniper team to encounter the following scenario: Our six man unit would be tasked with running a mission deep into insurgent controlled territory, far beyond the immediate reach of traditional ground troops. We would be asked to spend a few days detecting enemy activity or movements, and if necessary, compromise our position by taking some precision shots. If compromised, we would have to rely on our supporting units to roll out into a firefight to retrieve us, and possibly even call in close-air support from Danish pilots who barely spoke English.

What was it that enabled six men, lightly armed, to accept such a high risk proposition? What enabled us to believe that our counterparts would be willing to jump into the line of fire and risk their lives in our order to save ours? What could possibly make us comfortable with calling in an air strike that would possibly have one-thousand pound bombs dropped within a hundred yards of our position, by a pilot we’d never met who likely barely spoke our language? The answer is trust. The military, in all its manifestations, is a culture built upon unwavering trust. This trust is inculcated in the Marine Corps from the moment a recruit steps on the yellow footprints at boot camp, and stays with him until long after he’s taken off the uniform.

Many leaders and organizations give lip service to the notion of trust. But trust isn’t something that can be instilled through a one-time company retreat or team building event, or written into a corporate mission statement. Instead, trust must be actively built across three areas, by ensuring that 1) all individuals have prepared themselves fully for the task at hand; 2) all individuals have the same aligned goals; and 3) that each member is willing to sacrifice some part of his or herself (in the military this is that person’s life, in business it might be that person’s holiday plans or bonus check) for the good of the team. Trust, in other words, is built across four “TRs”:

TRust = Training + Transparency + Trial or Tribulation

The first, training, is the bedrock of trust. But it’s not enough for your team members to simply receive some training; on high impact teams, each member not only receives training, they all receive a common training. In the Marine Corps, as with every developed military force in the world, every member, whether a cadet or a general, goes through nearly the exact same basic training. Uniform training indoctrinates team values, serves as a filter for those unable to meet basic requirements and creates a shared common ground. It creates standards and ensures they’re met across diverse and far-flung units—so our sniper team on the ground knows that a Danish pilot and a US sniper unit both follow the same close air support protocol, and is able to trust that they are competent in their execution and courageous in their willingness to expose themselves to danger on our behalf.

Common training is also the cornerstone of many of our most successful companies. Ask associates at ten different McKinsey offices how to approach a client’s problem and those associates will cite precisely the same methodology. Join the team at Zappos and you’ll soon learn that every single employee, regardless of their role, goes through the same basic cultural training.

A Team Rubicon member trusts another volunteer to help remove debris from his eye. His trust is based on his knowledge that the other member was a military medic. Photo taken in Moore, OK, 2013.

Transparency is equally critical to building trust. Transparency means laying situations bare, regardless of how dire the circumstance. It means democratizing thought processes (although perhaps not decision making), and providing tools that allow unvarnished feedback on decisions. At Team Rubicon, we place an enormous emphasis on transparency. All leaders are accessible via email or phone to thousands of members; calendars are open for all to see; feedback is solicited both directly and anonymously through numerous methods; and financials are laid bare for all to critique.

It is important to note that leaders cannot cultivate transparency unless they push themselves out among the troops to converse with them openly. Whether an Army Captain dropping into fox holes on the front lines or a manager doing a couple of shifts in the call center or on the factory floor, leaders must lead from the front and be accessible. At Team Rubicon it’s been made mandatory. Headquarters leaders sent to the field are told to spend time “in the trenches.” Nobody lives this virtue better than our co-founder William McNulty. William has made a name for himself by flying into disasters like the Moore, Oklahoma tornado and spending the first three days competing to be the sweatiest, filthiest and hardest working person in the field. He has an uncanny ability to establish trust in these efforts, and through this trust our volunteers know he has their best interest in mind.

Transparency cannot happen unless your leadership regularly visits the “front lines,” wherever that may be in your business. Photo from Moore, OK, 2013.

Finally, trust generally requires trial or tribulation. What does this mean? You’ll often hear a football coach, after winning the first eight games of the season only to lose number nine, state that the loss will ultimately make his team better. While no fan likes to hear this, there’s an element of truth to it. Disappointments – trials – like these force individuals to band together and form stronger bonds; in fact, they require it if the team or group is going to move forward and succeed. We see this in all elements of society: fraternity and sorority hazing; crucibles at the end of military basic training; grueling twice-a-day practices in athletics; brutal internships in investment finance and residency in medicine. The goal is to ensure that only the best emerge, and emerge galvanized together.

Team Rubicon was forged in a pretty fierce fire. Our initial mission to Haiti thrust us into a situation that immediately required trust; even among individuals who had only known each other for 24 hours. Luckily, for the medics and military veterans – no strangers to trial and tribulation – there was an inherent trust born of common training and prior experience under fire. We further cultivated that trust through transparent leadership and, finally, the shared trials of our situation cemented it.

Believe it or not, creating, or magnifying, trials and threats is an age-old trick that’s been used by leaders since the beginning of time. It is the classic underdog theory that has won wars, turned around teams, transformed flailing companies into forces to be reckoned with, and catapulted struggling professionals to the tops of their field. It is harnessed by every coach—“Nobody is giving us a chance to win.” David vs. Goliath. Barbarians at the gate. There is nothing like the threat of a bigger and badder competitor to motivate teams and individuals to harness their fullest potential.

For the startup entrepreneur that threat might be skeptical investors, or a new market entrant; for the product division leader at a consumer goods company it might be internal competition; for the district attorney it might be the lawyer from the white shoe law firm, etc. To tap into this wellspring of drive and motivation, be careful not to overplay to your team the threats you face, but do make sure that everyone on your team knows that threats to their existence (in a professional sense) are everywhere. If you’re Apple, there’s nothing wrong with putting the Microsoft logo on a bullseye in the break room.

I hope I don’t have to convince you that trust is critical to the success of high-impact teams. Certainly anyone that has ever had it all on the line knows that few things are more comforting than being able to look across the table and know that the team around you is trustworthy. Trust can be inherent to some degree in certain situations; however, all teams can increase their level of trust by cultivating or utilizing training, transparency, and trials.