Readers who have followed Curbside Consult for a while might remember that I teach at an outdoor classroom program a couple of times a year. It’s a lot of fun, because you get people out of their normal environments and challenge them in different ways. It’s also great working with people from different industries and segments of the working world rather than the usual healthcare and IT people I encounter on a daily basis. One of my fellow instructors is a preschool teacher and we often commiserate around the fact that there are quite a few “everything I needed to know, I learned in kindergarten” nuggets that we inevitably have to address during the weekend.
This session, we had around 40 students organized into six teams. Each team is challenged to come up with a name and motto, then elect leadership and assign roles and responsibilities. They are then tasked to not only make it through the weekend (some of them have never been camping), but also to attend a rigorous educational program. Team-building, project planning, cooperative learning, feedback, and continuous improvement are woven into the curriculum along with camp cooking, knots and lashings, and more.
We had some extra challenges this weekend, with torrential rains in the week leading up to the course and a boil order being in effect for our facility throughout the weekend. We also had a couple of instructors unable to make it for the weekend due to flooding near their homes, which led to some scrambling to cover presentations. Fortunately, most of us have been doing this for a while and can teach the content without too much trouble. We’re lucky that we’re not teaching for mastery, but trying to give the participants an overview of various outdoorsy topics. It’s not like we’re going to drop them in uncharted lands when they’re done and expect them to survive.
This particular session, we had an exceptional group of students. Usually there is at least one team that has some level of dysfunction ranging from mild to severe. This time, however, the teams had their acts together. Any forgotten equipment was remediated by sharing with other teams, everyone had plenty of drinkable water, and the percentage of people wearing knee high rain boots was high. (Nothing spoils a weekend outdoors like wet feet, so that was a particularly good sign.) We talk about the stages of team development and it seemed like most of them went straight through forming and storming and on to norming and performing.
What we did have this weekend, however, was some breakdowns on the instructor team. I took a new role with the program this year, and in the middle of the first day, was informed by another staffer that I wasn’t fulfilling my duties despite the fact that no one had told me those duties belonged to me. The person telling me this wasn’t even in my chain of command, so that was another problem. She had done something similar during the prep work for the course, which I quickly took care of with my supervisor, but this time things were a little trickier.
I approached the colleague who previously held my position and he said he had the same issue and confusion when he held the role. Yet, nothing was resolved, and it was just handed off to the next person as a ticking time bomb. I also mentioned some frustration with the documentation for the role and how I had to redo a lot of it to align with our updated curriculum. He mentioned that he had done all the updates before handing the documentation back to leadership, so there was no reason why I should have had to do the updates again. Apparently our course director sent me the same documentation that he had sent to my predecessor without incorporating or acknowledging the updates.
Needless to say, that was pretty frustrating. When you’re used to being part of a high-performing team and it starts breaking down, one of the first things people tend to do is to doubt themselves. I went through that a bit and had to keep running my mental checklist making sure I had done everything I was asked to do to as well as I could. I also kept thinking of whether there was anything I should have done differently. Should I have asked more questions? I couldn’t come up with much I would have changed since I was essentially emulating what the previous person in the role had done to the best of my knowledge and ability.
Another thing that tends to happen when you’re being impacted by a leadership breakdown is that you want to withdraw. People don’t want to confront others. I know I didn’t want to go to the person accusing me of non-performance and have a focused conversation about why she felt I wasn’t getting it done and what we were going to do about the situation. That’s how I ended up talking to my predecessor rather than addressing the issue directly.
Although seeking expert guidance is a valid strategy, one has to be sure we’re not doing it as an avoidance mechanism. Having those difficult conversations is also hard when you’re in a high pressure situation, or when schedules don’t align. It was rare that both of us had more than two minutes of free time at the same time, and trying to slip in that kind of conversation wouldn’t have been the right thing to do.
There were some other leadership breakdowns this weekend, with the course director not following through on a couple of agreed-upon actions. It’s never fun when your boss slacks off, particularly when you’re left holding the bag. Coupled with a schedule that ran late, very little sleep, and being cold overnight (planning fail!) I wasn’t in a good place on Saturday morning. Fortunately, some attention from a camp cook staff that worked around my food allergy was enough to start boosting my mood. It’s amazing how the little things can make a difference when people are struggling, and a nice reminder that what might seem like no big deal to you might make a difference for someone else out there.
Once the program moved into full swing and we started interacting with the students, I was in a much better mood. Their enthusiasm was contagious and their willingness to tackle the challenges they were given was impressive. Several of the teams went above and beyond in ways I hadn’t seen before, with a couple writing songs or poems for the staff. Not everyone loves a kiss-up, but this weekend we certainly did. It was also good to see that regardless of what was going on behind the scenes, it didn’t trickle down to our students and they were able to get the most out of the weekend. They say you’ve never really mastered material until you can teach it, and that’s often true. It’s also true that even those of us that teach are constantly learning and there will always be something our students teach us.
By Saturday afternoon, I was back on my game with a plan to make up for my packing failure and stay warm overnight. I threw myself into cast iron cooking and slinging the best “pigs in a blanket” out of my homemade box oven the staff had seen in recent memory. I clapped when people were able to start “one-match” fires, giggled at campfire skits, and watched our students grow in their knowledge and appreciation of the outdoors as well as their readiness to be leaders back at their home organizations.
I came home Sunday exhausted but gratified, which will help get me through the difficult conversations I still have to have with some of the staff. There have already been some post-session emails that have been less than productive, so the discussions need to happen sooner than later. We’ve got another course in the fall and things need to be hashed out so we can move on. Good principles to live by regardless of whether you’re at work or in these situations elsewhere.
Have a favorite cast iron recipe? Email me.
Email Dr. Jayne.