When twenty muddy, sweaty, hungry people emerge out of the tree line and head straight toward your house, it would be cause for alarm in normal times. But these aren’t normal times, and I’d never been happier to see a such a loud, smiling mess heading my way. McChrystal Group had remained a connected team for the past 18-months, but like everyone else, we were a team at a distance. But with the world reopening, we were once again in-person, sharing challenges, and growing together as a connected tribe.
Early European armies once spoke about the importance of “the touch of the cloth.” They believed, as do I, that there is a multiplying effect in capability when a solider is side-by-side with a trusted member of the unit. I’ve learned the wisdom in this throughout my life. At our core, humans share a desire for connectedness, and for the knowledge that trusted teammates will be at their side through challenging times.
McChrystal Group has, for years, invested in what we call “Leadership Ventures.” Our group’s origins are tied to the battlefield, but our team of eighty now comes from a wide array of backgrounds. From brilliant recent graduates to retired general officers, PhDs to experienced corporate executives, data scientists to adult-learning experts, we’re huge believers that a management consulting firm like ours needs a diverse team to solve our clients’ most complex problems. But like the concepts of connectivity and inclusivity that we bring to the market, we know that simply hiring a diverse team isn’t a sufficient solution. Today’s leaders must look for ways to create an inclusive and connected environment where diversity can thrive, ideas can be exchanged, and a team’s potential can fully unlock. An environment like that is grounded in trust between teammates, and we believe there’s no greater way to deepen trust than facing new, and occasionally uncomfortable, challenges together.
McChrystal Group Leadership Ventures are one part of how we view our annual operating rhythm, from daily stand-ups to quarterly All Hands strategy sessions and many things in between, we’re huge believers in deliberately bringing voices and views together. So as soon as our teammates were vaccinated, we looked for an opportunity to get the first post-pandemic Leadership Venture on the books. My wife and I, along with our two young children, were excited to host.
The group approach my house had just finished the final challenges of the two-day event. Our trusted teammates at New River Mountain Guides had skillfully led us through an incredible day of teamwork, physical challenge, and high adventure. We’d started the morning with a brief from our lead instructor, a powerful voice in the world of climbing, Elaina Arenz. Elaina’s team then led our group of twenty through a winding trail, eventually emerging at a seventy-foot rappel over a blind-edge, the New River visible far below. Nerves were high, but even the most hesitant amongst us drew energy from our teammates and executed flawlessly. After all were safe on the ground, we spent the day rotating between a series of increasingly challenging climbs, with the sights and sounds of the nation’s newest national park surrounding us.
After several hours on the rock, when the team had the energy for one more run, I’d taken my leave to head home and prep for dinner. Once all was ready, I’d looked out in a moment of quiet during an otherwise action-packed offsite, to first hear, then see, my tired, dirty, and clearly happy teammates emerging from the wood line. I felt a deep sense of gratitude for being part of a great team, and for the way we had come out stronger from the pandemic than any of us could have imagined.
While we call this Leadership Venture a climbing trip, the activity is really just a platform for connecting with teammates. I’ve been climbing my entire adult life, and I find the sport an exceptional metaphor for how great teammates interact. A day of climbing requires loading out gear, hiking to the rocks, constant safety checks, thinking through problems while hanging off a sheer face, and on occasion, reaching the top of a challenging climb. But this last point is actually the least important for us. Loading out gear requires teammates to work together, check one another’s packs, and distribute key items. Hiking twenty people through unfamiliar terrain requires coordination, communication, and support through uncertainty. Safety checks require individuals to pause, look closely at another’s gear, and ensure everything is set up appropriately before their teammate begins a high-risk activity. And as one teammate is climbing, thinking through new, unusual, and complex problems with every move, their teammates on the ground are their encouragers and thought partners.
So not surprisingly, my days on the Leadership Venture were full of wonderful quotes between teammates. “Your gear looks good,” before a climber would leave the ground. “You’re doing great,” as a teammate finds themself in a tough spot. “Try that hold to your right,” as a climber asks for help from teammates on the ground. And most importantly, “I’ve got you,” as a climber asks their belay partner to lower them to the ground.
Woven into the physical challenges of the day were also a series of curated discussions, led by our younger teammates, designed to dive specifically into challenges that might not find space in the daily cycle of a busy consulting firm. Experience has shown us that the most meaningful conversations, the most transparent dialogue, and the strongest long-term outcomes can be found amongst teammates who’ve spent the day overcoming obstacles, supporting one another, and often exhausted themselves in one another’s company. The best moments of a physically active venture usually arrive in the spoken word around a campfire.
On the surface, this investment of time and cost might seem to have no connection with management consulting. But we believe that it has everything to do with creating and fostering a great team. Great teams navigate hard times together, solve complex problems, and most importantly, give us the sense of connectedness that is so important in today’s uncertain world. We hope you’re able to connect with your teammates, as well, in the weeks and months ahead. The challenges yet to come will seem far more surmountable with trusted teammates at your side.