The Power Of Teams: A Lesson In Leadership From A Siberian Husky

December 7, 2020

Uncovering The Power of Teams

As we reflect on 2020 at Zenger Folkman, we think of the opportunities we’ve had to observe the way many organizations are able to operate as teams. Invariably, the companies that focus on teamwork and collaboration are the companies that maximize the strengths of individuals as well.  Why? Because being a part of an effective team can bring forth wonderful increases in the work ethic and strength attributes of the individuals as well.

I would like to share a story that my colleague Joe Folkman, President of Zenger Folkman, often tells that illustrates this correlation exceptionally well:

“Several years ago, one of my children came to me at Christmas and asked me if we could get a dog.  This was not a new request. I had heard this request regularly over the years. My excuse was that my wife and several of my children have asthma, and have negative reactions to dogs. However, this time my son came prepared with an offer that I could not refuse. The first part of the offer involved my son’s commitment to improving all aspects of his behavior. (Yes, I had heard that offer before.) The second part of the offer was new. He was interested in a Siberian husky puppy. The Siberian husky is an outdoor dog, and since it’s a breed that is used to the cold and loves the snow, this would be a way for us to have a dog without affecting anyone’s asthma. We talked, discussed, and bargained for a long time, finally, I caved. We became dog owners.

The Power of Teams- Kestler
Kestler, Joe Folkman’s Siberian Husky

As I thought about owning a dog, I imagined the kinds of things that we might do together. I imagined us going for a walk and the dog would lope happily along by my side. I imagined going to the park, throwing a Frisbee, and my loyal dog bringing it back. I imagined the dog playing with the kids in the back yard. What I imagined was truly ideal.

The dog finally arrived. My son named him Kestler. He was a beautiful puppy. He grew quickly and I began to take him on walks, but they were not what I imagined. Instead of loping by my side, Kestler persisted in dragging me into my neighbors’ yards. Whatever speed I would walk, he would walk faster. I had a friend who wanted a jogging partner and I convinced her that Kestler was perfect. They went together just once.

If we took Kestler to the park to play Frisbee, he would chase the Frisbee, grab it, and then proceed to run in the opposite direction. We also discovered quickly that you can never take a Siberian Husky off the leash. They run away.

Our once beautiful backyard and flower garden became Kestler’s kingdom. When he discovered digging, my lawn turned into a series of trenches. After a couple of years, it was hard for me to imagine the value of this dog.  It became clear to me that Kestler would never be the dog I had hoped he would be.

As we approached another Christmas season, our good friend Racer, who had five Huskies, talked to us about putting Kestler in his dog sled team. We wanted to warn him that Kestler might not be the best choice for his team, but Kestler needed exercise and I did not want to take him on any more walks. And so we obliged.

After a few months of training, Racer invited us to go on a dog sled ride to see Kestler in action. It’s hard to describe how excited the dogs were about getting their harnesses on and being tied to the sleigh. I remember being pulled by horses on a wagon, and for them, it felt like work. But the level of excitement was totally different for these dogs. The dogs took off and I wasn’t prepared for the jolt. As they began running, it was almost like the jerk of a fast car.

The power of teams- Dogsled
Zenger Folkman President Joe Folkman, experiencing Kestler’s greatest capabilities firsthand.

As we rode I stared in amazement at my “dumb dog.” There he was, between the two lead dogs!  The dog I could never control was working in perfect unison with the other dogs on the team.  He listened, he pulled, and he enjoyed working together with his team. These dogs can pull a sled for 20 miles, and they love every minute of their job.”

Improving the Power of Teams
Great leaders have the ability to create and foster great teams.

Have you ever been part of a great team? A team that utilized your individual strengths and caused your performance to improve? A team where productivity increased just to keep up with the other team members? A team where you love coming to work and every day is an exciting adventure?

In contrast, have you ever been a part of the Team From Hades? This is the team nobody wants to be a part of and is full of conflict, disagreements, and discontent. Most people know and have experienced the difference. The contrast is huge.

Recently I did a study where we looked at the ability of a leader to create a positive team environment—an environment where everyone wanted to belong, to pitch in, and engage. We looked at data from 276 leaders in a large software company and measured the extent to which team members felt that their group was highly productive and efficient. The best leaders—those who knew how to create that positive, engagement environment—had productivity ratings at the 80th percentile. The worst leaders were at the 29thpercentile.

ZFCO 2012 team productivity graph

Sometimes, just like Joe’s dog Kestler, you will never recognize an employee’s full potential until they are placed in the right area with the right people. It is the responsibility (and the opportunity) of all leaders to cultivate a collaborative environment in which team members can flourish.

In summary, we all know the difference between a great team and a bad team.  The challenge I would like to leave with each of you as we enter 2013 is to create a great team environment. If you can accomplish this goal, the reward is not only high productivity, but also employees who love to come to work, and who are bursting with excitement and energy to accomplish their job.

-Jack Zenger

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Other Articles and Podcasts 

Episode 14: The Power of Teams: A Leadership Lesson From My Siberian Husky

Do You Know How To Lead A Team Virtually? 6 Tips To Shorten The Distance 


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