Blog Post

Achieving breakthrough performance during challenge and change

Summer Salomonsen

Head of Cornerstone Studios at Cornerstone OnDemand

HR professionals and business leaders are currently faced with their own share of disruption: challenged to prepare their employees for the new, post-pandemic workplace. It’s an environment that today, and well into the future, will require employees to not only work differently but also take on entirely new jobs as technology continues to upend industries. According to the World Economic Forum, an estimated 85 million jobs will be displaced by machines by the year 2025 and 97 million new roles will emerge that are adaptable to the new labor market of humans, machines and algorithms.

So how do we as HR professionals inspire the kind of mindset in our leaders and employees? How do we build teams that drive our organizations to adapt, overcome and win as one in the face of extreme challenge and change?

Robyn Benincasa is no stranger to disruption. A former firefighter and professional adventure racer, she's been in plenty of tough spots — the kinds that have driven her and her teammates to their greatest heights.

Today, Robyn is a motivational speaker, author and founder of Project Athena, a nonprofit organization that helps people, who have experienced medical challenges, fulfill their athletic ambitions. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Robyn following her keynote address at Cornerstone’s 2021 Learning Content Summit. She offered advice to HR professionals and business leaders on how they can create thriving, collaborative teams even in challenging or disruptive situations.

On merging adventure racing and HR

Summer Salomonsen: Teamwork and collaboration are a critical part of any organization’s success — and we’ve seen how true that has been over the course of the pandemic. In fact, research shows that the best collaborators are the ones who can excel during a crisis and continue their upward trajectory afterward, while less collaboration leads to setbacks.

What are some lessons you’ve learned about teamwork from your time as an adventure racer? How might that experience apply to HR professionals looking to foster better collaboration among their teams?

Robyn Benincasa: Let me first give you the scoop on adventure racing: It’s a sport that involves small teams of four or five people. A race director will ask teams to meet in the most remote place they can find on Earth, hand them a set of maps and road rules and from there, it’s ready, set, go. The teams set off on a 600-to-1,000-mile race, and whichever team gets their first wins. Teams can only travel via non-motorized transportation, like kayaking, mountain biking, running or climbing, and all teammates must stay within 50 yards of one another for the entire race. They must also all cross the finish line together or the entire team is disqualified. And it’s because of this rule that these races require so much teamwork. Completing and winning these races taught my team that, unsurprisingly for any people manager, that we achieved so much more together than any individual could ever achieve alone. Or to put it another way, a lot of our best results happened when our individual superstar team MEMBERS also acted as great teammates instead.

Adventure racing and people management aren’t so different. And right now, HR leaders are facing a situation similar to those I’ve faced when going into adventure races: They have small teams of employees trying to navigate their way through totally uncharted territory and working toward a challenging end goal amidst extreme time pressures and ever-changing conditions. And these teams want to finish strong — with higher profit margins or business success to prove it.

To build the kind of teamwork that helps adventure race teams win their competitions, people managers also have to encourage their employees to focus their energy more on the hope of success rather than their fear of failure. Leaders need to help their team focus their time and effort on moving forward instead of looking back and coaching their team to learn how to play to their strengths rather than feel bogged down by their weaknesses. By looking at your core strengths, talents, experience and creativity, you can focus on the whitespace of opportunity instead of focusing on “not losing.” And it’s easier to have the courage to open the door and try something new when you are surrounded by a good and supportive team.

On creating camaraderie and playing to strengths

Summer: What has your experience taught you about creating camaraderie and internal support systems within a team? How can people managers make sure that teams appropriately play to their individual strengths and weaknesses?

Robyn: Take, for example, the story of the French team in the adventure racing world championships in 1994. The race started in Borneo, but after one of their teammates broke their ankle, the French team had to decide whether or not they would go home or start the race disqualified because they didn’t have enough people on their team. Instead, the team decided to choose the most radical option: They walked around the rainforests of Borneo, searching for a willing participant. And shockingly, they found someone — an inexperienced but excited local villager named Dawat. He was a 35-year-old farmer who didn't speak a word of French and had never participated in any of the sports involved. He had never rafted, canoed or ridden a bike.

But the French team brought him onto the team anyways. And not only did they complete the race, but they came in second place out of 63 teams. This story describes the magic that happens when teams choose progress over perfection. It’s also a perfect representation of what happens when opportunity meets preparation — and in this case, the value of completely different kinds of preparation. The team had adventure racing knowledge, but Dawat had local knowledge. What makes us valuable to a team isn’t always what we know, but our willingness to learn along the way and the diverse perspectives we bring to the team.

On overcoming challenges and setbacks

Summer: Over the past year and a half, people managers have had to cope with a lot: whether it’s adapting to remote work practices, going through layoffs and furloughs or, more recently, grappling with the transition to hybrid work and the post-pandemic “turnover tsunami.”

Over the course of your career, what have you learned from overcoming challenges and setbacks?

Robyn: I was always inspired by the Chuck Yeager quote, “You back up, but you don’t give up.” This was my mantra throughout my multiple hip replacement surgeries. Despite the pain and difficulties that they came with, my physical misfortunes forced me to pivot my athletic ambitions and took my career trajectory in an unexpected and positive direction.

After my first hip replacement, I realized that I probably needed a new sport. I always loved the kayaking section of the adventure races, so I decided to become a solo ultra-endurance kayaker. I focused on what I could do rather than what I couldn’t do — and broke a Guinness World Record in the process.

But the best thing that these metal hips ever brought me was the inspiration to start Project Athena, my nonprofit organization that focuses on getting injured individuals back out there and working towards their athletic goals. The direction that I was forced to take ultimately enriched my life, and I’ve felt grateful for the hardships I faced ever since.

There is a lot to learn from setbacks. We need to think about the culture we create and inspiring “we” thinkers in times of challenge so that rather than giving up in the face of adversity, we look for ways to pivot. New opportunities will inevitably emerge that are both similar and different from previous goals or modes of operations. It’s all about building your teams and preparing your leaders to inspire us to our greatest heights. There is an African proverb that sums it up very well, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

Watch Robyn Benincasa’s full keynote from the 2021 Learning Content Summit about her adventure racing experiences and her top 6 tips for creating breakthrough teamwork in challenging times. Available until June 30, 2021.

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