Extreme networking

Come and suffer

It’s not exactly a great starting recipe for success. I’d like you to come along, give up two days, spend several hundred pounds and probably spend most of the latter part of the time uncomfortable, sore and tired, oh and by the way, do it with people most of whom you don’t know. And yet 16 business leaders and other professionals from the UK, Sweden and Brazil all enthusiastically said yes, spent several months training and turned up in London on June 7th at 16:30, by Big Ben, to ride a bike the 186 miles to the Eiffel Tower in Paris in less than 24 hours. This was an exercise in extreme networking, and as it turned out there are some lessons for business.

Something about the idea caught the imagination and whilst I was expecting half the group to cancel in the months building up to the start and some to throw in the towel the days before, only one person did. Wouldn’t it be great if we could devise business goals that inspire the same level of commitment? It got me thinking about why this event was so successful.

Saying thanks – with a difference

But first a little background. The idea had been hatched months before. I had worked and was working with some really great people in a number of companies. I wanted to make a gesture of thanks for using the services of our business over the years. I had also met some great people on my travels and thought these people would enjoy meeting those with whom I already worked. With many companies having very strict rules on corporate gifts and mindful of our reputation as a business that promotes innovative thinking, the normal activities of a meal, a night out or some sort of seminar had about as much appeal as watching paint dry on a wet day. It needed to be something different, something inspiring and slightly scary to do: London to Paris by bicycle in less than 24 hours became the goal. The plan was participants would cover the costs and my colleagues and I would manage the planning and logistics. In short, they had to pay for the privilege of coming along to suffer for a couple of days and we would support them through it.

Getting the ingredients right

There are a great many organised rides available. The trouble is they either try and be ‘the hardest’, or ‘the hilliest’ with names such as ‘Hell of the north’ or ‘ballbuster’. Or the distances are too short (what do you do after coffee in the morning when the day’s ride is just 50 miles?) I wanted the ride to be the most beautiful route from London to Paris. Our route meant a late afternoon / evening ride of about 58 miles to the ferry, a four hour crossing between Newhaven and Dieppe and then a further 128 miles to Paris taking in the splendid Forest of Versaille, before squirrelling our way through the back streets to the Eiffel Tower. From Dieppe we followed Donald Hirsch’s excellent low traffic route (http://www.donaldhirsch.com/dieppeparis.html).

I also wanted it to be about riding the bike not carrying lots of stuff. So a colleague kindly drove a support vehicle which carried our luggage and he sourced a smorgasbord of culinary delights en route, ranging from jam sandwiches to oven warm croissant and pain au raisin and, on the way to the ferry, hot fresh pizzas to sustain us during the ferry crossing. Many riders commented that they had not eaten or drunk as much on a ride and attributed this as a significant contributing factor to their ability to make it all the way in an enjoyable fashion.

The final piece of the jigsaw was persuading another colleague and cycling enthusiast to act as pace setter. Over enthusiasm and inexperience can lead to a level of effort which whilst huge fun is unsustainable over a long ride. This allowed the faster riders to skirmish on the hills before retreating into the pack for a rest and recovery.

Did it work?

Did it work? Yes. Apart from one person who had picked up his daughter’s passport by mistake, everyone who started made it to the end. Some more tired than others but all euphoric. There’s something about the rhythm of cycling that lends itself to conversation. Interesting discussions develop as riders trundle along, naturally coming to a halt whilst a hill is climbed, resuming on the next flat. Conversations started hours earlier were resumed as the riding positions in the group changed. As the sense of camaraderie built, the weaker riders were encouraged and protected by the stronger riders and gradually “we shifted from being a group of individuals to a team” to quote Matt Joint, Group Learning and Development Director, Royal Mail. Conversations shifted from the formal ‘what do you do….’ to banter, ribaldry and frivolity interspersed with deeper philosophical discussions.

Accidentally successful

I would like to say I knew it would be the success it was and it was all down to an inspirational idea, planning and the sheer magnetism of my personality – but that would be a lie – well at least the last point. But I was intrigued, and so I sent out a note to the riders after the event asking why they took part, what motivated them and what were the highs and lows to see if I could learn the lessons and apply them to business.

It turned out to be a lesson in teamwork. Once I’d learnt to let go and involve others (thanks to Nathan Clements who is an HRD at Morrisons PLC, the amazingly vertically integrated food retailer) it shifted from being an ‘invitation to ride’ to a mutual endeavour with a number of individuals volunteering for tasks, from organising team kit to booking a restaurant. Small actions maybe, but an indication of the mind-set people were adopting towards the ride. As former Air Commodore and fellow cyclist Richard Gammage noted, success comes from “utilising the skills of each individual and through contributing personally to the team – no place for grey people in such circumstances, nor for self-centred individuals.” The sense of team started from regular updates via email about how preparation was progressing as well as involving the team in solving the problems. It was also assisted by much banter between the riders.

It’s about a great goal

Based on the feedback received, it seems the most powerful driver of success was having a great goal. In my previous blog I extolled the virtues of setting goals but ditching performance management. This was reinforced by the comments from participants – it was having a challenging goal that motivated them to get involved in the first instance and maintained the commitment to training. As Paul Wharton, Global Director of Customer Relations for Tetra Pak said: “I like the opportunity to push myself and do what others only dream about. The fact that a trusted friend was project leading it meant all I had to do was say yes and train.” It was a similar story for Steve Armstrong, President and CEO of Ford, Brazil for whom setting a challenge such as this “provides excellent motivation to train…otherwise it’s easy to let our busy schedules overwhelm our need to stay physically as well as mentally fit.” In short, the power of a challenging, very clear, unambiguous goal fired people up to succeed. There were no consequences of failing. There was no performance management system required. The goal was enough to drive performance. We would do well to learn this lesson for business – spend more time working out what a great goal looks like and less time worrying about how to performance manage it.

Quiet reflection

Having left the group in Paris to catch trains, planes and automobiles, I turned my handlebars North and enjoyed the time for reflection as I rode solo back to Dieppe and onwards home to Winchester enjoying the peace and solitude of late night riding – musing over the experience and the lessons I could learn for my own business, I realised the greatest lesson of all was blindingly simple. Help other people succeed in doing something extraordinary results in an extraordinarily rewarding experience. What started out as a clever idea to network became a humbling experience in the power of people sharing a passion for a common goal.

Dominic Irvine © Epiphanies LLP 2013 All rights asserted