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What I Learned About Teamwork From A Grueling 7-Month Trek

A Royal Marines captain shares his lessons about teamwork and discipline after returning from an ultimate test in endurance.

What I Learned About Teamwork From A Grueling 7-Month Trek
[Photo: Flickr user DVIDSHUB / U.S. Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. Ezekiel R. Kitandwe/Released]

For seven months a small team of men banded together to traverse vast spans of land and sea during a physically and mentally exhausting test called the 1664 Challenge.

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2014 marked the 350th anniversary of the U.K.’s Royal Marines Corps, and to commemorate the founding of this organization and raise money for the Royal Marines Charitable Trust Fund, this core team of six Royal Marines–joined along the way by more than 4,200 men and women, predominantly from the British forces–skied 1,664 km–or 1,034 miles–sailed 1,664 nautical miles, cycled 1,664 km, paddled across the English Channel, and ran 1,664 km across continents, spanning temperatures as cold as -4 degrees Fahrenheit and as hot as 107 degrees Fahrenheit.

Damian McKinney, a retired member of the Royal Marines Corps and a business execution consultant, recently sat down with Captain Sam Moreton, one of the six core team members, to discuss the lessons his team learned about teamwork, executing against tremendous adversity, and the implications for business management.

What follows is an edited version of their conversation:

Never Underestimate The Emotional Support Derived From Working In Teams

Physically going that far, for that long, without any catastrophic injuries was an incredible achievement. We had to manage overuse injuries and our mental condition; keeping up the motivation to do it every day.

In particular the conditions during one day of our cross-country stint were deplorable. Visibility was zero and conditions were icy, resulting in an exhausting stop-and-go pace. One minute we were speeding across the ice and the next we were brought to an abrupt standstill as we hit the snow. Under those conditions it took twice as long to move forward.

At the end of that day, there was nothing extra gained. We simply avoided a loss. But sometimes that’s how it goes, and you have to maintain motivation even when things are harder than anyone thought they would be. At those times, the mental state and cohesiveness of the team became absolutely critical. The collective motivation–how we were all united in achieving our mission–is the only thing that made it possible.

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Likewise in business the conditions are often working against you–market conditions, competitors, consumers–and there is no reward at the end of a long day. It is critical in those instances to identify milestones and celebrate successes to keep the team motivated as they work together toward a common goal and ultimately the achievement of your organization’s mission.

Rearrange Teams To Create A Fresh Perspective And Achieve Creative Outcomes

Our core team was an incredibly diverse group of six individuals. We spanned ages, ranks, experience, and life milestones. We also brought our own, unique personalities. We had one soldier who could talk from morning to night, all day, every day and another who was being chatty when he said five words.

The Challenge was designed to truly represent the Royal Marines, a diverse, eclectic group, all linked by the military ethos. Without this touchstone, the only common denominator was that we were a bunch of blokes who liked sports. By bringing together this team we created perspective. We set aside our egos, focused on the mission at hand, and asked, “What do we need to accomplish and how?”

This lesson applies to business as well. Keep relationships in balance. Mix things up. You can’t afford cliques, and you can’t allow isolation. Keep things fluid by “moving the tent” if you will–regularly changing teams keeps people on their toes and encourages a fresh perspective resulting in more creative output.

At The End Of The Day, Executers Must Prevail

We, the team, were executers. Organizers created the plan and we adapted it and changed it as needed. This was not always well received by organizers who had a strong opinion about how things should be done. The big take away is that organizers can put plans in place, but if those plans don’t achieve the mission, they are not helpful. At the end of the day, the “executers” have to prevail.

This is an important lesson that most businesses fail to grasp. You must rely on the men and women in the trenches to deliver. Tapping into their experience and insight is critical to success.

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While leadership and organization is a necessary structure, the executers are your frontline that will win or lose the battle for you.

Support Your Team, Even in Failure, And You Will Empower Them for Greatness

In his study of World War I soldiers, The Anatomy of Courage, Lord Moran asked, “What can be done to delay or prevent the using up of courage?” In other words, how can one lead in the most difficult situations so that their soldiers do not expend all their courage?

Core to the Marines and present on the 1664 Challenge, the answer is to have faith in your team and recognize that your role is to support them in achieving the mission irrespective of how daunting it may seem.

In this case we supported our team by knowing what they were capable of and stopping them from bankrupting their energy. This meant mapping a path with more forgiving terrain, ensuring a good night’s sleep, providing appropriate food, scheduling to avoid extreme activities during the hottest part of the day, providing shelter, and perhaps most importantly accepting the challenge by their side. We were fully engaged, every step of the way, feeling their pain.

Similarly, in business, leaders must help their teams focus their momentum in the right direction by charting an efficient course and minimizing activities that will distract and sap them of their energy. If the going is hard every ounce of effort must be concentrated on the mission. The key is in recognizing what is core and what is peripheral. If teams have to expend themselves in all directions, then they will become exhausted far sooner than if all their peripheral concerns are eliminated.

Commitment To The Mission Is The Foundation Of Success

The most effective people are not necessarily those with the most experience, but those who are the most committed and focused on achieving the mission. I believe that is the commando spirit. It is what separates good from great organizations.

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Captain Samuel Moreton RM was born and raised in the South West of England, the son of a Royal Marines Colour Sergeant. He read Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at St. Peter’s College, Oxford, before taking a commission in the Royal Marines.

After a career with the U.K. Royal Marines, where he served for 18 years as an operations commando, Damian McKinney entered the private sector to bring the Royal Marines’ Mission Command approach to the business world. Over the past decade, he has built McKinney Rogers, a global organization dedicated to delivering results for organizations ranging from Walmart to Diageo to Pfizer to Thomson Reuters.

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