Title: Altrec.com’s Finance Director
Role in the Off-Site: “Calvert has his good points: He’s confident, enthusiastic, and eager to kick the other boat’s ass. But he also has some weaknesses: He tends to overwork his crew, steer erratically, and miss the signals that his teammates are occasionally terrified.”
“Calvert, like the others, is unaware of how his leadership style affects the rest of the team. On the flip side, team members aren’t doing the leaders any favors by withholding gloves-off feedback. Later, at the evening’s campfire session (where the day’s leaders are reviewed), the make-nice atmosphere prevails. In fact, Calvert’s captaincy is regaled. But the stress of holding back is gnawing at people.”
Did the extreme off-site meet your expectations?
I believe in training, but originally I thought this off-site was coming too early. At that point, we’d been a management team for approximately six months and probably half that people had been with Altrec.com three months. We were too busy, we didn’t know each other well enough, and we didn’t have our structure set up well enough to get the full benefit of an off-site. I’ve been to a lot of training programs, and a lot of times I’ve gotten stuff out of them, but the biggest challenge always is having the time and capability to apply what you learned. All those things made me very skeptical going in. I don’t think I had a specific expectation for the trip, other than team building and management building. But I was pretty fuzzy.
From a top-level view, this ultimately was the best management training thing I’ve ever done. I’ve been to training sessions not set in an isolated wilderness environment, and as soon as there was a break, everyone would be on their cell phone for 25 minutes trying to take care of everything. At this off-site, you were really forced to leave all that baggage behind, and I thought the facilitation by Project Adventure was phenomenal. Moe (Carrick) was really, really good. Her facilitation was excellent, the guide service we got was top notch, and I thought the team was really committed. One of the things that really impressed me was that people were there body and soul, and took it very seriously. For example, there was one night when everybody cut loose a little bit. We ended up working until like 1 a.m. to make up for the fact that we took that to play.
The trip provided a good foundation for understanding each other better in a social setting because we hadn’t spent much time with one another away from the office. We didn’t perfectly iron out everybody’s role and exactly how the management team would interact going forward, but I didn’t expect to do that in that short of time.
What lesson has had the most lasting effect on you personally?
We needed to be able to make decisions quickly. Our company has, in its short life, demonstrated the ability to rally around a decision once it’s been made, and we can execute that decision very well. But are we making decisions on Internet time? One of the main tenets that we brought out of that program was the idea of setting up a decision-making process in advance. At least once a week since the trip, I’ve heard people say, “OK, wait a minute. Let’s step back. Maybe we will solicit input from three or 20 people, but ultimately the decision belongs to this person. And the decision is going to be based on these perimeters.” Our tendency before was to foster a consensus and a team approach to evaluating a lot of things. And that bogged down the decision-making process a great deal.
Do you feel Altrec.com has learned to break down barriers and give more honest and forthright feedback and criticism?
One night on the river, we sat around the campfire until late in the evening. Each person was put in the hot seat as people gave positive and constructive feedback about the things they do well and things that they need to work on. Maybe it was partially because we were under the shroud of darkness, but people were very frank and fair. I think that exercise did two things. There was the immediacy of, “Wow, I didn’t know that,” or “That’s something I need to work on.” The other thing is, it made it OK to give people that kind of feedback in the future. I think that’s one piece that we need to continue to work on. People here are more willing to be direct with another, and not have it be a personal thing. I think there’s always going to be a challenge to make sure that folks are direct, open, and honest, but I’ve definitely seen more of that since the trip.
Can you offer a specific example of a time when the off-site’s lessons really came into clear view for you?
The week after the off-site, we were sitting down in one of our kind of management sessions, and we started getting into it again. We had to immediately put on the brakes. We said, “OK, who’s going to be involved in this decision?” Then we jumped right back into it, and it was so much more fluid from that point forward. We gathered the information, we made a decision, and we executed on it. I think our tendency before that meeting might have been for everybody to give their input, and maybe we would have been a little bit muddled with it.
You revealed on the river trip that you can’t swim. Did that exercise help you open up to trust your colleagues more?
It’s never been something that I’ve been very proud of throughout my adolescent, childhood, or adult life, but it’s never been something that I’ve necessarily hidden from either. I’m trying to remember the last time I was on the water without a life jacket. I think I had already told most of the people at work that I can’t swim, but it was a little harder to communicate that, quite frankly, to (Fast Company Contributing Editor) Todd Balf, who I didn’t know. As your first impression, the last thing you want to do with these outdoor people is say, “Hey, I can’t swim, and you live on the water.” So that was the probably the hardest part of it.
The interesting thing was, Debbie Steinberg actually bought me a swimming lesson before we went, and I took it. That reminded me that I can swim to a certain degree, and that helped alleviate some of my concerns. Then Chris Quinn, the lead guide, said we should jump out and float the rapids so you see what they were like. He said I could hold on to the raft, and I did. That was a good compromise for me.
Then, later in the trip, he said I should get out again, and actually swim away from the boat. It was in calmer water, but I did that. I swam away from the boat, swam down river, and then swam back over to the boat. Chris was really good about pushing me. Actually, on the last day, when everybody was relaxed, we hit just a little rapid that caused Cathryn Buchanan and I both to slip of the boat. As I was falling out, I grabbed onto the little side rope and just got pulled right back in. But I didn’t panic because I had already been in the water. So the whole experience for me was positive.
What do you think Altrec.com prioritize in order to continue this process as it grows?
Our norms and values are who we are. We should be hiring people who we expect to operate within and understand our underlying tenets. That’s easier to do in a 35-employee company than a 200-person company, so we need to make sure we continue to communicate and follow up on those principles.
What are you most excited and concerned about regarding the future of Altrec.com and your position within the organization?
It’s an exciting time to be in business and e-commerce. One of the reasons I’m here is because Altrec.com gives me an opportunity to combine a personal passion for the outdoors with a professional life. Just the fact that I’m able to do that day in and day out is incredible. This is a demanding job, and my previous job was a demanding job, but my wife is very, very supportive. Recently, we’ve had some discussions that have surprised me. She says she can tell I’m happier here that I was at my previous job. And I didn’t hate my previous job by any stretch of the imagination. Apparently, it’s obvious to those people external to me that I’m excited about what I’m doing. I think that’s because its a marriage of a personal passion and professional passion.
In terms of challenges, this a very fast moving space and competition can come from anywhere. There are times where you want to make a business decision that you believe is right and correct on a longer-term basis. But you just hope that, given the speed at which things move in this space, you will have time to reap the benefits from those long-term decisions. Because there’s such an emphasis on moving quickly, companies can be rewarded for making short-sighted decisions, and later on they can make up for those decisions because their competition made long-term decisions, but didn’t stick around long enough for those to bear out.