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Robyn Benincasa on Building World Class Teams with Essential Leadership Lessons : How Winning Works

Robyn Benincasa -How Winning Works: 8 Essential Leadership Lessons from the Toughest Teams on EarthWhat is true leadership? Keynote speaker Robyn Benincasa leads by example.

Robyn Benincasa dropped me a copy of her newly minted New York Times bestselling book entitled How Winning Works : 8 Essential Leadership Lessons from the Toughest Teams on Earth (Harlequin).

I’m really glad she did! As you know I read  lots and lots of business and leadership books. I read this book over a longer time horizon than usual because it forced me to stop at soul searching checkpoints and reconsider the world around me. Due to this impact, I strongly recommend Robyn’s perspective changing book to everyone!

Roybn’s leadership flexibility keynote message compliments my passion to inspire organizations to reallocate strategic business operations resources to their best uses in the 21st century to the benefit of all customers and stakeholders. Better teamwork serves as one critical piece of a much larger and increasingly uncertain business leadership puzzle. All of the puzzle pieces need to work together well to create successful organizations and Robyn provides a perspective changing critical piece. Robyn was kind enough to answer a few questions and share her wisdom:

Q: So you are a firefighter, an adventure racer, a motivational speaker, the owner of a team building retreat business called World Class Teams Leadership Adventures and a non-profit, The Project Athena Foundation,  which helps survivors of medical setbacks live an adventurous dream as part of their recovery. What led you into these multiple career paths and what inspires you to start new adventures?

Robyn Benincasa: Life has lead me in all kinds of wonderful directions! I love finding strengths and core competences in others as well as in myself. I think our opportunities lie in our unique strengths and acquired knowledge. All of the above were the result of my being deeply compelled by something, discovering I was good at it (or not!), and then adding my own twist to make it meaningful for the people that are a part of it!

Q: When did you first realize you had an entrepreneurial streak and what have these events taught you?

Robyn Benincasa: I was lead into speaking by a friend who saw the parallels between EcoChallenge Adventure Races and the teambuilding styles that would work well in the corporate world. I also had several years of Fortune 500 Pharmaceutical Sales under my belt, so I knew she was right. I just had to think of the best way to deliver the message so that the presentation was less about racing and more about how the teambuilding skills, which we’d learned in the quest for an extremely difficult and distant finish line, could be applied to our ‘real’ lives. I was scared to death in my first few presentations, but it really seemed to resonate with business leaders, and I had some early successes (like having a Starbucks Zone VP in one of my first presentations who then hired me to speak in 8 districts across the US!) that kept me fired up to continue. In 2002, I decided to start my own speaking/teambuilding company, World Class Teams, and we do 45-50 events each year. I love it! But it sure is hard to fit in my required Fire Department hours and racing life into the spaces between. I’ve learned a lot about capitalizing on one’s strengths and outsourcing one’s weaknesses to a great team in order to get to the next level. I definitely practice what I preach. 🙂

Q: What have your experiences around the world taught you about teamwork and how one can best focus on the positive coaching rather than criticism – especially in adverse situations?

Robyn Benincasa: Its imperative on a world class team that there is always an underlying sense of goodwill, loyalty, affection, and mutual respect for one another. If that is undermined, the team will break down quickly. You can deliver the same message to your teammates, but if it comes out at criticism (pointing a finger), you’ve shut down that interpersonal connection. If your message is received as coaching (extending a hand), you’ll get a far better response and a deepened bond. Delivery is a lot of the game in teambuilding!

Q: In your racing career, you had the benefit of pre-event planning and having to make many decisions quickly. Please talk about making decisions effectively and quickly. If you have any general advice on creating urgency in group decision making that will make this interview pretty darn popular me thinks…

Robyn Benincasa: We were always in a race! So the issue of making quick decisions and solving problems in a VERY timely manner was critical. I think competition is an incredible tool to light a fire under a team  ie: if we don’t get this new product to market, our competitors will.  But speed doesn’t always equal effectiveness. We very often found that if we ran/rode/paddled just a liiiiittle bit further, the answers would become more clear about which navigation decisions to make when we were confused. We discovered that going a little longer on the trail and actually finding the right answer, even if finding that answer took us the wrong way for a bit, was almost always a more effective use of our time than standing in the trail for 30 minutes scratching our heads and speculating about what was ahead. If we were stumped for answers, we’d always climb the nearest hill to get a better view or “go ’til we know” more information.  That became a bit of a team mantra when we found ourselves wasting time staring at the maps. 🙂

Q: The lessons of HOW WINNING WORKS appear to be far reaching. How can those lessons be applied to one’s personal life as well as work life in terms of teamwork?

Robyn Benincasa: We’re all in an adventure race every day of our lives in our own way, aren’t we? We’re just not covered with leaches or swimming through crocodile infested rivers, although it may seem that way at times. :). I’ll prove it to you:  if you didn’t realize I was speaking of my extreme endurance sport, wouldn’t you think I was a new hire at your company? “I work with a small team of men and women, and we’re trying to make it through a seemingly endless series of checkpoints, in pursuit of a nearly impossible goal, working against extreme time pressures, in constantly changing conditions, and with the goal of doing it all better than anyone else in the industry”. I rest my case. :). The 8 Essential Elements of Human Synergy that I talk about in How Winning Works brings out the best Teambuilder in all of us, whether that team is with our family, friends, colleagues, clients, husbands, wives, etc. If you deal with people in any capacity, you will benefit from the tips, tricks and skills you’ll find in “How Winning Works”.

Q: How and why did you first get into public speaking? How did your previous sales skills from a previous career help you to position yourself to become successful?

Robyn Benincasa: Oops. Answer this one already, above!

Q: In the section on “We Thinking” you discuss how in the early days of adventure racing teams, they used to pick individual superstars and how those teams didn’t work well. Right now in recruiting, generalists with experience in leading high performing teams are regularly passed over for specialists – often with one dimensional skill sets. What would you tell the leaders of those companies to start to chage that?

Robyn Benincasa: Specialists are fine, as long as they truly embrace the concept that they are one useful cog in a larger wheel. If they are willing to lend their strengths but ALSO recognize that they need to accept help in their areas of weakness and/or let others lead, they should be a solid member of the team. That being said, I’d rather have a true team builder on my team any day versus a specialist if they’re a diva. :). Being a successful teammate isn’t necessarily about what you know—its about what you’re willing to learn, how much you embrace the concept of team synergy, and how willing you are to leave your ego at the start line. It’s the heaviest thing in your pack.

Q: You told one story of regarding motivating a group of students. You were marveling at the attitude change when you were “asking these kids if they thought they could do it instead of forcing them to”. How could you apply that to people overall? (please see page 138)

Robyn Benincasa: Easy! We all embrace that which we help create! Psychology 101. Unfortunately many leaders believe that their role is to “tell others what to do”. But in my opinion the true measure of a leader is how many other leaders they have created. And we create leaders by allowing our teammates to lead based on their strengths; asking for their input and opinion on goals, strategy, and outcomes; inspiring their critical thought, and facilitating their success. Managers are a dime a dozen. Leaders are a rare and wonderful breed.

Q: What started the process of you writing this book and what did you learn about yourself from the process of writing it?

Robyn Benincasa: My friends made me do it! :). Seriously, one of my best pals told me it was time, and she wrote the book proposal. It was sold in a few months and then, ack!, I had to start writing. I did it all on flights to and from keynotes and in the fire station between calls at night. I even created a little team for myself of a coach who gave me homework assignments and chapters to write each day. It helped to have smaller ‘checkpoints’ to reach each week than to think about the daunting finish line hundreds of pages away. See? Adventure Racing even taught me how to write a book. One step, one checkpoint at a time.

I urge everyone to read this book and think about how it could change their everyday interactions.

2 thoughts on “Robyn Benincasa on Building World Class Teams with Essential Leadership Lessons : How Winning Works

  1. Great interview, David!

    There’s a lot of noise about team building and how to do it the right way, but I’d say Robyn’s approach nails it. Great stuff, and I’ll definitely check out the book!

  2. To become a leader can be dream of everyone but very few of us have leadership qualities. Hence why it is said leaders are borne not made. Despite that thanks to latest tools of communication and learning that now one can be made leadership with the experience and guidance of leadership trainers. This book is a step in such direction.

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