How do great teams work?

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A Team at work on Monte Rosa, Switzerland's highest mountain.

So you have a clear objective and the funds, now you need a team with motivation to achieve the common goal.

First, you need to be explicit about the goal. Obvious, maybe, but it’s not always the case that team members are ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’. It is essential that everyone is clear about the over-riding objective.

On a climbing expedition, I always state that the most important thing is for everyone to come back safely. Getting as many people on the summit as possible via the agreed route is my secondary goal. And then if the team can remain on good relations at the end of the expedition, brilliant.

In order to maintain high safety standards on a mountain, whilst giving people a good chance of reaching the summit, it is vital to build relationships based on trust. For me, trust is the glue of any team. Previously, as a coalminer, working in a remote hostile environment, trust was built through rapport and a feeling of shared fate – ‘we’re all in this together’. On expeditions, I try to encourage a similar culture: one where people can be open about how they are feeling so that issues can be dealt with before they grow into something more significant. People have to feel they can show their vulnerabilities: ‘mate, today I feel very weak’ or ‘I am not sure I want to continue with this’. Getting things out in the open gives you a more accurate picture of where the team’s strengths and weaknesses lie. Sometimes individuals have never worked together on a project, and good rapport can be vital to building trust.

I’ve found it important to set clear targets for each member of the team during an expedition. On the summit day of 8000 metre (26,000 feet) Shishapangma in the Himalayas, I told my team that we had to reach the rock tower at 7700 metres by 7am and ideally the summit by 9am. This allowed the team to set a pace that both maximised our chance of reaching the summit and of getting down safely. Spending too much time in the Death Zone – we were climbing without bottled oxygen – is too risky. Inevitably, some individuals will find the targets set too tough. With an ideal teamwork ethic, those people can drop back and work in a more supporting role.

In the mountains, a good team is a team built of reliable individuals, sharing a goal, who can be trusted and who trust each other.

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