Robyn Benincasa knows a thing or two about how to work as a team. What got her through the leech-infested jungles of Borneo and across the oxygen-depleted peaks of Tibet en route to two appearances on the first-place podium in the Eco-Challenge adventure race? A large part of it was due to her interaction with three teammates who pulled and encouraged one another in one of the most grueling races ever devised.
“The sport was invented by a crazy Frenchman and popularized by Mark Burnett,” explained Benincasa, who delivered an inspired keynote presentation to kick off the 2017 Emerson Global Users Exchange this week in Minneapolis. Each Eco-Challenge team comprised four members, at least one man and at least one woman, who traverse a 300-mile course over largely untamed terrain. “It’s all non-motorized transportation, and the winning teams will get about an hour-and-a-half of sleep every 24 hours,” she said. “Team members have to stay within 50 yards of each other during the entire race.”
As if being a member on two winning Eco-Challenge teams isn’t an impressive enough resumé item, Benincasa also founded the Athena Project Foundation, which earned her a spot among CNN’s 2014 Heroes; wrote “How Winning Works,” a New York Times bestseller; holds the Guinness World Records mark for distance paddling; and does it all now with the assistance of two bionic hips.
Building world-class teams is no easy task. But often it’s more than hiring inspired individuals; it’s simply inspiring the people you’ve hired. “Inspire ordinary people to achieve extraordinary things,” said Benincasa, who shared many stories of her Eco-Challenge teammates outsmarting the competition, mainly long-time rival, France’s Team Intersport, and pulling together to accomplish something bigger than themselves. She explained that each team member would train separately and come together for the race.
“We had a secret behind our long-term success,” said Benincasa. “The magic happens when superstar team members become superstar teammates. This is not a sprint. What you do every day is an endurance race. You’ve got to inspire people to go together.”
Commitment is one of the most essential elements to achieving success; it’s the way you respond when things get difficult. “The 4 Ps of commitment are planning, purpose, perseverance and preparation,” explained Benincasa. “The ‘luckiest’ people on the planet are the most well-prepared. Luck is that moment where opportunity meets preparation. Change is the only thing that’s going to stay the same. It’s how you respond to change that matters.”
She recalled the story of one Eco-Challenge competition in which her team was on its way to its first first-place finish, but thigh-deep bat guano had claimed one of her shoes, and the emotional effects of the previous six days had overwhelmed her as they made their way across the final ridge with Team Intersport behind them, gaining ground. Benincasa uncharacteristically stopped in her tracks and started crying. One of her teammates returned to her side to explain the difference between winners and non-winners. While non-winners cry, “people who are about to win the Eco-Challenge are crying and walking at the same time,” he told her.
“And being chased by the best team in the sport,” Benincasa added, as she and her teammates completed the course and earned the victory. “Knowing that your four hearts and four minds are one heart and one mind when you cross that finish line is the best feeling in the world.”
How do we inspire ourselves? “A lot of it is your attitude,” said Benincasa. “Teambuilders see challenges instead of roadblocks. They are ruled by the hope of success, rather than the fear of failure. Teambuilders accept and embrace adversity as a chance to learn and excel, and they never let the pursuit of perfection hinder progress.”
For six days, her team could not shake Team Intersport, their French rival. “And they can’t shake us,” Benincasa recalled in an anecdote that centered around her paddling technique years before she set the world record. “My focus was on them, on the fear of failure,” she admitted. “I would paddle, and then I’d turn around and look at them. Then I’d paddle more and turn and look back.”
Finally, a teammate put down his paddle, grasped the top of her head and physically turned it forward, proclaiming, “Winning is that way.” Success requires doing what it takes to win, rather than focusing on not losing.
“Sometimes you have to move the goal post,” said Benincasa, who is familiar with the process of moving the objective. “I’ve had six hip replacements because the first four failed. My bionic hips are awesome. I’m 25% Wolverine. These crazy metal hips led me to a couple of neat things. I never would have discovered paddling or founded Project Athena, if there were more cartilage in the world.”
In addition to her Guinness World Record and multiple second-place finishes in open-gender competitions, Benincasa also used her own experience with hip replacements and her inability to continue competing as an adventure racer as an inspiration to found the Project Athena Foundation, which focuses on adversity management. Women facing physical challenges come to Project Athena and find self-esteem and success by redefining their goals. “Being an Athena, you’re not just a survivor,” Benincasa explained. “You’re an adventurer.”
Share and share a laugh
“On some days, when things are sideways and ludicrous, you have to laugh,” said Benincasa. “Pain is mandatory. Suffering is optional. Inspire yourself and your people to be ‘we thinkers’ instead of ‘me thinkers.’ Teambuilders choose a goal that can’t be accomplished alone, so everyone suffers equally. Let’s be accountable for getting each other across the finish line.”
Benincasa’s Eco-Challenge team, for example, decided not to have a slowest person, so it became a stronger team by loading the strongest runners with the bulk of the gear in their backpacks. “We were all suffering equally,” she explained. “Instead of being out there with each other, we were out there for each other. It’s the diversity of backgrounds and skills that make the team great. Value unique competencies.”
When people start competing with their teammates, it hinders progress. “The best and brightest people realize that, to win, you have to take the other people with you,” said Benincasa. “Make sure they’re truly inspired by the mission. Discover your core needs, and ask for input. People embrace what they create.”
What makes us valuable to our teammates isn’t necessarily what we know, explained Benincasa. “It’s what we’re willing to learn along the way,” she said. “Kinetic leadership is leadership that constantly flows and changes. There’s a big difference between management and leadership. You don’t always have to be the leader. We always achieve our greatest height when we put our teammates on our shoulders. Set out to inspire people who work for you, instead of trying to impress them.”