Management Secrets from the Iditarod.

Someone once said that “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”  Having been in management since 1970, I would add that “metaphors” are equally malignant when it comes to disseminating business advice.  No doubt you have read:

  • Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun,
  • Leadership Secrets of Jesus
  • Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell
  • Leadership Secrets of the Bible
  • Leadership Secrets of Billy Graham
  • Leadership Secrets of Hilary Clinton
  • Leadership Secrets of Abraham Lincoln

There are 392 books listed on Amazon.com wherein the phrase “Leadership Secrets” is part of the title.  You can even find “Leadership Secrets of Santa Claus” if you still believe in him or her.  Each of these books uses what I would phrase as a series of metaphoric devices to show you that the “Secrets” of whomever can readily be applied to modern management practice. With so many secrets extant, is it any wonder that managers are bewildered when it comes to understanding what good management practice is?  By the way, if “Secrets” are not your bag, then you should go to my next blog, which will cover the “Seven Attitudes of Killer Managers.”  No pun intended!

Well, this is your lucky day.  It just so happens I have a set of management “secrets” derived from a bunch of dogs.  No, I am not kidding!  In all sincerity, if you are still looking for a metaphor for your next HR meeting, here it is:  “Management Secrets from Iditarod.”  The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is one of the most grueling and difficult races in the world.  It traverses a distance of over 1100 miles over some of the roughest most desolate terrain in the world. It is run annually in early March from Anchorage to Nome. A Musher and a team of 16 dogs, of which at least 6 must be on the towline at the finish line, cover the distance in 9–15 days or more. Teams frequently race through blizzards causing whiteout conditions, sub-zero temperatures and gale-force winds which can cause the wind chill to reach −100 °F (−73 °C).

The Iditarod race requires organization, training, recruitment, resources, preparation, strategy, stamina, and leadership.  While there are no products sold, endorsements play a major role in helping the teams finance their competition. Thus, branding and image play are key to a team recruiting backers who are willing to shell out at least $20,000 dollars to support the team.

While, I think many metaphors often strain the envelope of credibility, I think the Iditarod really offers an interesting insight into how a key resource in any organization should be recruited, selected and trained.  I stumbled upon this insight while reading USA Weekend from March 8-10, 2013. On page 2 was a short article called “You Can Do It To!”  This article was about Lance Mackey who has won the Iditarod Championship 4 times since 2007.  In 2007, Lance became the first person to win both the Yukon Quest and Iditarod in the same year. This feat was considered almost impossible by many and is considered one of the most impressive feats ever by a musher and he was nominated for a 2007 ESPY Award based on his performance.

Now here is the key part.  How does Lance treat his dogs?  Well, he could use the one of the tried and true management strategies such as:

  • Kick ass and take names.

Treat your employers coolly. Stay distant so they will respect you. Make them know who the boss is early on. Never fraternize with your employees or they will take you for granted.  Surround yourself with ass lickers and people who will never threaten your position.

  •  Hire the best and smartest guys in the room.

Remember Enron and Ken Lay?  This is talent management at its best. Only recruit MBA’s and only MBA’s from Harvard or MIT or Stanford.  Be sure you adequately screen your recruits for competitiveness and a Machiavellian attitude.  Beware any who took too many courses in ethics.

  •  Reward, reward, reward and incent with bonuses, stock options and perks.

Nothing works like the carrot. If you want to get the most out of your employees, you need to reward them and shower them with performance incentives. A good performance management system is key to getting the most out of your employees. We all know that a good employee works for the financial rewards and that if you want to increase productivity, you must increase financial incentives.

  •  Fire the bottom twenty percent, promote the top 10 percent and warn the other 70 percent that their jobs are on the line.

This is the well-known GE or Jack Welch method.  Just look at how successful GE was!  Indeed Jack Welch has been called one of the most successful managers of all time.  He has also been called a few other names which I won’t mention here. Needless to say, it is results that count and not how a few slackers feel when they get their pink slips.  Just keep on promoting the top ten percent and get rid of those do-nothings in the bottom twenty percent.  Those employees who are left will work so hard to keep their jobs, productivity will go through the roof.

So, DRUM ROLL!  Which method does Lance Mackey use with his dogs?  I will use his own words to describe his method and let you decide which category his strategy fits in.

Lance has a very simple attitude and method with his dogs. Speaking about his dogs, Lance says We live in a barn together and hang out.  They are my best friends.”  He specifically states that he does not pick his dogs for speed or strength but for a good attitude, a willing appetite and cooperation.

How many managers do your know who could say that about their employees?  How many employees were selected for cooperation and attitude versus being the best and brightest?  How many managers hang out with their employees?  Lance’s strategies go against all the best management wisdom.  Lance truly has a relationship with each dog on his team.  His concern for his dog goes well beyond simply winning the race. He has said that his relationship with his team is more important than his winning.  When winning is the “only” thing, what does that do to our relationships with our employees?

I don’t want to make too much of this simple metaphor here. I suppose I could write a book called “Leadership Secrets of the Iditarod Dog Race” but I think there are enough “secrets” out there. My goal in writing this was to challenge some conventional thinking in respect to how we think employees need to be treated.  If dogs can be treated better than people are in most organizations, what does that say about our Human Resource practices?  Maybe we should start a new practice called DR for Dog Resources and start treating our employees as well as Lance treats his dogs.  Maybe then, productivity would pick up and the floggings could stop.

Ok, time for questions:

What will it take to change our paradigms for treating employees?  Are you friends with your employees? Do you believe it would be too dangerous to fratenize? What if you hung out with your employees? Are you afraid they would take you for granted?  What if you selected employees without regard to degrees and credentials?  Do you only promote the top ten percent?  How do you decide who the “bottom” ten percent is?  What if you eliminated your “Performance Management” system and instituted the Deming System of Management?  Do you know what Deming promoted? Do you realize that your current system is probably more Taylor and less Deming.

Life is just beginning.

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. johnpersico
    Mar 21, 2013 @ 02:32:47

    Maybe things are not always as they seem? I received the following letter from the Sled Dog Action Group which opposes the Iditarod as being cruel and inhumane towards dogs. I asked the letter writer whether some of the poor treatment was done by others and not Lance. After all, why tar Lance if he treats his dogs humanely when others are the guilty ones. The reply I received stated as follows:

    Dear Dr. Persico,

    Thank you for your email. I think Lance Mackey’s actions have also been despicable. His dog Wolf died in the Iditarod from regurgitating food and then choking on it. In addition, he’s forced sick dogs to race, including those who had kennel cough. Dogs with this disease are supposed to stay warm and rest. In the 2012 Iditarod, Lance Mackey allowed his dog Maple to be bred 17 times in three days. He told KTUU-TV that he found this “entertaining.” Mackey told Alaska Public Radio that a male dog “has been working hard to get to that female in front of him. He ripped off his toenails. He’s still able to walk with no toenails. It’s just kind of painful.” Ripped off toenails are extremely painful, but Mackey refused to leave this dog at a checkpoint.

    END OF LETTER:

    I would welcome any replies from Mr. Mackey and will certainly post any should I hear from him. It is my understanding that he did not win the 2013 race and that one dog has died in the race this year from cold exposure.

    Reply

    • Anthony Trinh
      Mar 28, 2013 @ 17:27:06

      Mr. Persico,

      This was a perfect read for me at this moment in time. Your timing is impeccable. Before I answer the question, I wonder if this applies overseas. Of course, right? People are people, but at the same time cultures are different.

      My answer. I don’t think he chose any of those management methods. I think he went the route where he cares about his employees. Maybe a mixture as he plays it cool and earns the respect of his employees. But he still hangs out with them, he’s one of them. To me, all of my bosses that I worked harder for were ones that worked just like me. Weren’t afraid to get dirty or do any work cause they were the boss.

      I’d love to know the secret as I am searching for it right now, but I just don’t know.

      Reply

      • johnpersico
        Mar 28, 2013 @ 21:21:58

        Probably the same with good teachers. They are not afraid to associate and hang out with their students Anthony. There is no fear of “Being Discovered” since we have no reason not to be transparent. WE are all human regardless of cultures and have our strengths and weaknesses. If someone knows wherein I am weak, than either I should rely on their help or take it as an indication of an area wherein I can improve. Thanks for the comments Anthony.

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