Snow Days Matter

Just yesterday, I replied to a post imploring organizations to think through how the pandemic, and in particular the new remote working model, has affected team members. We’re used to being told, “Do more with less.” Now that so many have retreated to their home offices, kitchen tables, and basement hideouts to work, learn, and socialize, it’s tempting to think we can be even more productive. But the reality is we’re under even more stress. Does your boss equate working from home with being lazy or disengaged? Have the boundaries between ‘work’ and ‘personal’ time blurred to the point where you’re now you have to be reachable 24/7?

My wife came across a viral news story based on the letter above, written and distributed by a school superintendent in West Virginia. As students have been forced to reconcile the blurring between their home and school environments, it would be equally tempting to expect more of them. Both during and after hours. But just like the adults, our children are under a ton of stress. I struggle engaging students (undergraduate seniors in my case) through weekly Zoom sessions. For a seminar-style course, banter and conversation are difficult even with full-strength Wi-Fi–conversations become superficial without body language, physical proximity, and the ability to hear each other in true real-time. Many kids are home with their parents and siblings, themselves working through their own classes or jobs an arm’s length away on the sofa or within earshot in adjacent rooms.

It’s becoming harder to ‘disconnect,’ to leave behind the rigors of the work day for the comfort of home. As autumn turned to winter, many parents asked in our school district–what happens when it snows and we’d normally close? Will our kids get a snow day? You might assume parents would hope for a ‘no,’ anything to keep their kids engaged during the day while mom and dad focus on their own laptops. On the contrary, we’ve reached a stage where we all agree on the toll the new learning environment has taken. Enter Dr. Gibson, Jefferson County Superintendent.

The forecast on December 15th called for more than a foot of snow dropped by a Nor’easter threatening much of the Northeastern and Great Lakes regions of the U.S. Speaking with clarity, Dr. Gibson announced the closure of schools and observance of the year’s first snow day. For all students and staff, whether engaged in-person or virtually. She encourages her district’s families to spend time together enjoying the traditions of winter. Forget 2020 for one day and “go build a snowman.”

I couldn’t help but share this. We’re a culture obsessed with productivity, yet in a year where our “production” could skyrocket without time taken for commutes and extraneous meetings, we’re now clamoring for less. The pressure of 2020 has forced many of us to reckon with what’s important to us and what, exactly, we’re willing to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to. We often talk about leaders who are attentive to their team members’ needs, to their team members’ families, and who avoid asking too much. Dr. Gibson understands the power of a snow day, of acknowledging what more there is to life beyond ‘getting more done.’ She’s led her district through a pandemic, as she surely will into 2021. No doubt she’s had to support teachers, staff, and students through countless questions about faulty equipment, schedule conflicts, and the unforeseen hurdles when executing mass, virtual education. But for one day, she set a different tone for everyone in her community with a simple ask. Take a step back and slow down. And for Pete’s sake, go build a snowman.

Trust Matters

We talk a lot about leadership and training on this platform … but if there’s one element that underwrites your ability to both lead and train, it’s trust. Teammates can’t rely on each other without it. Trainees can’t rely on a trainer’s advice and counsel. Leaders ‘manage’ out of fear for their own status instead of focusing on their team’s development. Trust matters in every environment, as I was reminded this morning watching a tree removal team take down three adult trees–two from my front yard and one out back–in less than two hours.

Two of these trees died before we moved in. The one we knew of sat next to the driveway, the other looked healthy from afar only to deposit several dead branches on our neighbor’s backyard during a windstorm. The third was a sad-looking evergreen out front–at one time a great tree to decorate with Christmas lights, but now missing several branches and boasting needles looking sickly. The plan was to remove all three and replace the evergreen come spring. It took almost three months from first call to the team’s scheduled date, a timeline exacerbated by recent severe storms in our area in the last few weeks. The woman answering the phone was helpful every time and quickly demonstrated what working with a family-owned business closely tied with the community can be like. Still, we hadn’t booked this kind of work before so didn’t know what to expect short of a full day’s worth of work.

At 7:45am two large trucks park outside our house, bumpers inches from each other while each vehicle avoided blocking adjacent driveways. Promptly at 8:00, four gentlemen disembarked and began situating the equipment. I left our front room for a cup of coffee and to review email; when I returned, the evergreen’s branches and trunk were piled neatly at the end of the driveway. It couldn’t have been more than 15 minutes! The first photo shows an all-purpose grapple (operator out of view above the frame) preparing to lift another pile of branches into the collection truck. What I missed documenting after taking the picture was the operator using the grappleful of branches as a broom, brushing loose sticks and dust out of the street and back toward the pile. As the grapple swung around, cars drove past into the morning’s traffic and one of the team members walked up to finish the job with a leaf-blower. I realized at that moment how much trust these four must have in each other to walk within inches of a powerful machine surely heavy and strong enough to do serious damage to a human body upon impact.

Having felled both the evergreen and dead cherry tree out front, the team to the final target out back. An hour into the whole job, they were taking down the white pine in segments. One man had climbed the trunk and was removing each piece, after the branches had been cleared, then dropping it onto the ground below. Two others collected debris to pass over the fence to the fourth team member ferrying everything to the truck. Their movements were perfectly choreographed while we felt each ‘thud’ of tree hunks falling from the sky. The team moved with ease through the yard and around this dead tree, under a chainsaw and newly-cut pieces of wood heavy enough to kill should they strike someone in the head. Amazing. Oh, and the whole thing was done by 9:45. Less than two hours, three trees cut down and cleared from our property. Onto several more houses in a day that barely crested 40 degrees and started with a couple inches of snow on the ground.

There are many leadership books … courses … programs … models … out there in the world, each one attributing “effective” leadership to different sets of factors. But I have to go on the record and tell you, from my standpoint, the single most important element to effective leadership in any environment is TRUST. The team from Russell Tree Experts proved it. No matter how well, and for how long, each person was taught the company’s philosophy and values or was trained in the skills necessary to cleanly, safely remove large trees from crowded spaces, nothing else matters when pieces of tree trunk go flying–other than the ability to trust one another in the moment. Regardless of how this company prepares its teams to work every day, it’s clear they value trust as essential to their operation.

I’m an avid reader and proponent of formal education (as you’ve heard and/or gathered by now). But no matter how well-told a story, nothing beats watching a brilliant lesson unfold before your own eyes. Trust proved essential to us in the nuclear operations community and continues to be vital today in the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries as hospitals fight to keep up with COVID-19 and businesses race to bring vaccines to the public. Nothing happens without some level of trust amongst us. Which is a good thing, I think, and an important reminder that much of what we do and how we live requires trust between people. Anything less and the structures upon which we rely simply collapse.