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Just a Friendly Fitness Challenge… Or is it?

By Carrie Matlock posted 02-03-2022 18:25


Call me crazy, but I love a good competition. This is one aspect of the culture that I have appreciated over my 27 years at DLA Architects. Several times per year, the firm brings the entire office together for a friendly competition of some sort. We have gathered for heated volleyball games, bag tournaments, whirly ball, indoor racing, 5k runs, golf, chili cook-offs and several versions of a health/walk competition. The common thread is fun. With many people participating, often as teams that might not work together much, the activities encourage teamwork and flexibility. And, oh yeah, do they get competitive! 

This culture of work hard and have fun is one of the many reasons I have stayed at DLA Architects for as long as I have. We all seem to respond well to the friendly competition. This competitive mentality is not only built into our culture; it helps us thrive as a firm. It takes a team to win. You all know the saying “There is no I in team?” It is so true. I also like “Teamwork makes the dreamwork.” These statements mean success involves more than one individual and that could not be truer than for the work we do here at DLA.

All the DLA successes we have had over the 39 years we have been in business came from good old-fashioned teamwork. It has never been the results of one person’s performance; it has been about the group. Sure, there have been key team members who may be provided more than others at times, but we never would have gotten the win without the whole team. For instance, to gain a new client it is more than the proposal or the job interview. It is the leadership of the firm. It is the reputation of DLA. It is how the team performed on the previous project for the neighboring client. It is the functional design solution. And sometimes it is just how good the pictures of all our projects look. The list of factors contributing to success goes on and on, but it absolutely is about the team at DLA and not about one individual. This is true of every project we work on in this office and it is absolutely true about the Outbreak Challenge.

“Success has never been the results of one person’s performance; it has been about the group.”

A Friendly Competition

For those of you who don’t know what the Outbreak Challenge is all about, check it out here. It is a walking/fitness challenge set in a virtual world overrun by zombies who are trying to eat your team members. It is quite entertaining and kept our team competitively walking for several months last year. The game not only kept us moving, provided a lot of entertainment and banter, but most of all, illustrated how important every individual’s participation was to the greater goal. You see, this game capped the rockstars who would walk over 20,000 steps a day and still required everyone to log 10,000 steps a day. Yes, I said capped at 20,000 steps. I told you we were competitive! 

This competition wasn’t just limited to a small group of individuals in the office. It was a good portion of our staff — over 30 people participated. Since we had already done several different walking challenges in the office prior to this, we broke the teams up so there would not be several step superstars on one team and each team included three different generations of staff. 

“Not only did this competition get me moving, it reminded me about value of teamwork and showed me how to be a better leader to my entire staff.”

Stepping Out of My Element

How did running away from virtual zombies, cause me to be a better leader? First, it took me out of my element of being a leader in the firm, into a virtual world that had no hierarchy. People just didn’t listen and do what I said because I told them to, I had to inspire participation for a completely different subject than the job of architecture. Not only did I have to inspire my own team, I had to help inspire other teams and my peers (other leaders) to not give up and quit. This was extremely difficult given everything going on in the world along with work deadlines. Now I had to encourage them to spend at least an hour walking a day in addition to all of that! This caused me to start from scratch and rethink how to inspire each individual on my team. I explained the value of teamwork and related it to our participation on the walk challenge, and in life and I led by example. Most importantly, I found an ally on the team who was a different generation than myself and a different job title in the firm. Together, we inspired our teammates to do more than they thought they could. On a broader scale, this challenge led me and the firm as a whole to focus on the importance of health and wellness for our entire staff. 

“This challenge led me and the firm as a whole to focus on the importance of health and wellness.

Second, I had to learn about every individual on my team, their ability to participate, what they do on the weekends, how they spend their down time, their health routine and essentially how important is the goal to them. This was the one of the best results from the challenge. With a staff of over 40, I don’t get an opportunity to communicate regularly with everyone on a personal level. But now, I got to communicate one on one or in team communications day in and day out for over a month! So, I learned a lot about everyone on my team. And still today, those team members and I have a better rapport because of it.

Third, and this was the most eye opening, all walkers reflected nearly the same work ethic in the competition as they did in their work life. That is right, the rockstars in the office were the ones logging consistent big step totals along the way. Probably the most frustrating part was the fact that the lowest scoring steps were the youngest generation. They opted into the participation but seemed to be the hardest to motivate and to understand the strategy in the game. While there were one or two exceptions to this, Generation Z’s competitive spirit was lowest, and usually the participants that only hit the daily minimums. The irony is that those individuals were the ones with the most flexible free time, the staff without children, and without a lot of daily social routines. In fact, many of our younger staff opted out of the walking competition all together which was an interesting part to note. Coincidentally, several of those younger staff members that chose not to participate in the competition also chose to leave the firm last year. I could write a whole other blog on that topic, but zombie leadership is so much more fun to discuss.

Zombie Leadership Lessons

So, what did I learn? This competition reminded me of the following leadership snippets that we are probably all aware of but sometimes, under duress, we neglect to acknowledge:

  • Lead by example. Come to the office prepared to compete; if you don’t, they won’t.
  • Do not underestimate the value of a leadership team. A united leadership team is 10 times more powerful than one individual. Make sure you are leading as a group.
  • Teams succeed to their fullest potential when every team member contributes. Leverage team diversity as much as possible.
  • Inspiration comes easier when you know every team member’s “why.” Take time to listen and learn about your team members. You may find out some things that surprise you.
  • Different generations require different motivational strategies. Find out what inspires them and adapt your management style to bring out the best in everyone, not just the ones who already get it.
  • The culture you create sets the accepted norms — for the office and the business in general.

I didn’t realize the underlying benefits that surviving a zombie apocalypse would bring to our firm. However, the game appears to have revealed an opportunity to learn, improve and practice successful leadership habits that work for our team. I highly recommend you and your team give it a try.

If you have a topic you would like to share on the Leadership Center Blog, please contact Stacia Freeman at sfreeman@iasbo.org.