Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Teamwork Donut

There is a LOT of content out there about teamwork.  I mean, just go and type it in and feast your eyes upon page after page of books on the topic.  There are seminars, blogs, podcasts, and a whole lot of good conversation not only about what it is that makes a good team, but the importance of one.  

That Lego Movie sure knows about teamwork

You know what I'm talking about right?  All of those books and blogs have famous coaches and CEOs creating content that makes you nod vigorously and want to show your boss or that one person you don't get along with the page that's all about them.  At the very least, I marvel at the acronyms that these people come up with (which, I'm convinced, is the sign that your teamwork content is LEGIT).

As Homer once said, "There is no I in TEAM, but there is ME."

I'd venture to say that most people get how important a good group of people is in a lot of settings, especially work ones.  But why is that?  And let's face it, some of us sorta just talk about it (but don't really implement it).

A friend and former coworker of mine posted this awesome image to my Facebook page the other day:

Great image, except I'd suggest everyone on your team wear clothes. 

She very kindly asked me if I'd written a Middle Flipper about being a leader versus a boss.  While I'd love to write a blog on that one day, I don't feel like I have enough experience or clout as a manager to write something I can stand by.   While I will always be a student of Being A Good Leader, right now I am still such a rookie at it that it doesn't feel right to write a whole blog (but I'm still super flattered that someone thought of me in that way).  

But it got me to thinking a lot about team dynamics.  Recently, my team* and I have been going through some trying experiences.  Anyone who works with animals knows what the highs and lows of our careers are, so you can kind of read between the lines there.  On top of that, it's been cold, rainy, and basically miserable outside.  These kinds of situations can be made exponentially worse if you don't have a strong team.  In fact, I am buoyed by the people with whom I work.  That's not just something nice I'm saying; I genuinely find strength in each person on days when I feel like my head is slipping underwater.  

I mean, wouldn't you feel awesome around this bunch?

That inspired my thought about Teamwork and how it helps us as animal caretakers (or just as human beings, in general).  HOW do you make a good team, even if you're not in a position of leadership?  Can you really influence a group of people as an intern, an apprentice trainer?  Um, YES.  From Newbie to Number One In Seniority, everyone plays a critical role (if you're doing it right)!

I have even better news.  Yes, having a great team makes life at the zoo or aquarium awesome (or bearable when things are craptastic).  Yes, having a great time is hard work but it's FREE and ANYONE can do it.  But even better, I've come up with an ACRONYM!!!!!!!! MY VERY OWN! And you can use it to.  What is Teamwork to this fish-chucker who pens this blog? Here it is.  Ready?  


Oh god there it is

What?  What? Was that unexpected?  Shame on you if it was.

And I mean, that guy knew how to lead a team.

So here is the Middle Flipper Teamwork Donut.  Read it, live it, discuss it, and if you hate it you can at least thank me for giving you some kind of insatiable craving for the best breakfast item in this sector of the galaxy.

D = Dependability
O = Open-Mindedness
N = Nice, BE!
U = Unique Individuals
T = Testing The Limits


You can always depend on an otter to shove rocks into places rocks should never go

Teamwork is about being dependable.  For anyone at any level, you can be dependable with the no-d'uh stuff, like: being on time, following through with whatever tasks you're assigned to or you volunteer to do, blah blah blah.

But one thing I adore about my Donut Team is that I can depend on them to show up every day with a lot of passion to learn, teach when appropriate, and love the animals like crazy.  They dependably bring their A-Game every day.  Is everyone BFFs and paint each others' toenails and drink wine every night together? Um, no. But every person, regardless of the normal dynamic of a bunch of people (er, mostly chicks) working closely together knows that their attitude and quality of work is depended upon by everyone else....including the animals we care for. 

Dependability also strongly rests on the senior staff.  It's our responsibility to the team to be dependable in how we handle situations running the gamut from Stressful to Awesome.  It's not enough for a management team to be like, "Hey, you minions, keep everything going and be great all the time, we'll just be here hanging out."  We must be dependable in our availability, our coaching, our positive reinforcement, and when necessary, in our constructive feedback.  Dependability is everyone's responsibility on a great team.

Open Mindedness 

In the case of donuts, it's okay to have an open mind in order to have an open mouth.  Taro donut? Om nom nom.

Especially for animal caretakers and trainers, it is critical that everyone on a team keeps their mind open.  This doesn't mean you let your skills or opinions become amorphous blobs of hippy-dippy philosophy that Every Idea Is A Winner.  It just means that you aren't married to all of your convictions.  

At the non-senior level, being open-minded means learning from the experiences (and mistakes) of the people with more experience than you.  It means that no matter how confident you are in your abilities (and hey, that's pretty common especially when you've got a couple of years under your belt), you're always willing to learn and admit when you're wrong.  

At the senior level, being open-minded encompasses more than just learning from your superiors; it means being open to your subordinates, too.  They know better than anyone how well you play on the team, because they're the ones following your lead.  If you aren't doing an effective job as a senior team member, your junior team members are well aware of that.

For people at ANY level, you become a great team member when you keep networking with people in your field, reading books relevant to your job, and actively listening/observing what your other coworkers are doing and saying.  I've learned so much about communication skills and training methods from people with a lot less experience than me, simply because they had a different way of looking at a problem.  

Fostering an open-minded culture in a team promotes trust and respect between each member.  And guess what?  It also allows you to give the best possible care to the animals.  Being a close-minded know-it-all is annoying no matter WHAT level you are, but it shuts you off to a lot of solutions to problems or just great opportunities you can give to the animals you love.  

Nice, BE

A great example of self-kindness

Be nice! Easy, right?

Okay I know, sometimes it isn't.  Sometimes there's that person who just ohhhhh, rubs you the wrong way.  No matter what their position is compared to yours, there's a whole set of stressful things that happen when your patience is tried by a team member who just isn't your fav.  

Still, in order to be a cohesive team, you've got to be Nice.  DONUT with no N is "DOUT" which sounds an awful lot like "doubt".  

Okay, I know that was a stretch.  But STILL

For the skeptics out there, or for those of you who are like, "But CAT, you don't understand how awful this person is!!!!!!!!!!!!", here's my response:

Do you like working on a team with people who aren't nice to each other?  There is no way you said yes.**  I don't care if your arch nemesis is on your team, it's still critical to be a decent human being towards them.  I say that not as some ethical guru who's trying to make you a better person, I say that as a marine mammal trainer who has seen what happens when a team makes an awesome job feel like a nightmare just because the people aren't nice to each other (but of course, are always nice to the animals).  

While you can't control how other people treat you, you can sure set a good example for them by being nice.  Not best friends.  Not insincere.  Just nice.

This goes for managers, too.  Being nice to subordinate team members doesn't mean not correcting mistakes or holding people accountable when necessary (that'd go against your dependability as a manager who is supposed to coach and guide, right?).  But there is no need to be cruel, rude, or disrespectful to people.  There is no need to look at employees at any level as replaceable or as a warm body to do some work.  

Everyone on your team is there because they love the same animals you do.  They worked really hard to get to where they are.  They, like you, have flaws and weaknesses.  But they, like you, fall in love every day with the animals they look at.  They, like you, feel their hearts break into millions of tiny pieces when an animal dies.  They, like you, are a human being.  

You just can't have a great team without everyone being Nice.  

Unique Individuals

Embrace individuality!

Every team is comprised of people who uniquely contribute to animal care and the facility as a whole.  Yeah, is it easy to find an entry-level trainer to fill a spot?  Sure is, because this is a competitive field.  But does that mean that every staff member is replaceable?  NO.

I'll brag about my team here for a second.  Each person has a unique method of building relationships with animals.  Each person has cultivated a special bond with the animals they are cleared to work with; from an adorable cockatiel to our most challenging sea lion or dolphin.  Especially as animal trainers, we scream from the mountaintops how our training programs are not based on hurling fish into gaping mouths just so that we can please a few hundred people in a show.  We (correctly) declare that we spend years cultivating trusting relationships with the animals in our care so that we can provide them the best care, as well as inspire the general public to give a hoot about wildlife.

The only way that relationship is possible is if each trainer, under the appropriate coaching of senior staff, is allowed to be their unique selves with the animals.  They give something special only THEY can give as an individual to that animal.  

Not only that, but each team member contributes something invaluable to the human team itself.  Who's the funny one?  The one everyone goes to for advice? Who's the accident-prone one?  The one who has the best parties?  Who's the bookworm? Or the one who keeps you updated on all the latest celebrity gossip?  Who's the one with the really interesting coworkers at their second job?  Who's the crafty one?  Yes, I'm rambling, but there's a method to my blabber.  Each person on your team brings to the table something wonderful and unique that makes your job that much better.

So can I replace any of those trainers?  No, I can't replace a single one of them.   I can fill their positions, but that's not the same thing is it?  The position would be filled by a totally new person with an entirely different set of something to offer the rest of us (animals included).

A great animal training team also recognizes the unique individuals who visit from other facilities, whether they are consulting, coming to learn animals that will be on a transport, or just simply stopping in to check out your program.  While you may not work with them every day, for the hours or days they are with you, they are just as much a part of your team.  

An awesome zoo; here's their website!

The past few days, we've had two awesome staff members from Cleveland Zoo visiting us because they will be caring for some of our African penguins for several months.  We've welcomed them with open arms to be as much or little involved as they wanted in our daily goings-on in addition to our penguin sessions, and they've been a huge part of our day.  We've swapped so many ideas, stories, and laughs; their presence and clear grasp of DONUT teamwork has made the past two trying days really, really great.  They, along with the other amazing trainers/keepers we've met in conjunction with transports and general networking, are just as much a part of our extended team.

Testing the Limits

Can't argue with a wolf meme

A good team has dependable, open-minded, nice, and unique members.  They can keep the system steady-as-she-goes.  Sometimes, when the mood strikes them, they push the envelope.

But a great team always tests the limits of greatness.  Especially in animal care and training, there is no settling for status quo.  A great team has a culture of being happy with their results, but never satisfied with things being "just the way they are."  A great team, with unique individuals who are passionate and willing to learn, can take any seemingly-menial task and turn it into a challenge for improvement.

Anyone at any level in our field can look to make constant improvements.  How?  By improving yourself; test your own limitations.  Read a lot of books on whatever: the animals in your care, the industry itself, leadership development, economics, animal enrichment, etc.  Do you have a skill that can better your staff, the animals' care, or the zoo or aquariums mission? 

Develop new enrichment, present a summary of a cool new article or interesting IMATA, AZA, or Zookreepers topic of discussion.  You can do a lot to keep things fresh and interesting even if you're on the bottom rung of the ladder.  And the sky's the limit once you start getting some training experience under your belt, because you can always improve upon training goals.  

An actual team of donuts

DONUT teams are not just feel-good experiences.  They take a lot of hard work; you don't work hard to establish (or participate in) a DONUT team.  You work hard every day to get great, and then to keep it there.  DONUT teams are happier, much more productive, and have less turnover.  It's not rocket science that people are way happier working on staffs where they feel their individual contributions to the team are valued.  But DONUT teams only work if all players involved are willing to play and work hard together.  Good thing there are a lot of people out there at many different facilities who do that every single day.

To my team, both current staff members and "honorary" ones (especially the few of you who just went to dinner with us on Saturday night!), thank you for being such awesome DONUTs.  You all inspire me more than you'll ever know. 


* I mean, the team doesn't BELONG to me or anything, but you know what I mean.  Plus, I do feed them donuts on a regular basis so that's got to stand for something

** If you did, you need a donut to get the blood sugar back to a happy place

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