Keeping your team aligned is a struggle. It doesn’t matter if you have an office or if you’re a fully distributed, remote team, it’s hard to keep people on the same page as you grow your business.
But for the past couple of years, I’ve been a remote leader of a local team—I’m in Boston, MA, they’re in Scottsdale, AZ and not always even together—but it’s worked surprisingly well.
I think that’s partly because for nearly a decade prior to launching Trainual, I was what many might call a “digital nomad,” making my living traveling, shooting adventure films, and working with brands to create digital content from some of the world’s wildest places.
I learned how to operate efficiently and communicate effectively from a distance. And also, how to lead teams with diverse skillsets and experience levels through challenging, changing environments.
So, want to keep your team aligned and accountable as you grow?
Follow these 5 simple steps—lessons learned from a decade of leading mountain teams in the world’s most challenging environments and translated for high functioning business teams.
1. Define The Objective
The first thing you need to do to align your team and keep them on the same page is to set your objective.
For a mountaineer, this is as simple as looking at a mountain and wanting to get to the summit. In business, these are your project goals, quarterly objectives, and annual targets.
But the key is to know, before you set out, what you’re trekking toward and how you know when you get there. To do this, set clear and quantifiable key performance indicators (KPIs) for you and your team.
This can look like a monthly recurring revenue goal (MRR), number of units sold, or a customer count. But you need to clearly define what success looks like. That way, even the newest member of your team can jump right in and know that they are contributing in a meaningful way.
However, success often isn’t defined in a single goal. For example, a mountaineer wants to summit the mountain. But the secondary, and actually more important objective, is to return from the mountain safely.
What does this mean in your business environment? When building your team, you need to set individual KPIs in addition to team KPIs. That way, everyone owns a number. This might look like social growth for your social media person or close rate for sales.
But by setting those clear KPIs from the start, you define both what each individual’s mountain is and what mountain the entire team is climbing, orienting everyone toward success.
2. Establish Roles
This might seem like common sense – but so many businesses don’t take the time to proactively define who owns what.
The result is everyone doing a little bit of everything, and team members not knowing what is expected of them. This leads to guesswork, confusion, and discontent throughout the team. But by establishing clear roles, you get everyone up to speed, on the same page, and working together.
On an expedition up Denali – the highest mountain in North America – my rope team consisted of 2 guys I had been climbing with for almost 10 years and another, newer friend.
After years of adventuring with someone, your nonverbal communication is perfectly aligned. When you step on the mountain, you know what needs to happen, you know your role, and know exactly how to step into it.
But the new friend to join the team had only ever been on one other mountain with us before. And he didn’t have a set role or understand the existing unspoken ways we communicated and moved through the mountains.
When we started up Denali, we didn’t think twice. We just went. And that friend didn’t know what was expected of him, when he could challenge a decision, or really how to contribute best to the overall goal. And this was my failure as a leader.
This uncertainty led to big arguments in questionable places. But these conversations were necessary to define roles and helped us get up and out.
As far as doing this with your team, the most effective thing you can do right from the start is write down everything that you do. And each individual on the team should do the same.
This collection of responsibilities, the things that fall to you to do every day or every week, becomes so instrumental to a leader or any other team member understanding who’s responsible for what.
I like to organize this information in a Responsibility Matrix. By clearly outlining who does what, you create clear lanes for everyone on your team—so everybody knows their role.
3. Set Your Decision-Making Framework
This could be that you vote and majority rules, that appointed leaders make the final decision or a combination of different decision-making frameworks.
There’s no right or wrong answer here. But it’s critical to establish this before you set out – especially in a high-stakes mountaineering objective.
One time climbing Mount Rainier, I was leading two separate rope teams up what’s known as the Ingraham Glacier direct route—a difficult objective in the best of conditions.
This morning, the ice was thin and sugary snow underneath meant avalanche dangers were high. As we approached the crux of the climb, with massive exposure over huge ice seracs, I had to make the decision to turn the whole crew around.
It was 5 AM and we had been climbing for hours, and I knew that when the sun rose and warmed up the ice, this route would be impossible to descend. That decision was left to me as the most experienced in our group.
This is just one example of how this can play out. But for the sake of how you do it in your teams, it is incredibly important.
You can use the KPIs you set and the fact that everyone owns their number to guide your decision-making framework. This starts by setting up how you measure success. When you come to a decision point, you can ladder up which available option will get you up the mountain that you are trying to climb.
4. Create Checkpoints
In a mountain environment, we call these camps.
When you are climbing to the top of say Denali, you can’t just climb from the base to the summit of Denali in a day, and feel okay. You have to acclimatize at camps along the way.
But on these higher mountains, you are not just going from one camp to the next. Often you are bringing half your gear to the next camp, cache it, and go back to where you were to sleep low.
Then, the next day or a few days later, you carry the rest of your gear to the next camp and start again. Those efforts allow you to properly acclimatize so you can actually get to your goal.
And the same is true in business. You have to establish checkpoints so that you know where you need to stop and evaluate previous decisions and next steps. I like to think of it like acclimatizing your business so you can actually get up the mountain and hit your goals.
It is best to start on Day 1.
When we onboard new hires, we set them up on their first day with 30/60/90 day plans. That way, they know their team’s KPIs, the numbers they own, what is expected of them, and what checkpoints to look for.
By clearly outlining these checkpoints, like the camps up the mountain, we provide ourselves the opportunity to reevaluate where we need to be, take steps back, or reassess the established route, if necessary.
5. Document Everything
This goes right in line with proactively building out that Responsibility Matrix, which documents all the things you do and delegate.
For me, documenting has innately been a part of everything I have ever done – including these expeditions and the stories I could tell after.
Documenting though is more than just having something to reference, but taking a snapshot of a moment in time and how something was done that you can share and learn from.
And that meant documenting the tough times, too.
My greatest fear when climbing Denali was that we would get caught in a whiteout on the biggest mountain I’d ever stepped foot on. Halfway through the expedition, that is what happened.
And I remember in the middle of it – scared as I was – deciding to breathe deeply, take out my camera, and document it.
It is the same when you are a manager, needing to have the hard conversations. You want to have them face-to-face rather than by email or text. But you need to spend the time after the fact to document what happened and learn from the experience.
From my perspective, the catalyst of getting your team really aligned comes down to proactively and reactively documenting everything. That way, you have a complete picture of how you got where you are and how you do what you do.
We use Trainual for this because it’s the best. 😉
But the important thing is that you are documenting all the ins and outs of your business, no matter what stage you’re at.
By being proactive with taking these few simple steps, it’s so much easier to keep your team aligned and accountable, no matter where your team is working from.