Some Thoughts On Leadership And Bike Rides
For the last few years I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and reading about leadership and management. The company I work at has grown from 5 to 120 people over the last 3 years and my role has changed from being an individual technical contributor to one that is a lot more focused on people.
Every Thursday during the summer I lead a bike ride: #fmrideATL. It’s a ‘social training’ ride which means that it is really tough, but we’re in it together and try to have some fun. Last Thursday, we ‘dropped’ someone for the first time in as long as I can remember, and I felt pretty bad about it. Thinking about this while grinding up the next long hill, I realized that the makings of a successful group ride (and specifically my ride) have a lot in common with some things that I think are important about leading people.
I’m the ride leader, this is my ride, I make the rules.
fmrideATL is not a democracy. It is my ride and I make the rules. Each year I change the route a little bit based on safety issues, feedback from people, and with the intent to add in some more climbing without sacrificing safety or fun. The route currently has 50+ turns, 30+ miles, and 3000+ feet of climbing. Everyone has their favorite and least favorite parts of the route, and because it’s not up for a vote we can expend our energy on other things. People get directed to me with questions, and I’m the person with the answers and the reasons. Rules are posted on the website, and shared before the start of the ride with anyone new that shows up.
Soliciting feedback on big decisions is good, but a group of people trying to get complete consensus on a route will not happen. This is ‘Authoritarian’ leadership, which is ‘informed’ and ‘transparent’.
There are very few rules, and they are good rules.
fmrideATL has very few rules. I have a route including a start time and location, some specifics on the days and conditions under which the ride is on or will be cancelled, a single safety rule (Helmets and Lights are required), and some expectations for people that are new to the ride about where we’ll stop to regroup, where water is, and what we’ll do if someone is too slow. There are not rules about following traffic laws (we go through stop signs and traffic lights as a group which is of questionable legality), how to ride in a group (e.g. not overlapping wheels), etc. More rules wouldn’t make this a safer or more fun ride.
Rules (also known as Processes) should be created for very good reasons, should be extremely clear, and should be constantly re-evaluated for effectiveness. Rands has a great article on “The Process Myth”, and First Round has a good one on “a way to handle and re-evaluate them. Read these if you make decisions.
Everyone is not invited, and expectations are set.
fmrideATL is a hard ride, and while everyone is invited, I lay out specific expectations for new riders in the hopes of discouraging people from showing up that are not ready. The course is posted online for anyone to try out on their own time, and information about average speed, distance, and climbing are the usual metrics that people consider when picking a ride. When new people show up, I ask them “Do you know what you’re getting into?” and make sure that they understand what the ride entails.
Having clear expectations is absolutely essential for anyone to do anything. In a work environment, there are people that are better fits for a particular job or task than others and it’s important to get the right people. Not everyone is going to make the cut, which hurts but is the way it works.
“no-drop unless we talk about it”
The range of abilities on #fmrideATL is a little wide, and depending on who shows up on a day, our speed and effort level can go up or down. When someone is the slowest by a significant margin, we make sure that before we leave them somewhere, we make sure that they know they are being left, and that they know how to (and are comfortable with) getting home on their own. This means stopping at turns when someone can’t see the direction we are turning, and ‘easing up’ the pace sometimes to let people catch up or catch their breath.
Someone has to be paying attention to how everyone is doing, and if they’re getting overwhelmed, it’s a leaders job to speak up and do something. Someone really far down ‘in the hole’ isn’t going to be able to ask for help, and may not know that they can.
Welcome and encourage the newcomers.
New people are welcomed on #fmride, and we usually have a handful of new people every week. Most of them don’t come back because it’s a pretty hard bike ride, but those that do get a lot out of it. Newcomers become regulars, and it’s the regulars that make the ride a success.
Everyone moves on or quits, and everyone’s interests and abilities change over time. Without a continual influx of new, anything (regardless of how big it is) can fade to nothing. This is hiring new people, and developing people you have in new ways.
Nurture the regulars.
There are more people that I know via #fmrideATL than people that I knew and convinced to come to #fmrideATL. The last ride of the year we go on a fun ride and get dinner instead of training, I get people to go on other different kinds of rides with me (e.g. mountain biking). We adjust the pace depending on how people are feeling, and occasionally make a fun detour to KOM a hill or stop for drinks for someone’s birthday. Different people take the lead, and we talk about potential changes to the route for next year.
A ‘gelled’ team works together and does a better job of solving problems than a team under a leader that keeps their door shut and doesn’t include them. This means that the 5-minute conversation you have with someone about what they did over the weekend is probably more important than cutting a meeting 5 minutes shorter or spending the 5 minutes talking about a technical problem. Get to know people, involve them, and it’ll make a positive impact on the ‘work’ side of things.
Sometimes I don’t even show up.
Some Thursday evenings, I have something else come up and I can’t make it to the ride. When this happens, I make sure that someone that is going to be there knows that I won’t be there. Given the consistency of the route, the (few) rules, and the consistent nature of the ride as a whole, any of the other regulars can lead the ride without me. They know the route, they know what to do even though I’m not there.
As a leader, your team should be able to make decisions in your absence and always should know “What would you(their leader) do?”. If this isn’t happening, your team is not as effective as it could be and you may be slowing them down instead of speeding them up.
I am not the fastest person.
I am not even close to the fastest person on my ride. This is ok! Usually I ‘lead out’ at the beginning to set a reasonable pace , and then try to hide in the pack to save some energy except for the one or two hills I’m trying to set a personal best time on that night. Other regulars take turns leading, from just expending energy, to making sure that the front of the group (or the back!) makes all the correct turns. This wouldn’t work too well if I’d never ridden a bicycle before, but the shared common ground makes it work.
A leader needs to be able to understand what their team is doing, but they don’t need to be the best at it, and probably shouldn’t be the best. Someone that is ‘the best’ at something is going to have to work a lot harder to let people on their team make decisions, make mistakes, and learn from their mistakes.
Everyone makes mistakes.
~~We~~ I lost someone on a turn last week, and that is a bummer. I’m extremely deliberate about how I run this ride, but mistakes do happen sometimes. They serve as good validations of the few rules the ride has, and I hope will make the rules easier to remember and follow in the future.
Mistakes are ok as long as you learn from them. Someone(s) ‘breaking a rule’ over and over may be a sign that the person(people) are the problem, but they may also be a good sign that a ‘rule’ is the problem.