Speaking.com Interview with Robyn Benincasa
With a trio of Guinness World Records to her name, a CNN Hero designation and a world champion Eco-challenge Adventure Racer, few people are better placed than full-time firefighter Robyn Benincasa to talk about Human Synergy, the force which allows ordinary people to achieve extraordinary things. She brings her experience of leadership, teamwork and overcoming adversity to her inspiring presentations.
Since 1995, Robyn has been working with racing teams around the world to take on the most extreme challenges imaginable—from the jungles of Borneo to the Himalayas, from the rain forests of Ecuador to the deserts of Namibia. Racing against time to complete seemingly impossible challenges, Robyn has developed a unique knowledge of what it takes to develop a world-class team and to lead them through challenges and changes to success.
A “we thinking” leader inspires their team to not just walk side by side together, but to literally and figuratively carry one another when they need to. All problems are “ours,” and responsibility for success and failure is shared as one.
SPEAKING.COM: What are some of the main challenges and opportunities faced today in organizational team building and leadership?
BENINCASA: “We thinking” is probably the most overlooked aspect of team building. Most people think of a team as a group of individuals, moving forward together towards a common goal. But a “we thinking” leader inspires their team to not just walk side by side together, but to literally and figuratively carry one another when they need to. All problems are “ours,” and responsibility for success and failure is shared as one.
For example, when we race, every team at the front of the pack is utilizing tow lines that stretch from the back of a stronger team member’s pack to the chest strap of a team member who is slower at the moment, so that the slower person can be pulled along at a faster pace with less effort, and we can move faster as a team than the four individuals can move alone. We will all be that strong team member and we will all be that weaker team member at some point in the long run, so all egos must be focused on team success versus individual glory.
In our day-to-day life, “we thinking” is manifested in how we choose to lead our lives. Who is on your team? Is it just you? Is it just your family? Is it your clients? Everyone in your company? We all decide every day who is on our team and who is not.
For the most part, if we’re honest, we’re all pretty competitive and we tend to operate as soloists. But “we thinkers” make the conscious and important effort to leave their house every day and see a world full of potential teammates versus a world full of potential competitors. They capitalize on their strengths and barter their weaknesses to their “team”. And in doing so, they get a lot further, faster.
SPEAKING.COM: How do you suggest people embrace team building principles?
BENINCASA: You have to be a part of the right team. If you don’t feel motivated or productive in your team, you may not be in the right team, or in the right role. On a great team, all of the members bring something unique and valuable to the table that they share with the team; on this team, you are absolutely recognized and applauded for your contributions. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t be there for very long!
It’s a common misconception that team building is a completely selfless endeavor. But while it is true that a great team member must wrap their ego around the team’s success instead of their own individual glory (egos must be left at the start line–but not confidence!), the whole point of “strategic team building” is to seek out people who have strengths that you don’t possess, and to share your core talents with them. All of this is for mutual gain.
For example, over a few years of ups and downs with teams, I formulated a recipe for success in my sport. The four team members who would travel together, day and night, non-stop for six to ten days had to be great teammates first. I needed two of the team members to be world-class navigators, two to be solid mountain bikers, two to be very strong paddlers, and one had to be a great strategic thinker who was great at interpreting the road rules we were given.
As you can imagine, everyone on the team got to be the hero when it came to their unique strength, and they were recognized and applauded by everyone on the team for their efforts. Then it would be another team member’s time to shine as we switched sports, took care of one another, navigated successfully through the dark of night, etc. We genuinely needed one another and openly appreciated and applauded individual effort, and we were on the podium race after race as a team.
We don’t inspire others by showing them how amazing we are; we inspire them by showing them how talented, smart and capable they are.
SPEAKING.COM: Can you give us five tips for building human synergy and peak performance?
1. Your ego is the heaviest thing in your backpack, so leave it at the start line.
2. Acting like a team is more important than feeling like a team.
3. We don’t inspire others by showing them how amazing we are; we inspire them by showing them how talented, smart and capable they are.
4. We work for people, not for companies. The best leaders always remember that
5. Great leaders change their leadership style like a golfer changes his clubs. Use the right style for the job: coach, visionary, friend, pacesetter, consensus builder, etc.
Are you consistently doing what it takes to win versus simply not losing? It’s a completely different mindset, leading to vastly different outcomes
SPEAKING.COM: What are some of the key leadership principles leaders should cultivate?
BENINCASA: Be ruled by the hope of success versus the fear of failure!
Are you consistently doing what it takes to win versus simply not losing? It’s a completely different mindset, leading to vastly different outcomes. Fortune favors the bold. Great leaders are shattering the norm, changing the game, and doing things that have never been done in an effort to propel their team to the next level. They are courageous–not only in terms of innovation, but in terms of perseverance: taking step after step, day after day, relentlessly pursuing excellence.
We’ve won many a race not only by slowing down less than the other teams, but also by coming up with some game changing solutions. Once, in a 100-mile whitewater canoeing leg to the finish, my teammate taught me the “be ruled by the hope of success” lesson through some tough love.
We were paddling our whitewater raft near the front of the race on day 6 and every couple of minutes, I looked behind us to see where our closest competitors were. That is, until the teammate sitting behind me grabbed the top of my head, spun it back around to face forward, pointed down the river and said, “Winning is THAT way!”. My other teammate overheard the admonishment and realized my teammate was right. We had to focus on winning versus not losing.
So in the next leg, when race organizers gave each team two separate inflatable canoes, my innovative teammates decided to tie our two canoes together with our climbing rope, end to end, creating one very long, rigid and FAST new boat, powered by every member of the team. We also switched out our canoe paddles (single blades) for kayak paddles (double blades), which was far outside the norm for canoe travel. With those visionary changes, we caught the team that was an hour ahead of us and went on to win the race by 2 hours on that final leg.
In another race, the Borneo Eco-Challenge, we took the lead halfway through the race by turning a proposed ‘hiking leg’ of the race into a swimming leg by jumping into the rising whitewater rapids, generated by a recent flash flood, and swimming for several hours downriver (just yards from the hiking trail). Much of this was in the dark. It was extremely risky, but also cutting-edge cunning. We never looked back, and lead the race all the way from there to the finish line.
We did what it took to win, and not to “not lose”. Leaders need to be working with their teams to build what is needed in innovation and teamwork to beat the competition continuously rather than being satisfied with being ahead of the competition only because the competition isn’t doing anything. Don’t be satisfied with being less than you can be because you’re afraid of failing. Let the need to win because you are the best rule your actions instead.
That’s another important leadership skill: when to inspire, when to instill tough love, when to coach, when to lay down the law, when to get out front and show your team the way, or when to let them lead… and when to cut bait.
SPEAKING.COM: What is “kinetic leadership” and how does it help advance teamwork?
BENINCASA: As an example, someone on your team may not be exceptional at face-to-face client meetings, but you discover they have a talent for writing great copy for graphic design, or they’re fantastic with strategy. Keep digging until you find the gold that that person can offer the team. Let them lead based on their strength versus their title.
If at the end of the day this person isn’t cutting it on any level, you have to do the rest of the team justice and move that person off of your team before overall team morale is diminished. That’s another important leadership skill: when to inspire, when to instill tough love, when to coach, when to lay down the law, when to get out front and show your team the way, or when to let them lead… and when to cut bait.
SPEAKING.COM: What are your main professional passions?
BENINCASA: My professional passion is speaking! And I enjoy inspiring others to find the powerful team-builder, teammate, and leader in themselves. I genuinely love connecting with corporate audiences and adventurers on our Project Athena events. I love sharing the incredible winning synergy that we learned while inspiring semi-exhausted people to a nearly impossible finish line for days on end in the sport of adventure racing.
My other professional passion is firefighting! I would love to say that becoming a firefighter was a mission I had as a child, but I was pretty sure I was going to be a garbage person. I really dug the way they hung off the back of the truck.
When I graduated from college with a B.S in Marketing, I worked as a hospital supply and pharmaceutical sales rep for about seven years, but I was still equally drawn to my athletic life. So in 1996 I ditched the panty hose and heels and picked up an application for the San Diego Fire Department. I passed all the tests, but there was an unfortunate three-year hiring freeze.
So I had some fun as a substitute teacher and semi-professional athlete (the nice way to say “lived with roommates or on friend’s couches”), until I got my shot at the fire academy. Being a firefighter allows me to be all of the things I love the most–an athlete, a rescuer, an emergency medical first responder, a teammate, and an adventurer. It’s never the same day twice!
For the last 4 years, my team of Athenas and I have taken cancer survivors and survivors of other medical or traumatic setbacks and trained them for some incredible endurance adventures.
SPEAKING.COM: What other projects are you working on currently?
BENINCASA:I founded Project Athena back in 2009, after my own personal experience battling my body. My mission behind Project Athena started when I was in the middle of the 2007 World Adventure Racing Championship in Scotland. I came to a point where I could no longer move forward on the course without literally picking up my leg and moving it forward. My teammates had to tow me to the finish line.
When I arrived home, I went to an orthopedic surgeon and discovered I had stage 4 osteoarthritis in both hips. I was in complete shock and didn’t want to believe it. That marked the beginning of what is now a total of four hip replacements in four years. (My first two failed). But it didn’t mark an end to my adventurous life. It just sparked a change of sports and a new beginning.
After my first hip replacement, I knew I would get my spirit back by planning new adventures and embracing new sports. Then it occurred to me that other women who have survived setbacks far worse than mine might really benefit from getting outside and inspiring and amazing themselves through adventurous and athletic goals. So for the last 4 years, my team of Athenas (all survivors helping survivors) and I have taken cancer survivors and survivors of other medical or traumatic setbacks and trained them for some incredible endurance adventures, surrounded by a cohesive and supportive team.
Our new Athenas have crossed the Grand Canyon twice on foot, ran a marathon on the Great Wall of China, completed their first triathlons, etc. It’s the best adventure of my life to combine a love of teamwork and inspiration, with elevating the people around us who need it the most.