Never had I imagined how beautiful exploding orange clays could be…until I missed one. And missed again and again.

A competitor by nature, I was both frustrated and humbled, and not until I took a deep breath and reset my frame of mind did the clays begin to fall. They ricocheted off trees and scattered the chipmunks below. Tiny orange pieces sprayed everywhere. It was exhilarating.

And so began The Council’s Leadership Team Experience this June at Orvis Sandanona, the oldest permitted shotgun shooting club in the country. Orvis, located in Millbrook, New York, offers a sprawling five-acre sporting-clays course with diverse stations, challenging each shooter to be precise yet flexible, quick yet patient.

The “Leadership Team Experience” is part of The Council’s Leadership Academy, which offers programs to varying levels of leaders at Council member firms. All Academy programs are based on the adult learning theory—that adults learn best by doing—and this shotgun outing did not disappoint.

As we traveled in a passenger van to the Orvis grounds, I couldn’t help wondering how shooting (or at least attempting to shoot) pancake-sized clays out of the air with a bunch of strangers could tangibly translate into an office setting, but the parallels drawn to our professional goals and objectives were on point.

It was a chance for all of us to take a step back, evaluate our personal strengths, weaknesses and tendencies, apply our perceived leadership skills in an unfamiliar situation and recognize that how we act and react can greatly affect a team’s success. It was a program that really opened one’s eyes to the importance of communication and team development and to how taking the time to practice and improve our professional interpersonal skills can go a long way in our day-to-day jobs. Everyone walked away with a personal action plan going forward.

“I now have a framework to understand leadership as a skill, that can by itself, be considered a craft that isn’t dependent upon how much I know about a given subject or project,” said Steve DeMatteo of York International Agency.

“I left the training with a sharpened awareness of the importance of making sure there is alignment to the vision we are trying to achieve,” proclaimed Marty Irons of The Graham Co.

It was facilitated by New Haven Consulting Group’s Rick Milczanowski and Alan Pakiela. Our group of nine was comprised of managers, directors, and C-level executives—all high-potential employees who currently lead, or are being groomed to lead, teams in the future. We spent a full day and a half learning and understanding our respective leadership behaviors and how those behaviors affect the teams we lead professionally.

Before we took to the course, Milczanowski and Pakiela dissected our individual DiSC Work of Leaders profiles, which we completed confidentially in the week leading up to the program. The DiSC model approaches leadership as a one-to-many relationship and specifically targets how one’s tendencies influence their effectiveness in certain leadership situations.

There are four DiSC categories: Dominance, Influence, Conscientiousness and Steadiness. The report is careful to state that everyone is a blend of all four styles but that most people trend more strongly to one or two styles.

After outlining our respective personalities and professional principles, we uncovered how different DiSC styles best interact with one another in an office setting.

“Connecting with other leaders from the insurance industry helped make the leadership lesson more connectable to my day to day work,” said Irons.

We identified some of our current struggles, such as adapting to various skill sets within a department, aligning people to a goal, communicating with other DiSC styles, getting caught in the day-to-day weeds instead of being able to think long term, and tactically going after an objective without taking the time to strategize or play to the strengths of the team.

It all came down to this: the work of successful leaders in any profession requires vision, alignment and execution: the same requirements of high-percentage shooting. How hard could it be?

The Tournament

After about 45 minutes of gun safety and shooting instruction, we were divided into three teams. Each team was paired with an Orvis-trained “trapper” (one who operates the machines that throw the clays), and provided a mean-looking, four-wheeling “Bad Boy” buggy. Carrying 300 rounds of ammo per buggy, we set out in different directions to tackle a 10-station course.

Each shooting bay was different. Targets were thrown in a great variety of trajectories, angles, speeds, elevations and distances. Some up, some down. Some at you, some away from you. Some were thrown as singles, others as doubles. One of the machines tossed three clays at a time. If they came out close enough to each other, you could shatter all three with one shot, fireworks-style. 

Tired and bruised (shoulders, cheeks and, well, some egos), all teams reported that by the end of the day they had built enough of a rapport and understanding with each other to allow them to work as a more productive unit. Some reported that their DiSC styles came out in full force; others said that they were a little more reserved due to the unfamiliar environment. It made for an interesting post-tournament discussion.

“This was a great an opportunity to take inventory of your strengths and weaknesses in a setting that compelled learning and self-awareness, which can be directly applied to your role and responsibilities at your agency,” said Mark Alberto of The Graham Co

Lessons Learned

Throughout the program, participants were drawing parallels between their experiences out on the course and their goals and objectives back home. One of the most telling examples was a comment made about the patience and adaptability of our shooting instructors and how it made them realize the importance of a firm’s approach when onboarding a new hire. Each group reported their instructor seemed to naturally customize the way they communicated with each of us based on our personalities, styles and skill sets. It was a firsthand reminder that your recruits are much more likely to be successful out in the field if they have a positive experience during the training.

Lou Roi of Hylant agreed. “I learned a great deal about myself, but most importantly, I can now apply what I have learned to become a better leader for my team and my employer.”

Developing a Plan

Helen Keller once said, “The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.” It’s a remarkable insight from a remarkable human being. So think about it. Could you lead better? Could you improve the work you do every day?

I love Nike’s line: “There’s always better.”

We all have our own ideas, experience and approach. It doesn’t matter how big or small your team or company is. The process is simple: craft a vision, build alignment, champion execution.
In the end, I found that those three objectives presented a manageable framework made all the more effective by straightforward explanations of what can and should be done to lead a highly productive team.

It’s the difference between management and leadership, and knowing there are important lessons to be learned in failing.

“Minor adjustments can make a world of difference,” said my Council colleague and fellow participant Julia Smith as we were wrapping up our session and making plans to follow up in the coming months. It was an unassuming yet strong summary of our time together at Orvis. Minor adjustments can make a world of difference, whether stalking sporting clays or being a better leader for your organization.