State Policy Network
What all strong teams have in common: An interview with Robyn Benincasa

Robyn Benincasa is the founder of World Class Teams, an adventure racing world champion, a CNN Hero, former corporate sales expert and a full-time firefighter who advises organizations on building World Class Teams of their own.

Robyn was also the featured keynote speaker at SPN’s annual Thomas A. Roe Award Dinner at the SPN 27th Annual Meeting in Colorado Springs. In this interview, she shares her insights and experiences from 20 years of adventure racing to inspire the Network’s efforts to build resilient teams and leadership when the stakes are high and the going gets tough.

SPN: What is the number one thing strong teams have in common? Is there a common trait or approach?

Robyn: They leave their egos at the start line. It’s the heaviest thing in one’s backpack, and you can’t bring it to the race course or to work. Be ruled by the hope of success versus the fear of failure and focus on what it takes to win versus simply not lose.  

You can create new momentum and ownership of the outcomes by being a leader who asks for input from the team. Speak to your teammates about “challenges” instead of “roadblocks.” It’s not always going to be pretty or the way you imagined it, but successful teams press forward with a great attitude and do the best they can for as long as they can, using the talent and tools they’ve got. And don’t be afraid to make a U-turn when necessary!

SPN: What makes a great leader a great teammate?

Robyn: In the fire service, we are trained to be top-down managers. But in the sport of adventure racing, we learned the power of a democratic leadership style, in which everyone is asked for input, no ideas are crazy, and brainstorming together is the fastest way to the finish line. Four brains are always better than one! We definitely have a team captain, but that role is administrative in general. When your whole life or career involves a series of unique challenges to overcome, day in and day out, one person can’t have all the answers. There are a lot of smart people on the crew with experience in different aspects of life. The best and brightest leaders will view asking those people for input and ideas as a strength, not a weakness.

SPN: What are the best ways leaders or team members can help teammates understand they can keep going—even in the face of failure or when the odds seem impossible?

Robyn: There are challenges that we choose to take on, and then there are challenges that just happen to us. I think leaders and team members deal with both of those in similar ways.

To encourage people through the tough times in races, in life, or in careers, I like to pass on tried-and-true advice and beliefs based on my team’s experiences:

Pain is mandatory, suffering is optional. Sometimes you just have to laugh to get through the ludicrous times and realize this is a moment that will bond a team forever — in a great way.

In the hardest times during a race, I walk myself through this scenario: “What story do I want to tell people next week when I’m safe, happy, and warm? The story of the girl who quit in her darkest hour? Or the story of the girl who persevered through it all and crossed the finish line? I get to decide this right now. And that decision will affect me for the rest of my life.” When decisions are made from that perspective, you can’t help but make the right one.

SPN: What has been your greatest challenge as leader who builds and motivates teams? How have you overcome that challenge?

Robyn: After 20 years of endurance racing, including 10 Ironman Triathlons and 40+ multi day multi-sport Adventure Races, I discovered that I had Stage 4 osteoarthritis in both of my hips! I thought I had torn my hip flexor in the Adventure Racing World Championships in Scotland. I had to move my leg forward with my hand or a rope for the last three days of the race. When I came home and went to the doctor, an X-Ray showed that I had zero cartilage left on either side.

It was awful for a few weeks, knowing that my competitive adventure racing career was over, but then I started focusing on what I could do instead of what I couldn’t do. I thought about how I could use my background and experience in adventure and endurance sports to somehow help others. So, I decided to try my hand at being a competitive ultra-endurance kayaker after my first total hip replacement (I didn’t need my legs for that!), which is my new love and something I discovered I’m super competitive at—who knew?

Not too long after I set my first 24-hour Guinness World Record for paddling, I had another idea. I was inspired by my awesome pal and two-time breast cancer survivor, Louise Cooper, who always put a huge adventurous goal on her calendar as she was going through her rough times with treatment. I wondered if we could help other survivors recover by helping them accomplish their own adventurous dreams. And the non-profit Project Athena Foundation was born!

Louise showed me that you’re never defined by your setback. You are defined by your comeback. I have spent a lot of time over the last eight years planning for, training for, and completing my own comebacks. Now, helping myself and others turn their setbacks into comebacks is my personal and professional quest!

SPN: What are the most common things that derail forming a good team?

Robyn: As a manager, you are a facilitator of your team’s success. You give your team everything they need to be successful and make sure the day runs smoothly and things get done. This side of your role is the “rules enforcement” or “let’s make the chief happy” side. Being a leader is a completely different job. A leader inspires their crew to be better, sets solid expectations, consistently builds the team, acts like a great leader even if they don’t feel like one, gives respect as a gift and not a grade, mentors the team, and is always the “us” in the us/them scenario.

In my opinion, the best captains aren’t just getting their paperwork done on time and making sure the kids in the stations toe the line. From my firefighter’s perspective, the best leaders are those who focus on being a great teammate and mentor versus pulling out their bugles to demand respect. I have had some exceptional leaders in my career and some pretty awful ones. It makes a huge impact on how everyone around them feels about coming to work, how much they want to drill, how well the crew bonds, and most importantly, how they perform in the heat of battle. It’s important to the organization that you manage, but it’s more important to the team and the citizens you serve that you are a leader.