Home > Project Management, Teamwork > An Inspiring Story about an Extraordinary Team and Culture

An Inspiring Story about an Extraordinary Team and Culture

We all aspire to work with great teams and I’ve had some amazing experiences in that regard. Several years ago I had the good fortune to manage a development team in Sweden. That team did many great things, but this story only involves them culturally. In fact, the best way to describe that team is to say that they’d get more satisfaction reading about the exploits of their countrymen than they would reading about themselves.

Let’s start by setting the stage. Our team was located in Skellefteå, a town of 35,000 in northern Sweden. And, when I say northern Sweden, think arctic circle, reindeer, midnight sun, connecting flights, prop-jets, etc…

Skellefteå has a small, efficient airport and travelers typically use the bus when getting to and fro. This is quite convenient because, in Skellefteå, the bus schedule isn’t independent, it’s built around the actual arrival and departure of planes. And, as I sat across the city square from my hotel drinking a beer with a colleague, I fully intended to begin my journey home with that bus.

So it was a bit concerning when I noticed a bus pulling away from my hotel after returning from the bar with another beverage. Was that my bus? Surely not I thought confidently as we drank our beers. After all, I was a seasoned traveler who knew the plane schedule well. Thirty minutes later, I meandered across the square and asked the hotel receptionist when my bus would arrive, so I could fly to Stockholm.

Sir! She said with alarm, your bus left 35 minutes ago! I was lost in thought, because that meant I would be spending the night and missing a host of other commitments. She was not lost in thought; she was rapidly speaking Swedish into the phone. Before my thoughts were complete, a car screeched to a halt outside reception and a very concerned driver bolted through the doors. He grabbed my 40 pound bag, threw it over his shoulder, ran to the car and threw it into the trunk, with me in tow and all the while imploring me to hurry. Obviously, she’d called me a car and, oops, I hadn’t settled the bill.

Once in the car we traveled the one lane roads at breakneck speed, which was odd, because the Swedes are notoriously law abiding. When not calmly speaking Swedish into his cell phone, my driver asked me a few particulars, like where I was going. And, when we arrived at the airport, he again grabbed my 40 pound bag, threw it over his shoulder and ran – this time into the terminal – where he threw it onto a moving conveyor belt.

Behind the desk, a smartly dressed luggage handler wrapped an already printed destination tag around my luggage handle as it disappeared up the belt, just as the clerk handed me an already printed boarding pass (how did that happen?) and briskly walked me to a waiting security checkpoint were I provided my fingerprint and breezed through. Finally, I was escorted by a flight attendant out to the tarmac, up the steps and onto the plane where the doors closed immediately behind me and we departed – on time. Ten minutes later we were airborne and, freshly provisioned with another beer, I reflected on the evening’s events.

The hotel, cab, airline and security personnel all worked for different companies. They all had jobs to do and rules to follow. But the chain of events that got me to Stockholm required that each of them modify their normal routine and coordinate across traditional boundaries in order to provide me with an extraordinary experience. The story ends when I next visited Sweden and described my experience to a cab driver who, with obvious pride, told me that travelers rarely missed flights in Skellefteå. Indeed.

Like our team, this driver was raised on the Scandinavian Jante Law, which downplays individual achievements and focuses on the group. I use this story occasionally because even though it celebrates the achievements of a small town in Sweden, it’s a global story. We all want to be part of a team that operates like that. We all want to do a great job and provide a great result. When leaders are at their best, they tap into that desire. You can’t extract performance like that, it needs to be given.

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  1. Peter Hallett
    December 29, 2010 at 9:38 pm

    Jim, I love this story of, what, “extramural” team work. And, visiting Sweden is on my bucket list.

    • December 29, 2010 at 9:50 pm

      Thanks Peter. Definitely recommend Sweden!

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