He and his crew labored for months high in the Colorado Rockies last summer. They hiked through snow and dodged rattlesnakes in the desert while working with the Southwest Conservation Corps to preserve America’s wildest places.
I asked him what he had learned about teamwork and leadership from that experience. What he shared with me about signing your work was practical, meaningful, and a valuable reminder about what it means to do a job right.
In the summer of 2017 my son, Nathaniel, worked as a part of a trail crew that performed a variety of conservation projects, deep in the Colorado wilderness. One project included maintaining part of the Continental Divide Trail, one of the premier long distance hiking trails in North America.
Already an Eagle Scout with five years of experience as an instructor for the National Youth Leadership Training program, he has a firm grasp of the principles of solid leadership and how to apply them in the real world.
Nonetheless, his experiences that summer hammered home a lesson we can all profit from. In this guest post, read about how when you insist on signing your work with excellence you can brighten your future and strengthen your team.
Over to Nathaniel:
Back when I worked with the Southwest Conservation Corps (SSC) our Coordinator was a brilliant and witty woman named Rebecca. As an experienced wilderness firefighter and outdoors-woman, she always had some timely wisdom to pass on, and before we went out on any job she would always remind us,
The statement is simple enough, but it became the essence of how our team worked. For two months, it was our John 3:16, and during that time, we saw the power that this attitude had to change how we saw our work and ourselves.
In this post I will unpack what this piece of advice came to mean to us, and how you can use it to help build a strong reputation and a sense of identity for your team by creating work that everyone can be proud of.
Painting your Signature
The work that you do is always seen as an extension of who you are, and no one knows this better than a painter. A painter will labor on a single piece for hours to create a work of art that is both skillful and distinctive: something that represents them.
But when all the hardest work is done, the painter still has one more job: to sign their name. A painting can be beautiful and unique, but until they put their name to the canvas it will never be properly theirs.
It does not take much effort for the painter to do this, but it lets the world know that the painting is something that they are proud of, a work that they want to be remembered by.
The Trail Builder’s Signature
It is hard to imagine something more distinct from painting pictures than our job of building trails for the Southwest Conservation Corps, but the painter’s attitude still applies.
Out on the trail, we would spend hours digging and reinforcing the path we were working on, moving dirt and stone and timbers. Trails take a lot of effort to build, but if you do it right, they can easily last for a hundred years without needing repair.
Sometimes, to get a trail up to this standard you have to do big things: plot the right direction, cut down a tree, build a retaining wall, or crush a few hundred cubic feet of gravel. But even if all the big things are done right, the project can still be undone if you get the little things wrong; a variance of five degrees in the slope of the trail can be the difference between a job well done and a job that needs to be re-done.
Because of this pressing need for precision, the last day of any project was always spent on quality control. It didn’t take much — compared to moving rocks around it was a holiday — but by the time we were done we knew that we had a product that could stand the test of time.
This was the way we finished. This was our signature. By taking the time to do this precision work, we let everyone know that this was a project that we were proud of, and wanted to be remembered by every time this trail is used for the next hundred years.
The way that you finish will always be an extension of who you are as a team.
Signatures Create a Reputation
Our Coordinator, Rebecca, knew this; and under her leadership, SCC has developed a reputation for being an organization that builds trails that last. It was a pleasure to be a part of this legacy, because every time we met a new client, we knew that they knew what we were all about.
Because they had seen our signature, we were confident that the people we worked with knew what to expect.
So what is your signature? If you are reading through leadership blogs I am sure you have considered the big things: you have a vision, you have six strategies for gaining the respect of your team, you have probably synergized something. But while starting with the end in mind is essential, it is just as important to do the small things at the end well.
Adding the final details diligently lets everyone know that you care enough about your work to get it right. This might require putting in a little extra effort, or even leaving something out so that what you do finish is completed to your own standards.
When it comes to building a reputation, a string of poorly finished projects are as useless a stack of unsigned paintings.
Signatures Build Team Identity
Creating a signature that other people can identify and respect is important. But it is even more crucial to finish your projects in a way that your team can feel proud of. Your work is an extension of your identity, and no one wants to identify with a poorly finished product.
The thing that I remember most fondly from my time with the Southwest Conservation Corps was the team that I was on. To this day I am proud of who we were and the work that we did, and I know that if I go back and walk the Continental Divide Trail, I will find our signature on it, and that is a hard feeling to come by.
Signing Your Work – The Takeaway
So when you are trying to decide between finishing a larger project at the expense of quality, or taking the time to do less work, but bring it up to your standard, remember that you are not only doing it for your client or your reputation, you are doing it for your team. Finishing well, and signing your work with integrity gives everyone something to be proud of.
In my experience, at the end of a day of hard work telling your team “we did as much as we could” is a far second to “we finished it our way.”
No matter what you do, the way you treat the details at the end will be what you are remembered for, and it is hard to overestimate the value of being able to say that “the way we finished was our signature.”
So with that, thank you for reading. I hope that you will find Rebecca’s advice as useful to you and your team as I have.
I couldn’t have said it better myself. A big thank you to Nathan for sharing his hard-won wisdom with us. I’m sure going forward we’ll all pause for a moment before the end of a project, and consider exactly how we’re signing it, and what that says about us as leaders.