Building a Tough Mudder tribe
11 February 2018 |
Joanne Frearson talks to Tough Mudder CEO Will Dean on why teamwork, camaraderie – and wallowing in mud – can help future CEOs build a company.
After walking out on a career in counter-terrorism at the British Foreign Office and completing an MBA at Harvard Business School, Will Dean, CEO and founder of Tough Mudder, wanted to do something to make a positive difference in the world.
His original ideas included holding an event where people jumped into ice baths, ran through fire and wallowed in mud where people had to work together to complete it. His Harvard professors initially didn’t understand the concept of a challenge where no one was measured or ranked, but Dean had a gut feeling it would work.
Founding the company with his childhood friend Guy Livingstone, the event is described as a challenge, not a race, because it is about teamwork, camaraderie and courage.
“I wanted to do something that I felt in my own little way was making a positive difference in the world,” says Dean, who has written his first book It Takes a Tribe: Building the Tough Mudder Movement. “I never thought it would be a huge business success, but I thought it would do okay.”
The course, he explains, is analogous to life itself because “most things you achieve in life you also need help from other people to get through” – a principle that also guides the way he runs his business.
“Those are the values that matter deeply to me,” he says. “Those are values that you can embrace and live by tend to make you a happier, healthier and more successful person. If you are the kind of person that holds open the door for someone else you are actually more likely to be a happier person. Doing things for other people actually makes you happier.”
The obstacles in the Tough Mudder course are designed in such a way that they can’t be completed without working together and helping others get through.
“It is designed to make it almost impossible to do on your own,” he says. “If you take an obstacle like Everest, it is like a skateboard ramp – you run and you take a leap of faith into the unknown and grab a stranger’s hand.
“You will see people on the top of Everest, they’ll be there for an hour because they are having so much fun helping other people up the obstacle.”
Like the course he has also built his company to be team-focused and does not believe in anyone having an ego in the organisation. Dean believes that the best ideas never come from brilliant individuals, they come from people working together to refine plans.
“The most important thing when someone creates a team within a company is making sure you don’t have big egos,” he says.
“You need skilled, smart people. Tough Mudder does not work as a company if we have big egos. The best companies live their own brand values, otherwise they are inconsistent and inauthentic. A very central part of Tough Mudder is about having low ego and the idea that, to get through it, you can’t do it all yourself, you have to rely on other people.
“You have to live by your principles. The most important thing is creating an environment where there is genuine debate and conversation. The only way you can get to good decisions is making sure opinions are heard throughout the organisation and ultimately you get to a place where you are making informed decisions.”
The message seems to be spreading, and many companies are taking part in the obstacle course because it helps teams bond. “Everyone gets covered in mud and the CEO is just the same as anyone else in that forum,” says Dean. “Everyone needs each other’s help – it is a cliche, but it brings people together. It probably brings people together more than sipping champagne at Twickenham does.”
According to Dean a good CEO is one that understands you can’t be all things to all people. In his own journey towards becoming a CEO, he divulges that he had to be very honest with himself about who he was, what his mission was and guiding principles were and then be disciplined in sticking to them.
The attribute he sees as making the biggest difference for CEOs managing a company is resilience and being able to look at every single obstacle that comes to you as an opportunity to define yourself from the competition.
“It used to be the case you could do one thing for 20 years and if it was working in year 10 it was a pretty sure bet it would work in year 20,” he says. “But now that is no longer the case – businesses have to adapt and change with the cycles.”
For future CEOs his advice is to be a champion of innovation within an organisation.
“That can be very hard for companies to embrace and CEOs need to spend a lot of time spearheading that disruptive innovation,” he says. “It does not mean they have to be doing all the innovation themselves, but they have to be championing it, pushing it through the organisation increasingly because business cycles are tighter. They have to be the constant change agents in their own organisation, not just managing the status quo.”
This also includes thinking outside the box and accepting that a lot of the information the company needs could actually be outside of the organisation.
He says: “Historically the CEO spends a lot of time looking at management accounts. Those things matter, however, what increasingly matters is not just what direct competitors are doing, but what a company very different from me is doing. Making sure the organisation is looking outwards not just inwards is a very key part of how leadership is evolving.”
Dean gives me the example of record labels. “It is probably fair to say that record labels were probably looking at the other record labels as competition,” he says. “They were not thinking about Spotify or iTunes, but when something like that comes along it completely changes the industry and is far more of a competitive threat than another record label is.”
By focusing on teamwork, which helps people to overcome challenges and think outside the box, he has built a tribe of Tough Mudders since starting the company in 2010 at an abandoned ski resort in Pennsylvania. Today the obstacle courses have been completed by more than 2.5 million people in three continents around the world.