ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

Online Edition - September 2000

Issue Highlight - Remembering What Matters
-  Peter Block explains the need to look deeper than fashion and technological trends to find meaning in our homes and workplaces.

 In This Issue...
Living Impossible Dreams
Ouch! Is it Time to Redesign Your Systems?
Searching Ourselves: Avoiding Office Boxing Rings
Believe It or Not— Workplace Bias Still Exists

Bedtime Stories for Your Organization
Economy Breeds Short-Sightedness

Peter Block Column
Views for a Change
Heard on the Street

Living Impossible Dreams  
Whether at Work or Atop the Andes, We Set Our Own Limits
Imagine racing for days through the Southern Hemisphere by foot, kayak, horseback and inflatable canoes as a team. Your team must finish together regardless of your physical condition. Even the strongest of men might have second thoughts, but for Rebecca Rusch what seems impossible is merely a challenge to face head-on, regardless of your gender.

    Rusch was a team captain for the 1999 EcoChallenge in Patagonia. Her fourth place finish was all the more remarkable since her team was one of the few teams with three women and one man.

   Born in Puerto Rico and raised in Chicago, she received a degree in business and marketing. She quit her job in 1997, moved into her Jeep and took up racing fulltime.

   Rusch is an invited speaker at AQP's Spring Conference, "Maximizing Performance and Leadership Potential of Everyone," March 19-21 in Chicago, Ill. Other speakers include, Peter Block and Michael Singletary, pro-football Hall of Famer. For more information, visit

   She recently spoke with AQP’s Executive Director Kevin McManus about leading teams, celebrating the human spirit and making impossible dreams happen in our lives. NFC: Of all the teams you’ve been on, which worked the best?

Rusch: The Patagonia one was pretty incredible. I can’t look at anything in that race that I would change, which is unusual. I also just came back from a race in Tibet and Nepal, that was with a bunch of new people, but surprisingly worked great.

NFC: Why do you think it went so well?

Rusch: I think that both times the people had competed a lot before. They had personalities that were similar to mine and were there for the same reasons. Luckily, we got together.

NFC: Many times in business we say that we have effective teams, but we’re looking for some type of process that’s repeatable so that we can keep this alive. But if it all just happens by chance, what does that mean for us?

Rusch: No, I don’t think that. Some of it’s by chance, just as you happen to work with somebody by chance, but what do you do with the situation?

  When I said they had all had race experience before, it’s not only that they are good at all the sports and know what to wear and eat, but they also know how to communicate with their other teammates. They know how to say, “Look, I’m hurting. I need you to tow me on the mountain bike right now because I’m too tired.”

  It’s hard for a lot of people to accept or give help, or to know when help is needed and not be an egomaniac about it. For example, by saying, “Well, I carried your pack yesterday. You need to carry mine today.” It’s all very selfless. It’s one goal. You want the team to get to the finish line—not just you getting to the finish line.

NFC: What is the toughest team situation you’ve been in?

Rusch: I think Morocco. Three out of four of us finished that race. That was the first time I was a team captain and being in that leadership role was new for me. I really didn’t know anybody on that team. It was like a giant blind date. We ended up getting lost for quite a long time and tried to not come down on our navigator. There were so many things that another team could have gotten really upset about. And I was upset, but realized that it’s not going to help anybody to scream, yell or be negative. All that’s going to do is slow everyone down and waste energy.

NFC: Regarding the ‘98 EcoChallenge, at one point you said it was important to have “a strong female finish.” Why was that so important?

Rusch: It's important to me personally for a couple of reasons. It's been ingrained in us since we were little tiny babies that "I'm a woman and that men are stronger." As much as I've been successful in athletics every time I go for a workout, every single time I do a race, there's always, “OK, well, I'm racing with these 6 feet tall, 200-pound guys. They're stronger.” There's always an insecurity for me of will I be able to keep up? Will I be fast enough? I don't want to slow the team down. I'm the girl on the team, and those own voices in my head are getting quieter with each race I do, but it's still there though, it's years and years of hard work.

NFC: What do you think is the best way to motivate somebody?

Rusch: I think it’s different all the time. Negative reinforcement never works, especially with women. It’s just really a sensitivity, like being a parent. Or if you think of somebody that as a kid was your mentor, maybe an aunt or an uncle or your grandparents. It’s not the people that scolded you, which were your parents saying, “You can’t do this.” It was some aunt or uncle that you’d see every once in a while that you emulated. You wanted to be like them and didn’t want to disappoint them.

  A lot of it is to be respected as a leader by being good at the sport or being good at your job, but also not being afraid of cleaning the toilets and just being a normal person. I wouldn’t ask anyone to do anything that I wouldn’t do myself.

NFC: What are the key differences between motivating a team of women verses motivating a team of men?

Rusch: For me, motivating a team of women is easier because I am a woman. I can identify more with just a little bit of the innuendos, what they’re thinking or feeling or if they start crying. Guys are just a little bit more closed, especially in a physical situation where you put the woman and the man against each other. If the girl’s doing better than the guy, it’s sort of a blow to the guy’s ego because physically they’re supposed to be stronger. If people open their eyes and think, “OK, well, this person was better than me today at this thing, but that doesn’t mean I’m not a good athlete. It doesn’t mean that I’m a bad person. Tomorrow, I may be able to help her kayaking.” If people can let go of their ego and accept that, that’s when the team’s going to do well.

NFC: Have you been in a situation where you were the team leader and you had a team member that was really dominant or aggressive and you had to deal with that? Or have you been fortunate to stay away from that kind of thing?

Rusch: I haven’t been in a situation where I was leader and that was happening. But, I’ve definitely been on teams where there were some dominant personalities. I just stepped back and thought, “OK, there’s enough personality going on here. I’m just going to sort of cruise along in my own little world.”

  That happened in the Australia race and I regret that I didn’t speak my mind a couple times when I thought we were going the wrong way. These people were so dominant that I let them be dominant. Instead of standing up and saying what I believed, I let it pass over. They made me feel that my ideas were wrong and I definitely learned that wasn’t the situation. I didn’t need to be as aggressive as they were, but speaking up is definitely the way to do it. And say, “Hey, what do you guys think about this?” And maybe it’s not right, maybe it is, but I don’t think that holding your tongue in a team situation helps anyone, because the more brains involved the better.

NFC: Why are you able to realize true team effectiveness while we struggle so much with it in the work world?

Rusch: The one luxury is that we do have a choice of teammates. It’s not to say that we always get it right. I think the number one reason teams do not finish a race is that the teams don’t get along and they just can’t work it out. That’s why there’s a 50 percent finishing rate.

  Everyone hopefully chooses a job that they love, but in essence it’s still a job, and you don’t choose to go every single day. Whereas with these races, I’ve chosen to be there, and to me that’s kind of the big difference. But I also think that it’s not nearly as extreme a situation to be at work. You can eat whatever you want. You can go home at the end of the day and let go of it.

  The skills that anyone learns when they’re physically depleted, and can still work as a team, can easily be applied when somebody’s not physically depleted. A lot of times it takes getting to that point before you realize, “OK, I can let go of my ego. I can let go of all these barriers I put up.” Once someone is physically tired they can’t put up anymore barriers. They’re who they are.

NFC: You said that picking teammates is a lot like hiring someone. What’s the most important question you would ask when hiring a teammate?

Rusch: Obviously, they need to be skilled. In addition, the motivation of why they’re there is really important to me. If they’re just there to win and that’s all that matters, then those aren’t the kind of teammates I want to race with. I want to race with people who are passionate and who love being outside and who are nice people.

NFC: So you’re there as much for the experience as for the glory?

Rusch: Right. I think if you put the experience and getting along with your teammates and really enjoying the whole thing ahead of the glory—if that’s what you want to call it—then the good results fall into place.

NFC: Your web site uses the phrase, “The sheer power of the human spirit.” what does that mean to you?

Rusch: I’m still learning it. It’s the essence of what people are, why we’re in this world. We’re not in this world to work and make a bunch of money or to win an EcoChallenge. I think we’re here to share time with other people and passions with other people and to do things that are important to us, that make us feel good and happy. When people really go for that and they follow what their dream is, I just don’t think that anything can stop them. It’s very cliché, but it really is the truth.

  Three and a half years ago, I had never done an adventure race. I never in my life thought I would be doing stuff like this. If I sat and looked at it, I still can’t believe that I do it. If I look at these races and at the course map, and I go through the race in my head, and the times we slept, it’s impossible. What you ask yourself to do, physically, it’s impossible if you think about it. But if you just let your spirit, heart and team carry you, it’s easy.

NFC: What are the goals of the girls’ camps you work at?

Rusch: There are a lot of different people that sign up. Moms from L.A. who have just been doing the stair machines inside. They've never camped in their whole life, and they come out to really enjoy the outdoors for the first time in their life. Drinking out of a tube and sleeping on the ground, are really big things for them. The weekend is really life-changing. A lot of people go home and they make some big change in their life. I think it's because people get away. They're with a bunch of strangers, and they form a team with these strangers. They see what they can do. It shows people that their limits are irrelevant. They set them and they're the only ones who set them.There’s so much they can do if they just want to.

NFC: If you could somehow make the folks in the world learn one thing from your experiences, what would it be?

Rusch: That there are no limits. You set your own limits. Anyone can do anything they want, they just have to want to. And it was something I said, when I watched the telecast from Morocco, Lisa, the girl who ended up dropping out, who was the really difficult one to deal with, we were having this fire side chat where she was saying to us, “I don’t think I want to go on.” It was the first time in the race she said that she wanted to quit. And I looked at her, and I don’t really remember this, but after watching it I do, and I said, “Lisa, I know you can do this, you just have to want to.” She didn’t respond and I knew she didn’t want to. She didn’t want to finish. She knew from the beginning that she wasn’t going to finish, and she had been saying it to me from the beginning.

  I’ve said that out loud before too, but in your heart you think, “Wow, maybe I can.” Those are the people that finish the projects or that do well at work. Maybe they say they can’t do it, but inside they say, “Well, maybe...”

NFC: Who has inspired you more in your life than anyone else?

Rusch: You know, the answer five years ago would have been different, but right now I’d have to say it’s my Mom. We went through some hard times. It was just me, my Mom and my sister growing up. It was a house full of girls. Mom was working for Sears as a computer programmer and working her way up to a top-level executive in the computer industry. She’s a very aggressive woman, and she knows what she wants.

  It wasn’t until I started racing that I realized she’s made it in a man’s world the same way that I am. I see now, as an adult, all the similarities we have and how much she’s really supported me in what I’ve done. She’s supported me in quitting my job and moving into my car, so I could do this. Mom shows up at every single race and at every single finish line. Sometimes it’s like, “Leave me alone, Mom.” It’s just like the normal parent stuff, but when I step back and go, “Gosh, she really supports me in what I do.” If she were not that independent and strong at breaking the mold in her generation in a man’s world, I don’t think I would be doing what I’m doing now.

 A few years ago I didn’t recognize that and we had the typical parent-child relationship. But now it’s great. She’s my agent. I asked her to do that about six months ago, and I was nervous about working together. But now I’m realizing we’re the same. We’re so similar, just in different fields.

         September 2000 NFC Homepage


  • Print this page
  • Save this page

Average Rating


Out of 0 Ratings
Rate this item

View comments
Add comments
Comments FAQ

ASQ News