It was obvious to me from the start of my driving career that some drivers were better group leaders than others, but in many ways the best one of all was the company's owner, Gardner. Trips that Gardner was on seemed to have an 'epic' quality; the passengers seemed to finish the trip feeling like they had a life-changing experience and were part of something larger than themselves. I used to wonder about how he did it, because I had driven short trips with him and during those trips he seemed to be in the way more than anything else. He had a habit of fixating on some random detail or minor issue he wanted to solve while everyone else got the important work done. It was on trip to Southern Oregon that I finally saw the principle that Gardner was using:
"You must plant The Vision to create The Experience"
There was indeed something he did to make the trip epic but I hadn't seen it because I was only looking for it in the wrong place.
The Simulated State Park
The Tortoise did a twice a week trip up and down the West Coast between San Francisco and Seattle. Midway through this 25-hour journey the group would stop in Southern Oregon and cook a meal; breakfast on the way north, or dinner on the way south. After trying a number of public spots, Gardner decided the experience would be better if the Tortoise could buy a piece of property on which to have a permanent camp. This would remove the need to load and unload the kitchen each time, get rid of the weirdos who wanted to hang around the stop to see naked hippies, as well as the opportunity to put in bathrooms. The meal stop on the North-South run were a great introduction for prospective passengers on what the longer Tortoise trips were like, so he wanted to make it an experience that people would remember.
Early in my time at the company Gardner bought a logging parcel that contained a good spot for a camp along the banks of Cow Creek, a short drive off of Interstate 5 south of Roseberg, Oregon. Gardner had big plans for the property and corralled a number of Tortoise people to help implement his vision for 'A Simulated State Park' on the banks of Cow Creek.
Loading the Bus
Prior to leaving San Francisco Gardner asked myself and another guy to load 'some equipment' that he'd put aside onto one of the busses. It took the two of us about 4 hours and the aid of a forklift to get the heavy wooden timbers, kitchen equipment, building materials, hardware, tools, and other odds and ends loaded. When we were done the bus was already sagging down on it's suspension and we hadn't even loaded the passengers and their baggage yet.
"Gardner, it took two guys and a forklift 4 hours to load all that stuff onto the bus", I told him. "How are we going to get it all off the bus in the middle of the woods?"
He looked the bus over for a second and then looked at me for a moment and said, "Don't worry about it. I'll take care of it", and then he walked off.
I didn't believe it and I wondered how he was going to pull this off.
Later that night I drove the already-overloaded bus to our departure spot. We had two full busses going north, but we had to put nearly all the baggage onto the other bus as mine was already so full. When Gardner walked up to my bus I opened the door for him, expecting him to tell me we were ready to head out. Instead he ignored me and addressed my passengers in a loud voice, a big grin on his face.
"You people are PIONEERS!", he announced, letting his words hang in the air.
This statement created some murmurs of confusion. "Who's this guy?"
"What'd he say?"
"He said we're pioneers."
"Pioneers of what?"
He had their attention.
After a few seconds pause for added effect he continued, "My name is Gardner Kent and I own the Green Tortoise ..." he began in his thick Boston accent "... and I'd like to share a dream with all of you that I've had for some time".
Gardner then proceeded to launch into his vision for how hungry passengers would arrive at an oasis in Southern Oregon. Tired from travel, they would alight into a forested glade to find a welcome shelter from the weather, a crackling fire and hot coffee waiting. There they would gather together to cook breakfast fresh fruit salad and blueberry pancakes made from scratch, lighter than air and the best you've ever tasted. Full from breakfast his guests could then ramble down to a freshwater creek that flowed freely from snow capped mountains on it's way to the sea, and there enjoy a wood-fired sauna and a dip in the refreshing waters of the creek before getting back on board the bus to be delivered to their destination refreshed in mind, body and spirit ... He went on for several minutes and I watched as the glint in his eye spread among the passengers and their excitement grew. Gardner was so enraptured and so sincere that you could not help but be swept up in his vision, and as he stood talking with a faraway look in his eye, as if beholding his creation, the passengers seemed to look and see it to, and as they were all basking in the glow of The Vision, Gardner brought them gently back to earth ...
" ...and all of that is going to happen because of you people, you Pioneers, who were here when it all began. You are going to make it a reality. Have a great ride and a great rest. Tomorrow we've got a little work to do, but then (and he looked once my toward the ceiling of the bus) we'll dine together on the best breakfast you've ever had and take a sauna down by the creek."
He then turned and, with one quick nod to me, he was gone.
Unloading the Bus
I slept part of the way north and took over in the middle of the night, so I was at the wheel when we pulled off the highway and nosed the bus onto a wide spot on the shoulder of the two lane blacktop that ran along Cow Creek. The sun was just coming up in the East, but you really couldn't tell because the area was socked in a thick fog with a light rain coming through the 45 degree morning air. It was a miserable morning for working outside.
I shut off the engine and turned to look at the bus full of sleeping passengers. I really felt bad for what we were about to do to them, so I was dreading having to wake them up and explain it. Hearing a light tapping on the door I see the top of Gardner's head through the window. I open the door and he creeps into the bus, hair still sticking up from sleep and glistening with fresh rain, and he addressed the sea of sleeping bodies.
"Good morning everyone", he says in a soothing voice. "We've arrived in Southern Oregon. It's cool and a little wet outside, so find your shoes and your coat and come on out and lend a hand."
He then motions for me to follow him off the bus. Outside he says, "I'll start on the luggage bays. How about you climb up on top and start unloading that stuff and handing it down?"
Resigned to punishing our passengers, I climb up on top of the bus and start untying the cover on the roof box to expose it's cargo. Once I free something from the ropes I haul it to the side to hand it over and pass it down to the passengers. I am feeling very bad about the whole situation, so I don't look at their faces, just pay attention to my work and make sure they've got a grip on it before I let go. This goes on for a few minutes when I notice that there are a lot of hands reaching up to grab whatever I lower over the side. Then I notice that those hands are trying to out-grab each other to get their hands on whatever dirty piece of lumber or equipment that I'm handing down. Unsure of what's going on I pause to survey the scene around the bus.
The passengers on both busses (about 70 of them) are now in full motion. Everything that gets passed off the bus has to get carried up a muddy hill to where the kitchen will be. Passengers are actually running up and down the hill to make sure they get to carry more stuff. Skinny guys in city clothes and leather soled shoes are hauling a 12 foot long beam up the hill, slipping and sliding all the way, but making slow headway with great determination.
These people are not just awake they are inspired.
I pass down the rest of the stuff from the roof and climb down to find Gardner nowhere to be seen. I take a minute to stop the over-zealous passengers from taking the spare tire and starter motor out from under the bus and up the hill. Coming last into the clearing where the kitchen will go, I find Gardner standing in the middle of a confused mass of people running around with boxes, blueberries and lumber.
Gardner hands me a spatula and says, "These people look hungry, so let's feed 'em".
Our three hour stop seemed to pass in a minute. We piled up the equipment, slapped the kitchen together and made some coffee and pancakes which the group just barely had time to woof down and have a quick dip in the creek before it was time to head out. No fruit salad, no sauna, and not much in the way of comfort.
Getting the passengers onto the bus was a bit of a challenge, because so many of them wanted to stay at Cow Creek and keep working on The Vision. When we finally got everyone back on Gardner came to the bus and invited them all back to see how things were going and share in the joy that was to come. Everyone called out that they'd be back soon, and driving up I-5 the talk on the bus seemed to all center on Cow Creek; how perfect it was, how much fun it was, and how they couldn't wait to go back and see how it was coming along. In short they loved the whole experience.
... and Gardner charged them each $3 apiece for the breakfast.
Thoughts on the Experience
While the rest of them gushed all the way to Seattle I chewed on what I'd seen. In some ways I felt that Gardner had swindled the group. Not only had he gotten a lot of free work out of group, he'd actually charged them for the privilege of helping.
On the other hand, the motto of the company is "Nothing like your last bus ride", and we'd certainly delivered on that promise. More importantly though, they had a great time and everyone seemed very happy with what had happened.
I could not escape the fact that my relationship to the Tortoise was much like theirs. I made enough money to get by, but most of my living was done rent free on a bus eating communal meals. That said, I wasn't complaining. I didn't earn a lot of money, but it was the experience that kept me on the bus as much as the passengers.
Thoughts on the Vision
I realized that I had been looking in the wrong place to figure out what Gardner was doing to make groups love traveling on the Tortoise. I kept looking for some behavior or activity that he did during the trip that made things so enjoyable, but I realized that it was what went on before the bus pulled out that 'lit the fire' in the group. The key to both the work the passengers did and the satisfaction they got out of the experience was tied to Gardner's ability to articulate a vision, enroll the passengers in that vision, and then letting them share in making it a reality.
There were several attributes to Gardner's Vision that are common with all successful visions:
Implanting the Vision
I started to realize that a good vision statement does more than just tell people what you want them to do when done well it gives them a point of view from which to experience their world.
Sometime later I was driving a bus across Texas in 100 degree heat. I knew the group needed a swim stop, but there had been no water for miles. Scouring my map I found one tiny blue dot near the road we were on. It wasn't much, but it would have to do. We arrived at the spot, but there was no water to be seen; just a bit of gravel by the side of the road next to a low hill. Without saying where I was going I hopped out and ran up the hill by the road to and found our lake, though on closer inspection I could see that the 'lake' was really a muddy pond this time of year. It was encircled in mud, but the water in the middle looked clean, so it was worth getting folks into it.
I turned and started jogging back to the bus. Along the way it struck me that I was the only one that knew the reality of the situation, so how I presented this option to the group was going to directly impact how they experienced it. I knew that if I said, "this grubby little hole is terrible, but it's the best we've got" that the passengers would not even want to go in. But if I could present it a way that made it special I knew their experience would be different. I knew that these people needed a Vision. I trotted back to the bus looking like I was carrying a secret and thinking about how Gardner might describe this grubby little pond.
"OK gang, we've been driving for 8 hours today, it's over 100 degrees out, and haven't seen any body of water larger than a can of soda. In fact, I can guarantee that you could travel a hundred miles in any direction from where we sit and you will find nothing by dry, hot dust!"
At this the passengers groan because they are all hot and sweaty, they have been all day, and I've jut pointed out how miserable they are. I've just made their situation feel worse so that I can make it better.
"... but just over that little hill next to the bus is a lake." There's sudden interest in the possibility that I'm presenting, and they are interested in hearing more. I pause for effect.
"It's something unique; the only pool of water for hundreds of miles around. It's a little muddy around the edge, but once you get past that it looks clean, cool, and deep enough to immerse yourself!"
I could hardly get out of the way fast enough as the passengers pushed off the bus to get to the water. As promised, there was mud to get past, but everyone was focused on the promise of cool, deep water, so sweaty clothes were dumped on the prairie and the more adventurous started finding the best way through the mud and calling to the others to follow. In less than 5 minutes every single person on the bus was floating in the center of the lake. Everyone agreed that I was a hero for finding 'the only water within 100 miles' and nobody even mentioned the mud.
Floating in the water with them I knew that they reacted so positively largely because of how I'd presented this sorry little lake in the middle of nowhere. I knew that there were limits of what I could convince people to swallow, but the larger force at work was that all these people had paid their money, cleared their calendar, and got onto the bus so that they could have a good time. If I can show them how that might happen they are all to happy to pitch in. They were just waiting for me to show them how.
I started to pay more attention to the tone I set whenever I spoke to people. I made extra sure to be upbeat and positive at the very beginning of the trip during The Rap, (which was Tortoise lingo for the speech the driver did at the beginning of the trip). I also watched what other drivers did and borrowed the good stuff and avoided the bad. Instead of trying to make people feel obligated to help in the kitchen I talked about how it's the best way to get to know everyone on the bus. Instead of badgering them to get back on the bus quickly after fueling and bathroom stops I'd focus on the beautiful things they'd miss while they were wasting time in a truck stop gift shop. Instead of chasing after sloppy passengers about keeping their stuff together I made it a game the whole group would play. I was always a little surprised that nearly everyone I met wanted to go along with me but fun is better than not fun, so human nature was on my side.
There are so many ways that a corporate vision is different from a Hippie bus company's vision, but at their root they are doing exactly the same thing: aligning a group of people toward a common destination.
The one thing that has amazed me the most in terms of corporate visions is how few good ones I encounter. I think this is often because those in leadership positions feel like its obvious where we're all headed, or else they feel that it's been covered before. I have found that giving people a quick re-orientation on what's happening now and how we'd like them to look at it has an immediately galvanizing effect. It reminds people of where we're trying to go and what needs to be done to get there.
Without a signpost appearing periodically along the trail people have a way of getting lost on the way.