In June of 2016, having just finished my second year of Industrial Engineering at the University of Toronto, I donned my best guess at ‘business casual’ and went in for the first day of my engineering internship on an aviation consulting team.  I was already apprehensive about my lack of knowledge with respect to aviation, which wasn’t helped by the fact that everyone on this team had completed at least as many degrees as I had years of university.   When my supervisor (a literal rocket scientist) told me I’d be ‘fine’, I took it with a grain of salt.

The months that followed taught me a lot about myself, teamwork and about the professional world.  Here are 3 takeaways that have stuck with me since then:

Embrace Simplicity, Trust Yourself to Learn

The project I was focused on over the ensuing 3 months centred around optimizing an airport’s existing resources in order to delay a $500 million expansion project for as long as possible.  To do this, we had to use projected flight data to simulate future flight schedules.  This analysis incorporated accounting for each flight’s size, point of origin, destination, wingspan, passenger capacity, loading and unloading durations, and a host of other factors.

This was a typical problem that many clients faced and outsourced due to its apparent complexity and multifaceted nature.  I felt quite overwhelmed when I was first presented with a flight schedule for a large municipal airport.  Seeing this, my supervisor smiled a little and told me to “keep it simple, focus on what you understand, and clear away the complicated stuff for later”.

I did just that, only accounting for a small number of variables in my initial analysis, and asked for feedback often over the following weeks.  Slowly, and then all at once, I got into the swing of things and was able to make decisions with the data that would have mystified me at the start of the internship.  I wasn’t great off the bat, but because the people around me trusted me to learn and improve, I was able to pick up on what I was missing and start doing meaningful and impactful work.

When Others Flail, Leaders Emerge

From my first day on the job, I could tell that the team had a great deal of respect for its leader (let’s call him James), but I couldn’t put my finger on why.  He wasn’t the hardest worker on the team, he didn’t make fewer mistakes than everyone else, he hadn’t been there the longest, and he very openly spent at least an hour a day following every form of professional soccer on the planet.  Sure, James was smart and personable, but so was everyone else on the team.  Maybe James worked hard, but so did everyone else.  I kept wondering about this, and then crunch time hit.

Suddenly, our team of 8 had to do the work of 20.  Everyone started putting in 12 hour days.  Tension started to build, and for the first time, the possibility of not delivering the work on time loomed.  Bags appeared under eyes, voices were raised, tempers flared, and as this storm threatened to sink the ship, it was James who got it to shore.

What came across to me as a nonchalant style of leadership revealed itself to be focused and selfless.  When everyone else was losing their minds, James was always cool, collected, calm and considerate.  He focused not on activity but on results, he made sure to take care of the members of his team when they forgot to do so, and he redirected any fire from the company or from clients to himself, all to allow his team to deliver valuable work on time.

In a word, James was thoughtful, at a time when everyone else was finding it hard to be.  He showed me that a true leader is toughest when the chips are down, and his example has been one I’ve recalled many times since.

Remove Blockers First

Twice a week, no matter how busy it got, the team had a meeting to discuss one specific thing: ‘blockers’.  We would say openly, without judgement, what (if anything) was preventing us from working as we’d like to, and what could someone else do to remove said blocker.  Barring any previously scheduled client-facing priorities, we would prioritize removing these blockers.

On the surface, this activity resolved situations that force you to wait on someone else to perform a trivial action before you can continue with your task.  We’ve all been there – if only they would check their email and just forward you that file, or if only they would take 5 minutes to review this document that you’ve spent 3 days on so that you can publish it –  then your productivity would be so much higher, right?  Focusing on eliminating obstacles removed that communication gunk that clogged our pipes and increased our effectiveness.  It also served what was perhaps an even more important function: building trust.

Taking time twice a week to commit to actions that helped each other was a big part of what made this team as tight-knit and effective as it was.  Even when my teammates were inadvertently blocking progress, knowing that we were on the same side and had each other’s best interests at heart let us resolve issues quickly. Everyone on the team could trust that the person beside them was working for the betterment of the organization and the achievement of a higher goal.  This simple (but by no means easy) practice turned 8 individuals into one of the most effective teams I’ve ever been a part of, and completely changed what I see as value-added work.

Over a year later, and having absolutely nailed ‘business casual’ since then (if I do say so myself), I’ve learned to embrace simplicity, to stay calm under pressure, and that working together to remove blockers will make me a more confident and effective leader, professional, and teammate.  If nothing else, I can confidently say one thing about whatever I tackle next: at least it’s not rocket science.