Robyn Benincasa is an award-winning keynote speaker, a 20+ year veteran San Diego firefighter, a World Champion Adventure Racer, a 2014 CNN Hero, a Guinness World Record Endurance Kayaker, a New York Times best-selling author and the founder of the Project Athena Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to helping survivors of medical or other traumatic setbacks achieve their adventurous dreams.
Ahead of her talk at NECA 2023 Philadelphia, Benincasa spoke with our staff about being an effective leader and more.
1. You say, “It’s not about the setback, it’s about the comeback.” What are some tips electrical contractors can use when they have faced a setback and are looking to come back stronger than before.
You’re never defined by your setbacks; you’re defined by your comebacks.
After 20 years of endurance racing, including 10 Ironman Triathlons and 40-plus multiday, multisport adventure races, I discovered that I had stage four osteoarthritis in both of my hips! I went to the doctor, and the x-rays showed that I had zero cartilage left on either side. It was kind of awful for a few weeks knowing that my competitive adventure racing career was over, but then I started focusing on what I could do instead of what I couldn’t do, and also how I could use my background and experience in adventure and endurance sports to somehow help others.
Sometimes a setback offers us a beautiful gift. I think when I made the conscious decision to put on my beanie cap of gratitude for what I still did have (versus mourning what I was losing) and the fact that in the lottery of life’s setbacks, having hip replacements was a winner, it changed everything. I decided to be ruled by the hope of success. It’s not about trying to get back to what you were, it’s about trying to be the best of what you’re capable of today, this minute.
So I focused on the comeback, not the setback. I know that change is the only thing that’s going to stay the same in life. I try to focus on what I can learn in times of challenge and change and to focus on what I can do instead of what I can’t do.
Also, “Great leaders focus their team on the comeback, not the setback.”
There is a lot to learn from setbacks. We need to think about the culture we create and inspiring “we” thinkers in times of challenge so that rather than giving up in the face of adversity, we look for ways to pivot. New opportunities will inevitably emerge that are both similar and different from previous goals or modes of operations. It’s all about building your teams and preparing your leaders to inspire us to our greatest heights. There is an African proverb that sums it up very well: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
2. You have a lot of experience leading others in spaces traditionally led by men. What advice do you have for women looking to advance their careers in a male-dominated field like electrical contracting?
As a woman competing and working in what are historically male-dominated worlds of adventure sports and firefighting, I’m often asked about the dynamic of women, and of female leadership.
In my racing and firefighting life, I’ve taken on various leadership roles. Sometimes I led from the front, many times I observed from the back, and I always learned something from the experience. After studying a number of great leaders and leading my nonprofit Project Athena Foundation, I found three reasons why we women can excel in leadership.
- We inspire your team
One of the most important things I learned watching great leaders was the importance of inspiring versus impressing your team. The best leaders left their ego at the front door. They realized they didn’t have to be amazing all the time, bark orders or know all the answers. Instead, the best leaders challenged our teams with good questions, listened to our team’s ideas and inspired our teammates to pursue their solutions. In my job as a firefighter, my favorite captains were those who saw their rank not as power, but as an increased obligation for the safety, success and happiness of the crew and the public. Looking out for others and creating a sense of community comes naturally to many women, giving us more insight to inspire our teams.
- We are great situational leaders
The best leaders do not see management and leadership as synonyms. Managers facilitate their team’s success by allowing their teammates to be leaders. Great leaders understand they are surrounded by smart, talented people that may be stronger in a given area than the assigned leader, and they let others lead based on their strengths (not their rank or title).
Women tend to be great situational leaders, because they have strong empathy and awareness of what others need, and they can flow easily back and forth from friend to mentor and commander to coach. This is the leadership I try to practice as part of Project Athena. I take time to get to know my team so we can have fun, learn from each other and trust each other to take the lead.
- We use effective leadership styles
In the Kinetic Leadership section of my book “How Winning Works,” I discuss the Harvard Business Review study about situational leadership and several distinct styles that are proven effective for bottom-line results. The great news for women is we tend to excel in the top three leadership styles of the study.
Women tend to be great affiliative leaders, coaching leaders and democratic leaders.
● Affiliative leaders work to create emotional bonds to bring a sense of bonding and belonging to a team.
● Coaching leaders develop people for the future and help them use their strengths.
● Finally, democratic style leaders build consensus through participation.
When it comes to leadership, women have a great advantage due to their natural tendencies to nurture and connect. We know how to inspire, let people lead through their strengths, and adapt to different leadership styles.
3. Working in a successful electrical contracting business is a team sport. How can leaders inspire their teammates to achieve their personal and professional goals?
You don’t inspire your teammates by showing them how amazing you are—you inspire them by showing them how amazing they are.
I’ve always said that the key to winning in the long run isn’t choosing teammates who are necessarily the best at each sport/skill needed for the journey, but choosing the best people for the journey. In other words, when times are tough, you don’t simply want the best team members, but the best teammates. When people are not just at work or on a race course with each other, but for each other, that’s when the magic happens. For us, building a world-class team was all about the 8 Essential Elements of Human Synergy. If everyone operates with these elements in the forefront of their heart and mind, you’re going to succeed!
T - Total Commitment
E - Empathy and Awareness
A - Adversity Management Skills
M - Mutual Respect
W - We Thinking (versus Me thinking)
O - Ownership of the Project
R - Relinquishment of Ego
K - Kinetic Leadership (Be the leader your team needs in the moment)
4. How can times of great challenges lead to future successes? What is some advice for when waiting for success becomes discouraging?
I think it’s really important to search for and find one’s next “thing” that captures your imagination, your heart, your attention. It doesn’t have to be physical. It can be learning a new language or finally learning to play the piano, or volunteering at the animal shelter. I’m lost without my “next thing,” so I’m always searching the internet and tapping into the universe about what that should be. There’s always something out there that captures us. Find it and make it happen!
5. Change is a constant in life and on the job site. How can ECs best respond to change so they can still be successful?
Change and challenge is really the only thing that’s going to stay the same in our lives. So, it’s how we respond to change and huge, hairy challenges that dictates our long-term success. I help businesses grow and their people succeed by sharing how we as leaders and teammates inspire our team members to want to be great. To want to win against all odds. Leadership isn’t about lighting a fire under someone’s feet, it’s about lighting and then maintaining a fire in their hearts and minds. Inspiration is an inside job. How do we truly and deeply inspire people to keep driving forward during our toughest times? By giving them a higher sense of purpose, which is driven by a commitment to their goals, and derived from the unbreakable bonds to our teammates. We are at our best when our team is counting on us to succeed¾and believing in us 100% that we can. We also inspire our teammates by helping them embrace real ownership of outcomes and results. And last but not least, we inspire others by rewarding them for their drive for continuous improvement, innovation and taking calculated risks that help us find an even better way to the finish line.