Building "X-Factor" as an Outdoor Instructor

Note: This article was written for the New Zealand Outdoor Instructors Association

How would you answer the question “What makes for a great instructor?”

The answer I like to give is that “Great instructors have great SEX” where SEX is an acronym for three key ingredients; Safety, Education and X Factor. It goes without saying that great instructors are safe instructors and much of the effort over the first few years of your education and career is in honing those skills that keep both yourself and others safe. Pretty soon however, you’ll be being nudged to include an educational component in your instructing; by your tutors, by your employers and finally by your NZOIA assessor.

Being able to educate clients on the ecology of the piece of bush they’re travelling through goes a long way in the wider picture of inspiring them – in whatever way you’re trying to inspire them. This is pretty key to the industry most of us are in as it is after all, called Outdoor Education.

The last ingredient however is a bit more elusive, much harder to teach, harder again to explain, but when it’s mixed in it so affects the experience that you might even be told with starry eyes “this was the best day of my life.” Chances are one or more of your tutors or early mentors had it – those accomplished guru’s (maybe one of them is the reason you’re even in the outdoors) – and in the effort to have a similar affect on others you may have gravitated to the trap of trying to copy them. I call it a trap because unless you’re a very similar person, chances are that you’ll injure yourself in the process, force that debrief when it just wasn’t there, persist for too long with an activity, or some other thing that ultimately is not a great fit for you or for your group.

But if we define X Factor as doing really well whatever it is that you do really well – and therefore is different for everyone (albeit with some overarching similarities) – then building your own X Factor becomes much more achievable and, authentic. The trick is to start with the question; “what is it that I do really well?” But is quite a trick to pull off because often times, and for a great variety of reasons, we either don’t know the answer or answer poorly. To underline most of what I’ve said thus far, consider this from management guru Peter Drucker:

“Most people think they know what they are good at. They are usually wrong. More often, people know what they are not good at—and even then more people are wrong than right. And yet, a person can perform only from strength. One cannot build performance on weaknesses, let alone on something one cannot do at all.”

There you have it, your X Factor (your “performance”) is built upon your strengths – the things you do well.
All is not lost however, for learning about these strengths is only a hop, skip and jump away. I’ll highlight three:

  • Make a commitment to greater humility and self-awareness yourself first. I mention humility because part of the reason we don’t know our strengths is because of how awkward it feels to say “this is what I think I do well.” Call it tall poppy syndrome if you will, but whatever it is, if you won’t admit it, you set yourself up for all sorts of problems. The most common one I see is in people’s annoyance and frustration at others for not doing as good a job. Humility doesn’t just mean “not being proud,” it also means being comfortable in your own skin enough to take credit when it is due (without making a big fuss ☺). If you’re good at something, admit it, and admit that others might not quite as good.
  • Ask others. Ask your family, your friends, your employer, even your clients. Feedback is a wonderful thing and a balance is needed to the “what could be improved” answers. Again; “a person can perform only from strength. One cannot build performance on weaknesses, let alone on something one cannot do at all.” Top tip, don’t just write off all the things you did well as “basic things that needed to be done anyway” – I hear that time and time again but I’ve been around long enough to see huge variety in how the same job gets done differently by different people.
  • Do an online test. Time for a plug, I’m a Clifton StrengthsFinder coach for the simple reason that this tool more than any other will help you understand what’s behind what you do well, and help you manage your“weaknesses” while building from strength – developing your X Factor. The online test costs $37 (inc GST) but save up a bit more because the results really come to life with a coach (and there’s heaps of us out there btw).

Authors Note

I worked as an outdoor instructor for 15 years. The lessons discussed here however apply elsewhere just as much.

Kind regards, Steve.