Romancing the Stone … or Not.

A woman talking to a colleague in an office.

Often, when people think of Cartagena, Colombia, they think of either Romancing the Stone or the illegal drug trade.  

Far more pedestrian, Cartagena was the site of our second annual Sparks Group retreat a couple of weeks ago. Anna, our Chief Operating Officer, is married to a diplomat and their family is based in Bogota, Colombia on assignment for the State Department right now. When we were considering where to hold our retreat, Anna suggested Cartagena as an exotic yet cost effective option to consider. She was right – when we priced it out and looked at what we could experience there, we decided to go for it. 

We had a great retreat planned with about two days of strategic planning work for 2024 on deck, a virtual facilitator secured to help us do that work, and a fun sprinkling of activities like a beach day, a food tour, and a dance class. 

Dragonfruit, soursop, and sticky notes!

Dragonfruit, soursop, and sticky notes!

Then, on the second day we were there, I had my phone out taking pictures while we were out walking in the old walled city, and I didn’t see a slanted slab of concrete in middle of the sidewalk on a random block that had no reason to be there. (Construction or safety standards? Nah!) I took a bad tumble, rolled into the road, and broke my right ankle.  

Our entire trip shifted as I couldn’t put any weight on my foot without significant discomfort, and my foot and ankle were rapidly swelling. Anna stopped a taxi and immediately tapped into the expat community in Colombia to identify the best place for us to go for urgent medical attention. Once there, because she is bilingual, she checked me in and translated for me and the orthopedist and nurses who cared for me.  

Jessica in a wheelchair with a broken ankle.

Enjoying the mall in Cartagena because it had wheelchairs. It was in a converted arena formerly used for bullfighting, which is now illegal there.

After they confirmed my broken ankle and we were waiting to hear if I would need surgery, Emily went to work investigating options for going home early should that be required. She also began thinking through the logistics of our 4th floor Airbnb accommodations (no elevator) and how that would work.  Anna and Emily made multiple trips out of the clinic to a nearby convenience store and pharmacy to get masks so we could enter the clinic (they were still masking), snacks to keep us going, then crutches, and my prescription pain medicine. 

Anna and Emily were godsends. The entire experience would have been far scarier, upsetting, and difficult had they not been there. While I was consumed with fear and a growing degree of pain, they were able to think through our situation and identify the first step, second step, and so on. They maintained the capacity to think ahead and navigate efficiently and effectively to create the best outcome for me, for us, and for The Sparks Group. 

In the end, we decided to stay and adapt our plans.  We cancelled the food tour and gave our dance class tickets to another group of women on vacation there (and they had a great time). We ate a few more meals in our Airbnb and instead of walking we Uber-ed around town. The people of Cartagena were kind, generous, and helpful, with Uber drivers helping pull me out of cars and making sure the path was clear for me to crutch wherever I needed to go. One gentleman even offered to carry me on his back up to our apartment. (Maybe if I was Kathleen Turner in Romancing the Stone and he was Michael Douglas….) 

Emily, Anna, & Jessica at dinner

Dinner on the last night. We made it!

We planned for a lot of teambuilding time to deepen our relationships with each other and enjoy each other’s company outside of a work context. While we didn’t get to do a lot of what we planned, we still accomplished our objective. As Emily joked, “Teambuilding: CHECK!” 

There is something to be said about an emergency that provides something to rally around. Our purpose became clear. It also disrupted our power dynamics – I went from being the boss in one moment to being vulnerable and dependent on Anna and Emily in the next. I needed them to step up to advocate for me, and I had to (very quickly) learn to ask and accept help for the most basic things like jury-rigging a way for me to take showers. While none of us want a repeat of what happened, we’re better off as a team because it did. 

Teams are vital. How can you as a leader create conditions that enable your team to coalesce around a shared purpose, a sense of urgency or interdependence? How has that happened unexpectedly like it did for us? What insights about teamwork have you gleaned from teams that worked well together, and the ones that did not? 

I, for one, am super grateful for my team. 

Founder & CEO
The Sparks Group