HR lessons from the Donner Party

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By Karl Ahlrichs

We see the past through a filter of what we already understand. By retracing my ill-fated ancestors on the trail west, the strong parallels to modern HR issues are clear. At the HR Summit in Las Vegas, I will share lessons in the Donner Party story that directly apply to modern organizations.

Simply put, the Donner Party failed to execute their business plan. The goal was to reach the “Promised Land” of California before the snows of winter and secure the payoffs -– including money, land and escape from creditors. It required planning, leadership, finance, risk management, Human Resources, etc. -– in short, a “company of emigrants” was, truly, a company. And, as is true for many modern-day projects, it was made up of ordinary people trapped in extraordinary circumstances.

Keynote speaker Karl Ahlrichs is a direct descendant of the leader of the Donner Party, the 1846 wagon train made famous by misguided choices that resulted in dangerous conditions, hardships, and ultimately, tragedy. But 173 years later, valuable HR lessons can be distilled from the ashes of this ill-fated misadventure. Karl turns his interest in history into a lesson anyone in authority – or dealing with authority – needs to hear.Register for the HR Specialist Summit today.

The story, and its chapters:

Opening moves
A group of Midwesterners decided to commit to the journey, and to risk everything for a potentially large payoff. They sold their possessions and went west. Early indications were that it was a good decision – the first half of the trip went well.

Point of decision
Competitive pressures emerge, and the leaders guiding the party made decisions to alter their business plan and change course mid-stream. A “cut-off” was taken to get them to their goal more quickly.

Reality sets in
The new route was rougher than advertised, and they realized the enormity of their mistake. The party entered unexplored territory, and the skills that got them this far were not the skills they needed for the next challenge. Old ways had to be abandoned and new behaviors needed to be learned quickly.

Conflict emerges
In the crucible of the frontier, the reserves were stripped away, stress set in and people started acting in their “core” behaviors. Just when teamwork was needed most, a leader was banished, and the party fragmented. The party had not bridged the gaps among diverse groups, so no teamwork emerged.

False hope
Approaching the final barrier, a scout returned with supplies and news that there was plenty of time to reach Sutter’s Fort before winter storms arrived. Unfortunately, the predictions were based on opinion and not data, and the false sense of security triggered more bad decisions. Then, bad luck combined with bad decisions and they were trapped by the first of a series of nine blizzards.

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Misplaced priorities
The first escape attempt was on the verge of victory when the only leader who knew the way misplaced his priorities and turned back. He did not get a second chance.

Unlikely heroes and villains
Under stress, ordinary people can become extraordinary. Heroic figures include one woman who managed to keep nine children alive for 10 days at the bottom of a fire pit, and an eight-year-old girl who volunteered to stay behind at the pass and care for her three-year-old brother. Sadly, stress also enabled others to take advantage of their fellow travelers at a time of great need.

Happy endings
The half of the group that survived did, indeed, find happiness and prosperity in the new frontier. For many of the survivors, the trip was worth it.

The majority of the Donner Party could have – would have – made it if it were not for making repeated poor decisions in leadership and Human Resources. Failure teaches clearer lessons than success, and the Donner Party saga became a cautionary tale to all the emigrants that followed. There were still tragedies on the trail -– approximately 50,000 people eventually died along the Oregon-California trail during its use –- but the entrapment of a party in the Sierras never happened again. Lessons were learned; lessons which can be directly applied to our lives today.

HR Specialist Summit

September 4-6, 2019

MGM Grand — Las Vegas, NV

Since 1937, your colleagues (and competitors) have trusted The HR Specialist for dependable, field-tested advice on HR management, law and best practices. We’re bringing together America’s finest HR management and legal minds to help you conquer your HR challenges.