Teamwork

| June 07, 2008

How to keep things civil when you’re sharing a truck cab.

Going from solo driving to team driving is a decision not easily made. Even if your team driver is a dear friend – or spouse – sharing the cramped quarters and taxing responsibilities a rig comes packed with can test the bounds of your relationship and your ability to be civil. Both drivers have a period of adjustment, in which they have to figure out (and live with) the other’s quirks and habits.

Without the opportunity to walk away from an argument, learning how to fight and communicate is one of the most important lessons learned out on the road. Most veteran team drivers say they don’t let an argument pass beyond one day, something more stubborn sorts may have problems with in the beginning.

The good news is once drivers pass the hurdle of the first few months (or years, in some cases), it’s often smooth sailing for both people involved. Getting to the point where drivers work together like a finely oiled machine takes dedication and teamwork.

Negotiate
Before the team has too many hours under its belt, the two drivers need to establish such things as where and how they’ll stop and eat, what sort of shower rules they’ll use and how they will divide up the work – will it be a simple, even split or will one do the paperwork in return for the other always doing the fueling? What if one driver wants to do a laundry while the other wants to make miles and money and views doing laundry as a waste of time? Negotiate.

“I think negotiation is the right word,” says Willard Yocum, of Nauvoo, Ala., who with his wife Judy has hauled a dry van across the country since 1986. “Whatever it is, we just talk about it until we have it figured out. You’ve got to have that bond.”

And then there’s the need to agree on just how many miles vs. how many home-time hours is the right mixture for your team, says Emerson Trucking Driver Relations Manager Steve Patterson.

“You also have to negotiate how you will handle the unexpected, say another week out when you thought you’d be home, or how to alter your shift work arrangements if someone doesn’t feel well or wants to change,” Patterson says. “It’s not a good idea to try and change things out in the middle of a run if you don’t have ground rules.”

Beth Zelten, 47, and her husband, Ken, 56, are team drivers for FedEx Custom Critical, and Beth admits it wasn’t easy team driving at first. “The first six months we set boundaries,” says the Menominee, Mich., resident. “You don’t ask questions – you have to set the boundaries to keep the peace.”

Sue Langley, a team driver with Southern Cal Transport out of Birmingham, Ala., agrees. She’s been team driving with her husband, James, since 1994.

“The first five years [team driving] I didn’t think our marriage would survive,” she says. “I learned by the book, and he’s an old-fashioned driver. The real battles were during the first five years. I learned how to back off. Compromise is the key. We’ve finally gotten to that point.”

Argue the right way
Sue Langley says with exhaustion and stress weighing heavily in the cab, she or her husband will eventually snap. That’s when she has to choose her words carefully. Learning when to speak and “when to keep your mouth shut” is important when partners are together day in and day out, she says. Often small problems can turn into big ones if they’re not talked out to a compromise.

The first few months may seem extremely stressful as each person adjusts to the other’s personality and ways of doing things. It may feel like one person is driving the other crazy, but all our sources say talking about problems or irritations is the only way to solve them. Ignoring behavior can only last so long, and letting something go on and on will only make it worse. Communication here is vital to have a healthy working relationship.

“It’s easier to talk over problems with your better half than with a stranger,” says James Langley, who drove solo for 20 years before asking Sue to join him. He says he wouldn’t go back solo today. “We’ve got to be friends more than anything. We discuss the problems rather than argue. Communication is the number one issue. It’s a 50/50 partnership.”

Like the Langleys, the Zeltens practice compromise and teamwork.

“There’s a lot of give and take, absolutely,” says Beth Zelten. However, she and her husband will “have words” every now and then, and her advice is simple.

“You let them go, and 10 minutes later we’re talking like it never happened. You have to learn how to fight. Just let go and move on,” she says. “There’s no time to be mad.”

Letting go of small problems clears the air and helps promote a good working atmosphere. A driver can ask himself, “Is this really worth a fight?” Usually the answer is no, and he can always talk to his partner and air his grievances before things get out of hand.

Also, without the luxury of leaving the room, team drivers learn quickly how to handle arguments. Beth Zelten says, “You tell each other things wisely. You have to deal with it without walking away.”

Connie and Sal DiSuillo of Lebanon, Mo., have learned to argue the right way in their 20 years of team driving.

“If we have a disagreement, we try not to let it go over one day. You can’t let it prolong, or it will turn into a catastrophe,” says Connie DiSuillo. “We try and understand each other. He’s from the East Coast, and I’m from the South, so you can imagine!”

Give each other space
One way to avoid intense disagreements is to take time apart. “For a husband and wife team, alone time is necessary,” Beth Zelten says. “Even if it’s me going to the mall, it’s away from the truck. You realize togetherness is wonderful after 18 years, but you need your space. Men may not need it as much as I do!”

Taking a break from each other, even if it’s just at a truckstop, is important to maintain personal space and identity. Zelten says that in the mornings, her husband will go to the truckstop for coffee or breakfast while she stays in the cab and does her make-up and hair and prepares for the day. Just a simple 15 or 20 minutes away from the other person is enough to re-energize and feel good about beginning again.

“You also have to be able to let the other person live alone sometimes,” says Judy Yocum. “I mean if I am off doing something in my own little world or just sitting thinking and staring out the window, Willard will let whatever he has to say wait a while. You have to respect one another, I think. You have to give them their space.”

This applies, too, to sharing the scant available space for stowing clothing and other personal gear. Divide space equally and respect the other person’s belongings to avoid irritation, which can lead to bigger flare-ups and tension.

Be equal partners
“We’re a team in every aspect – it makes for a good business and relationship,” Beth Zelten says.

Dividing responsibilities between the two drivers is key for a healthy working relationship. Team drivers need to find their strengths and weaknesses and see how they can fit those into a team effort. Perhaps one prefers night driving, the other daylight. If they both love the nightlife, it may not work. Many teams can run 10 hours with one driver at the helm, then switch to the other driver, working safely inside the regulations. That is what makes the miles, and it is essential to work out a comfortable plan both agree to so that the rig rolls as many miles as possible.

“You figure out what you’re best at and figure out how to get it done,” says FedEx Custom Critical owner-operator Bob Caffee, 47, of St. Louis, who has learned how to work side by side with his wife, Linda, 47.

“There are no secrets,” he says. “You learn how to work together. You have to depend on each other when you’re putting your life in the other person’s hands.”

He also offers a golden rule of advice: “Be patient and communicate.”

Connie DiSuillo says her relationship with her husband goes beyond marriage or trucking. “We watch out for each other,” she says. “We’re not just husband and wife; we’re business partners.

“It’s a great opportunity to be together. It’s something you have to work on and want to work on.”
- John Latta contributed to this report.


Choosing Your Partner
Successful driving teams come in all shapes and sizes. So do unsuccessful driving teams.

Whether you can make it as a team driver is almost certainly something you won’t know until you try it. There are no simple psychology tests or online quizzes to tell you the answer beforehand. And the fact that your chosen driving partner may be someone you’ve been close to for years is nowhere close to a guarantee you’ll work well together.

According to Barr-Nunn Director of Operations Jay Shiek, the most valuable quality in a team is reliability. According to Emerson Driver Relations Manager Steve Patterson, achieving that reliability while enjoying the company of your fellow traveler over the long haul is the result of a sort of negotiated settlement between the two drivers.

“People who have never run team never know themselves if it will work until they try it, even if they are sure they can make it work,” says Patterson. “Some people think they can tell, and they base that on relationships they have. But a better guide is just a common sense/intelligence combination. You can’t just stop and eat here or play this music or drive faster or choose to do what you want. The team that forms is the result of both parties negotiating with each other.”

Brothers, fathers and sons, uncles and nephews, with long, happy histories of getting along can quickly find team driving too intense. The relationship crumbles, the team splits up and hopefully repairs their old camaraderie off the road.

“I’ve seen guys who were best friends since high school turn into a nasty mess,” says Patterson. “I’ll split them up and put them with a stranger and they’ll do fine. It’s unpredictable. I’d say maybe it’s 50-50 that people who swear they will make it work don’t.”

Here’s another surprising note of caution: there are many cases of a long-time solo driver and his wife joining up to drive team after the kids are grown and flown. They don’t automatically work. Those long hours and cramped quarters for days, stretching into weeks on some jobs, are just too much pressure.

As Beth Zelten, who team drives with her husband Ken, says, “You’re in that truck 24/7, so you’d better like each other!”

The key is negotiating ground rules rather than simply assuming your team efforts will work via some magic process or because you “know” each other. A 20-year veteran and a four-year rookie may work out fine or be a complete disaster. “The veteran driver cannot go into it assuming that he is the total boss, his way of driving is the only way and the newcomer is his helper,” Patterson says. “And the rookie has to know that he has to not only pull his weight working but be able to forge an equal relationship with a more experienced driver while he learns. There’s a lot of give and take. You need imagination and flexibility.”

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