Thoughts on Team Building

“A small team of A-plus players can run circles around a giant team of B and C players every time”-Steve Jobs

This is a quote that I have come back to a lot throughout my career as it personally resonates with me. Maybe the reason it does this is because I like the idea of cultivating a small team of talented and motivated people that learns how to work together effectively through coaching and modeling. It’s where I find myself a lot over my career.

Building something larger from one small team to just get things done to potentially multiple teams for an organization. But it’s often a slow and difficult process to build the right team as it is a careful balance of skills, cultural fit and investment in growth and takes purpose and direction in the process to find the right people.

There is something personally satisfying to see these teams grow into high performing groups that learn to effectively self-manage and self-organize in their daily work. I love to see teams develop to a point where whatever the challenge at hand they approach it in a solution-oriented manner, personally make and honor commitments made as a team and then decompose the work to get it done. If you have not yet experienced this yet, it is an amazing thing to witness and be a part.

How can we build the wrong team?

Often times in the haste of hiring, we can find ourselves making compromises when building a team just to get people into the door. Often times, as a leader, what this creates is merely more “people work” in the immediate than “real work” getting done. Although this is not exhaustive, here are 3 potential pitfalls I have seen happen when building a team.

No Defined Vision or Understanding of Present Culture

I personally feel like absolutely NO leader should consider hiring a single person without knowing what culture they are trying to build and what they want to accomplish. Without this blueprint of what they are trying to accomplish they deprive themselves of the guidance of what type of people they need to get there. And I don’t just mean skills, I mean the character of the people they hire as well.

Sometimes, we inherit an existing culture. At that point, we have 2 options; alter the culture to align to our immediate vision (“turn the ship all at once”) or hire for the current culture keeping in mind where you want to land and seeding that direction.

The latter is a much more difficult task as often times you inherit the baggage of poor management and hiring decisions or promotions and there is a lot to untangle from history alone. But, over time and given a consistent direction, I do believe this can be done. I cannot tell you the amount of times where I worked for someone new who came into a culture and before they learned about the culture that existed before they walked in the door, they were full steam ahead trying to turn the ship to match their ideal. This typically resulted in difficulties to get where they wanted to go. Having an understanding of where you are today can really be helpful in assessing where you want to go and the obstacles ahead.

The optimum situation is being able to build new teams based on the direction you have defined. In either situation, knowing the values and culture that you want to establish are paramount to being successful, in my humble opinion.

 Creating a Supergroup

So by ignoring the fundamental fact that we are hiring people (teams composed of people) it is tantamount that at a minimum we find people that can actually work together. I have met people that say “I want to hire a bunch of rockstars”. This is where I tend to disagree.

If using a music analogy, I personally want a bunch of “studio musicians”. Competent people who know their craft well and will adapt to the music needing to be played. Agile based on the need of the moment. The problem is having a team of “rockstars” means that often you have a team of “rockstar egos” as a part of that with every member wanting to play the solo and no one wanting to hold down the rhythm. Supergroups tend to put out a single album and move on. So although competency is a cornerstone to me, egos often need to be checked at the door.

Being Afraid to Hire No One

When I was a kid, my dad used to periodically take me with him to car lot after car lot looking at various cars and talking with salespeople. Then we would leave the last lot and he would say “wanna grab some ice cream before going home”? My jaw would drop … As much as I was excited to get that yummy treat, I would ask “we looked at cars for hours, why didn’t you buy a car”? He would look at me and say “son, if I am going to make an investment in a car, it has to be the right one as it’s a mutual commitment for me to love the car and be confident in that car to the point I am willing pay it off over time. I am not going to make that choice unless I find the right car”.

I used to think that my dad was nuts. You would waste all of that time and energy looking at those cars and having those conversations and not purchase a car? I thought to myself as a kid “I’ll never do that” (although I still do the same thing with the aid of the internet to read reviews, look at issues reported, check car sites; although I eliminated the sales conversations until the first responsible moment … when I am ready to buy).

So what does that have to do with hiring a team? Well, what my dad was teaching me applies to hiring the “right” folks. If the right person does not show up, don’t make that commitment until you feel confident you are willing to invest in that person to get where you want to go. It paid off for my dad as every car he bought he took the time and then treated his purchase well and it gave him excellent service until trade-in time. Guess that process, however unpleasant it was as a kid, taught me a thing or two.

So let’s build a new team!

Daniel Pink states in his book Drive, that individuals thrive and are the most successful when three essential needs are met; autonomy, purpose and mastery. So in approaching the construction of a new team, we could create a mental checklist for ourselves and ask these types of questions when building a team:

  1. Autonomy – Am I building a team that can responsibly manage the work and organize themselves to meet the items to which they commit? Am I hiring competent, good people and trusting them when I hire them to instill this value? Am I creating an environment of meritocracy for them in terms of ideas come from anyone and a sense of work ownership by building an environment where they  will pull the work in a reasonable manner (since they’ll do the work) or am I sowing seeds of distrust through micro management? Am I creating a team unafraid of failure and experimentation? Am I being purposeful in allowing them to own the commitments they make and coaching them to use the principle of the “first responsible moment”?
  1. Purpose – Am I providing this team with a vision of something greater than the single team itself that we’re building? What is it? Do they know how they connect to the business on a larger scale and what impact they are making by what they do? Can I articulate it? Is it something that I can get people on board with or just a hollow promise? Am I creating and promoting a purpose for the work we are doing and the direction we are headed? Do I actively seek opportunities to remind us about our vision?
  2. Mastery – Am I truly making continuous improvement and learning part of the team culture as a whole or are people just having to seek out their own opportunities to grow? How am I directly investing in people to allow them to invest in themselves and making that part of the organizational culture? Am I creating a sense of learning from one another through paired activities, team building and innovation opportunities?

This sounds really difficult, right? Well, it should. It is a a real investment. Like putting away money for savings, changing poor habits  or like my dad finding that “right” car it takes effort, purpose, focus and time. But the end result is often building teams that excel beyond where you hoped they would achieve coupled with a nurturing environment for sustainability. Be purposeful in building that next team and create a culture that helps them grow. You may just be amazed at the results!

I end this with another quote about teams I have always appreciated, “The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime”. – Babe Ruth