Are You Leading, Or Just Talking Loudly?

I think it’s because of the many, many years that I spent playing and managing baseball, but I’ve always been interested in the concept of teams, and the art/science behind building them. Much like a baseball team, where different positions require different skillsets and personalities, enterprises today also require a mix of people with different perspectives to be successful Determining what you want the framework of that team to look like, deciding how the people you already have are going to fit (or not fit), putting together a process for finding the right combination of personality and talent to round out the group and getting everyone to mesh and become more than the sum of their parts is a process I’ve had the opportunity to undertake a number of times in my career and I love it. As much as I enjoy my position now as an individual contributor and I appreciate VCE giving me the time I asked for to recover from my last job, I can’t wait to have the chance to move back into a position where team building is required.

Of course, for every good team, comprised of good teammates, there are bad teams and bad teammates. Nothing can hurt the overall success of a company, team or project more than a lack of teamwork, and it’s important to look around at where you are and try to figure out if you are part of the problem or part of the solution. No matter where you are, or what you do as an individual contributor, your responsibility is to make the people above you successful. I don’t care if you don’t like your boss, I don’t care if you are more qualified than your position demands, your job is to ensure that you are doing everything you can to make your team successful.

In “Rounders”, Mike McDermott says “If you can’t spot the sucker in the first half hour at the table, then you ARE the sucker.” I say the same thing holds true for teams: If you can’t see the part of your team that needs improvement, it’s possible YOU are the part that needs it! Luckily, improving yourself as a teammate is something we should all be doing ALL the time, so there’s no shame in seeing, or being told, that you have work to do.

In my opinion there are two kinds of teammates you need to watch out for. The first is the guy who confuses talking loudly with leading. You know this guy: it’s all about him. Regardless of his role it’s always “his” team. It’s always about what project he’s working , or what customer he’s engaged with. He uses the word “I” incessantly in internal communication. He’s probably not a bad guy, and he’s definitely smart, but he doesn’t make the whole team better because he isn’t leading them anywhere, he’s just yelling about where he’s been, and where he’s going.

The other kind of teammate that worries me is the malcontent who acts like a cancer, hurting the team from the inside out. You know this guy too: he’s the one who’s always putting the team, and his teammates down, sometimes without even realizing it. “You know what, I’ll just do it myself” may be the single worst thing that a teammate can ever say. There are many reasons why one of your teammates could be unhappy, but ultimately few of them matter. If you can’t come to the group prepared to leave your individual issues at the door and further the cause of making the people above you successful, you aren’t helping the cause.

I’m an optimist, so I think even these kinds of teammates just aren’t self-aware enough to know they are causing a problem, so how can you help them? Here’s some rules I’ve learned throughout my team-building career that may help:

  • Make a rule limiting the number of times you use the word “I” in internal communications. If everyone is doing their job right, there’s no place for “I” inside the group. Use “we”, “us” or “the team” instead. Hold yourself accountable and hold the rest of the team accountable on this one. If you are going to succeed, do it together. (this one came from Monty Blight, my boss at Peak 10, and it’s one I like the most!)
  • You can never have enough internal communication! Whether it’s in person, phone, e-mail, social media or IM, you can’t know who your teammates are and what they are capable of doing without keeping the lines of communication open and using them often!
  • Go out of your way to understand the structure of your team: what role are you there to fill? How are you supposed to interact and with who? The more you understand the dance steps, the better you will be able to dance!
  • Understand what your immediate manager needs to be successful, because that’s your first priority. Look, I’ve worked for my share of managers who didn’t have any idea about how to organize a team. They weren’t ever going to be successful because they didn’t communicate what they needed to the group! If you find yourself in that situation, go up the ladder another rung, and find out what your manager’s manager needs to be successful. At some point you are going to find someone who understands how to leverage a team well enough, and when you do, get as aligned as you can. I’ve had times where I was aligned with someone two or three levels above my manager, and that’s OK. Be tactful in how you do it, but success can roll downhill too, and as long as you stay focused on being aligned with what the people above you need, good things will happen!
  • If you find you are the smartest person in the room, you are in the wrong room. Every job has a timeline, and the better you are a recognizing that you are nearing the end of yours, the easier it will be to keep the team headed in the right direction. Know when it’s time to start looking for something new, communicate that fact to your manager and work to stay challenged!
  • Know when you are oversharing. Especially for those of us (and I include myself in this group at times) for whom business travel is a part of the job, it’s hard to remember how much of a privilege that it. Sure, we fly a lot, and sure we get some of the perks that come with that (airline status, upgrades, etc…) but there are a lot of people out there who would love to be in our shoes. Spend too much time sharing where you’ve been, or what status level you are and you risk overshadowing the reason you got that job in the first place: how good you are at it! Especially distressing can be the complaints! Yes, it’s a pain when you only have status on one airline and you need to start flying another one. Yes, not getting that upgrade on an international flight can be an inconvenience. Sure, we’ve all been stuck in an airport, or had weeks where we lived in them. Yes, sometimes it’s hard being away from our families for extended amounts of time. But we have been entrusted with a job that many people aspire to, and sometimes we need to remember how all that complaining looks to the outside.

How about for you managers out there, new and old? Well the ability to have a successful team begins with you! Here are some things I’ve learned about building teams that may help:

  • Have a plan, have a plan, have a plan! Good things happen on accident, but not often, so sit down with your stakeholders and figure out what role your team needs to play. Put together a plan for the skillsets needed, and how the team needs to be laid out.
  • Hire with a purpose. Target skillsets or abilities that your team needs, and at the level your team needs. Don’t settle! Both the “he’s so brilliant we need to hire him even though we don’t know where he’ll fit” and the “he’s such a great guy that he’ll be great for the team” hires will get you in trouble. Be disciplined in putting the right people in the right places, since these are the people who you are going to make you successful!
  • Be careful of hiring people with whom you have a pre-existing relationship, and make sure you understand and acknowledge the impact that can have on the team. Listen, who you know can be more important than what you know, and all of us have relationships that have helped us find and take advantage of opportunities. That being said, even a good plan and a good team and a good manager can be undone by hiring someone for the wrong reasons. Even more importantly, the presence of a relationship can make hires that were done in good faith look bad when things don’t go well. If you are going to hire someone you are close to, understand that they will (fairly or not) have to over-deliver for a time until they are fully a part of the team!
  • Fire people when necessary. As a manager, the grown-up pants come standard, and sometimes you have to wear them. People change and goals change, and sometimes that means that teams have to change too. No one revels in the process, but for the good of the team sometimes you have to make changes, and that involves firing people who aren’t being part of the solution. Of course, this is always tricky: fire too soon or too often, and it becomes a reflection on your ability to hire the right people, and wait too long and you hurt the team. Again, the key here is communication, communication and more communication.
  • Be prepared to pivot. Every team will be asked to head in a new direction at some point, be ready for it. Maybe the challenge will be to take a small group and scale it. Maybe the challenge will be to take a local group global. Maybe it’ll be to take a team of people and use them to solve a whole new business challenge. Embrace these situations, because they will be the ultimate validation of your team and of your ability to lead it.
  • Know what kind of manager you are. Some managers excel at “managing up” and making sure that the team has the right level of exposure to the upper management group. Some manager excel at “managing down” and taking care of the tactical job of delivering on goals. A few managers can do both equally well. Understand which kind of manager you are and build the team to balance your strengths.
  • Don’t be afraid to lead, as well as manage! I’m a huge believer in leading from the front, In most organizations there’s no longer a place for the traditional middle-manager, and moreover those kinds of managers are hard-pressed to sustain the respect of a team, especially in technology companies. Best case, in my opinion, is a manager who can lead the team by example, helping the rest of the team become better at their jobs and able to jump in and help out when things are busy, or the team is short. If you are a manager and you can’t do the core job of the people you are managing, you are at a severe disadvantage.

What do you think? How does your team stack up? What are the best and worst teams you’ve been part of? Are you a good teammate or manager? How can you help your team be better? Feel free to join the discussion in the comments below, and for all of you in the US enjoy the rest of your long holiday weekend!