Building Strong Teams

Four books that have shaped how I think about, build and participate in teams. What should I read next?

Feb 4, 2022
I’ve been thinking a lot about teams recently. 
How do you build them? How do you evolve them? How do you successfully participate in them? Can you have a team in what is typically a solo sport? 
I can’t guarantee this newsletter will have any answers. But I’m going to throw some paint on the wall, which is a skill I have developed over the years. 
We’re all part of teams. 
In my work life, I am a team lead and a member of a team. 
And what does a team want most? To succeed. 
And who can drive that success? The people. 
So the questions become… Do you have the right people? Can the people work in harmony? What can be done to strengthen the individuals and the team?

Recruiting a team

Over the last few years, my team at work has evolved a lot. There have been moments when it got smaller, and now moments where it is growing. Building this team is one of my proudest accomplishments as a professional (and I’m not done!). 
However, I think hiring is one of the most difficult things to do well. While I have a winning record, I’ve had losses too. Recently, I was inspired to re-evaluate how best to hire.
The goal of hiring is to find the best person for the job. But how are you supposed to do that over the course of a couple of hours? This is why your network is your greatest asset. But it doesn’t alway work. 
I am fundamentally opposed to asking candidates to do free work. I have done this in the past because I didn’t have a better system. I always felt terrible about it. I apologize to those I’ve asked. 
Fortunately, I have educated myself more about successfully hiring, by seeking advice from others in my position and reading the book Who: The A Method for Hiring
My biggest takeaways were, you must: 
  • define what outcomes you expect from the job being done well, and; 
  • craft highly specific questions that can improve your ability to distinguish an A player. 
Around the same time as reading this book, I learned about something called a “functional interview”. 
Instead of asking someone for a generic 30-60–90 plan or requiring them to build a strategy for your organization from scratch with little context, you create 5-7 questions with context baked in and workshop them together with the candidate. 
My formula for the questions is:
[Context about some aspect of the job they would be walking into - usually a current problem we are facing], [a clear description of the desired state], [what would be your approach]? 
For example: We’ve been selling to a specific market for several years, but we are ready to expand to others where we are less known. Your mission will be to generate awareness and drive demand in three new industries (X, Y, Z), what steps would you take to develop your plan?
Side note: You never know who you will meet and what skills they might bring to the table. You might have a profile in mind, but let yourself be open.
An implicit goal of the hiring process is also to convince the candidate that your organization and the job is what they want. You have to be real, because if you lie, they will figure it out soon enough and leave. 
This process gives you both a chance to understand the challenges and opportunities you are walking into so everyone can make the best decision. 
This might sound basic, but for me, it was eye opening. The second I implemented the approach, I started to leave interviews with significantly more confidence that the person could or could not do the job. 

Aligning a Team

So after you recruit, how do you take a group of people and transform them into a team? 
Maybe you don’t buy into the analogy of businesses being like sports teams, but I do. 
Side note: I cringe when people call a business a family. It’s not.
A business, like a sports team, is a collection of individuals with a goal, different skill sets and experience levels, all trying to do something great in a coordinated way.
My favorite book on leadership is The Score Takes Care of Itself
To aggressively summarize the words of the great Bill Walsh, to succeed a team needs a shared objective, clear standards of performance, plans to improve the performance, and trust. 
In the book, Walsh explains that winning was not his prime directive. 
For a coach of an elite team, this is extraordinary. 
His primary directive for everyone on the team (on the field, off the field, and for himself) was to excel in achieving the standards of performance he set out. 
His book is the ultimate course on why and how execution matters most.  What I took away from this book is that to build a strong team, you need to: 
  1. Establish clear goals. A team needs to know and agree on the end game. I’m a huge fan of Objectives and Key Results as a framework for this. John Doerr’s book on it is my bible. 
  2. Identify the standards of performance. What does it mean for each individual to do their job well? What is unacceptable? What is expected? I don’t have as much experience setting explicit standards. I should probably get stronger here.
  3. Build trust. This one is the hardest. It doesn’t happen overnight. It can take a long time to establish and can erode in a moment. I believe that trust is born from consistency and follow through. Do what you say you are going to do, consistently. 

Taking the team to the next level 

I am deeply disturbed by the number of people who work in shitty company cultures. I can not imagine the pain of having to put up with arrogance, misogyny, racism, micromanagement, backstabbing, belittlement, and more as part of your daily professional life. 
A few years ago, I read Tribal Leadership, a book about building thriving organizations. I don’t know why this isn’t required reading for everyone. 
The authors define a tribe as a “natural group” that forms in an organization. 
The tribe can exist and move between five stages with the following dominant themes: 
  1. “Life sucks”
  2. “My life sucks”
  3. “I’m great (and you’re not)”
  4. “We’re great”
  5. “Life is great”
I can’t begin to summarize this book right now, but I found a site that did a good job
All I will say now, is that this book is valuable for people leading AND members of a team. It provides guidance for what to do if you are stuck in a lower stage organization. 
The reason why I am proud of the current state of our team at work is because we have an environment where individuals of all experience levels can thrive. 
Where titles don’t dictate who can dream up the solution, run with it, and be celebrated for its success. 
Where the ability to lead is available no matter how “junior” or “senior” you are. 
Where people will stop and help their peers. 
Where conflicts are identified and resolved.

What should I read next?

While I am happy with our current state, I care deeply about getting even better. 
The future of work has been on everyone’s mind. 
The great resignation. The rise of remote and flexible work environments. The four-day work week… 
Beyond all of these movements, I’m also eager to see us move to a less hierarchical world where teams can achieve greatness without antiquated management practices of the past.
It pains me to read studies that show that individual contributors are thrilled with remote based work, while managers want everyone back in the office. 
What in the actual hell are these “managers” doing?
It doesn’t mean that remote work is without challenges. There are many issues to solve and new muscles to develop. 
Some of the muscles I want to strengthen when it comes to leading, growing, supporting, and being a member of a remote team include: 
  • How to workshop remotely
  • How to co-create asynchronously 
  • How to coach, teach, and mentor primarily via video calls
  • How to do all of the above without having a calendar full of meetings

If you have any book recommendations for diving into the above, please share!

In case you are new around here, and wondering why I’m writing about building strong teams at work versus sharing my thoughts on how many sets of squats I think people should do, it’s because I believe physical, personal and professional strength are intertwined. 
A strong body supports you.
A strong mind enables you.
A strong work ethic propels you. 

Please do share your book recommendations!