On team building & chemistry


I read a lot of stuff online from so-called experts and know-it-alls about the ways teams are composed. You listen to their knowledge, read the books and yet, management theories get thrown out of the window when you work in real life environments where actual people ply their trade.

If I’ve been good at anything consistently across my career it’s bringing together disparate groups of people towards making good things happen. Whether it’s product management, as a boss or that time I led a summer camp band of 9-year olds to their league championship, I’m pretty good at understanding how to get the chemistry right on teams.

This doesn’t mean I’m perfect, because the right mix is fraught with challenges. Nonetheless, here are a few consistent ingredients need to get chemistry right in my own experience:

1. Valuing people
It’s one thing to say you value people, it’s another thing for your work to show it. It’s all about the little things. Whether that’s asking people how their lives are going, to getting their input and asking them how you can help, people notice the stuff you do when no one else is listening. Making a consistent effort shows that you care and after a while, you realize that people appreciate those gestures and it enables you to gain their trust. Instead of you always reaching out to them, they start reaching out to you.

2. Creating the conditions for excellence to thrive
Too often, we think the right way to get people to adapt to a new environment is to badger them into doing things our way. Instead, I try to recognize that people were living life competently before they showed up to my team. So clearly, they must know something. I realize this because it’s often how I feel when I’m part of something new, so I just try to treat them how I’d like to be treated. Asking their input and giving them the type of work they can demonstrate their excellence. More often than not, they show you what they’re made of and the team benefits as a result. Even when others might have doubted them, I don’t spend a lot of time taking too much stock in other people’s opinions of another person unless it’s someone I trust a lot. Too often, those insights are biased and don’t come with the kind of vetted perspectiev you’ll want to base your professional interactions on.

3. Listen to your people
You show up somewhere new and inherit a team. The last thing that makes sense is to start throwing around your weight from the outset. Instead? Making more sense of the landscape and asking people what their own views of things are, is a really good way to get a pulse of what’s working and what’s not working. It helps me advocate for them, but it’s always a way to create a world where you can share how your views align or differ to create a safe space for your teammates.

4. Celebrate the wins
Working hard results in good things. Reveling in that success is good for the bottom line and morale. It’s important to feel like your work matters and that you’ve contributed to something bigger than yourself. Giving people a chance to shine gives them confidence to keep participating and to go outside their depth and engage more with what’s happening at work.

5. Leadership isn’t a spectator sport.
Not every situation lends itself to appointing “deputies” but when there’s a big team to manage, I’ve tried to engage people who are emerging leaders. Whether it’s tasking aspects of the leadership burden and sharing it across to those people or finding projects where those individuals get to lead, it’s a good way to enlist folks who want to grow. Growing talent is scary for some leaders, because the fear is “well I need them and if I empower them, they might leave,” but building a farm team of talent is a way to encourage the next generation of people you hire to want to work for you, because they know they’ll get good experience and be prepared for their next role whether it’s within your organization or beyond.

Podcast Episode #3: Meditations on Process

A text conversation the other day with a friend of mine trying to synthesizing her guy problems. We’ve had variations of the same conversation for weeks months years now, but the other day after a breakthrough or two, I fired a text away that read something similar to this tweet:

So much of helping other people solve their dilemmas is working through your own problems too. It’s not entirely self-serving, but I cannot count how many times spending time breaking down the dilemmas of my friends and family have helped me to unravel my own messes along the way. In thinking about many of these conversations, it led me to think about how I view “the process” in my own life.

Seth Godin talks about “The Dip” as that thing in the middle that helps decide whether to stick with what you’re doing or whether to quit. I like recommending the book because it’s short, easy-to-read and most I recommend it to haven’t read his blog. But “the process” isn’t really about a barrier standing in the way of what you want, what you build in the middle — the process — is what sticks. If you don’t prepare, if you aren’t constantly self-critical, improving and trying to adapt…that entire time is wasted on you. Even if you end up getting what you want, I often find that I’m not really ready for it. Or I somehow decide that I don’t really want it anymore.

The process molds and shapes us.

Today on the podcast, it’s all about the process. For me, just getting this recorded and shipped to you was part of my own process. Hopefully it won’t take another few weeks for the next one to end up on your virtual doorsteps.


On Quality Time

I’m working really hard to get better at managing time. It’s not the work time that I have a problem with, it’s superfluous interactions that can be so time consuming. Whether it’s trying to make myself more accessible to other people, family stuff ™ or just people showing up out of the woodwork needing you to advise them on the same topic for the 100th time, I find that other people can be such a time suck.

I’m sure for my friends with actual responsibilities and obligations beyond setting their own schedules, this post seems needlessly inane. But I’ve configured myself almost deliberately to be without a lot of the encumbrances that other people take for granted and yet, I find that it’s just as difficult to stop people from creeping themselves onto my schedule. It’s easy to ignore calls from vendors or strangers, harder to ignore friends and family.

My family have gotten better about calling me and asking if I’m doing work before launching into whatever. It’s random friends who have a harder time accepting that what I’m doing is real work and assuming that if I’m tweeting or I’m on facebook, that means I must be available to talk because they don’t really understand my workflow. (N.B. Let’s be real, those are distractions too and I have apps to limit my use when I’m on a deadline…)

I could probably write an entire post just on workflows and how we all work — and interact with the same tools — differently.

The work uniform

After high school, I spent four years enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. As a result, I didn’t really have to think about what to wear to work for those four years. I remember getting out and thinking about how it was going to be interesting to actually think about what clothes to wear every day.

A decade or so later, I am very deliberate about what I wear. This happened progressively over time and not for any particular reason, other than I like to look nice. Sites like pinterest have helped me make sense of what works and what doesn’t work. But whenever I see someone else talking about a “work uniform” and a desire to take the guess work out of what they’re going to wear, I just can’t fathom it.

For years I lived in Wyoming, where wearing jeans with a buttoned up shirt for a guy could be considered “dressed up.” So I never felt much of a compulsion to spend any time focusing on what I was wearing. I also felt self-conscious for a long time about dressing too nicely. I felt that being black in a state with few black people made me stand out as-is, so the last thing I needed to do was show up to public events appearing overdressed. A few years ago, this all changed for me. I’m not sure what made me change my mind, I just know that I started wearing ties twice a week. I think my logic was “eventually I’m going to live somewhere else and this kind of thing won’t be optional or rare. I should prepare for that reality.” What happened when I started dressing up? Other people started following my lead or at least, felt the need to comment. After a few months of doing “Tie Tuesday or Tie Thursday,” people would remember what day of the week it was because of my habitual tie habit. It was fun for me and led me to take things a step further.

These days, my sartorial inclinations have extended well beyond my work. I am not exactly painstaking about how I dress, I just put more time into than I ever did before. We’re talking a few minutes, not hours. The end result is a more confident me. I leave the house feeling like I’m prepared for whatever the moment is. Maybe I should just feel that way anyway, but the effort invested in changing clothes provides the mental shift I need to take that next step.