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.