Great Team or Great Players

I often hear people say they want to work at a company because they are led by a great team. What they usually mean is that the team is comprised of people who were successful before, or at least they were at successful companies. The same goes for venture capital investments. They often will invest in a great leadership team, but what they really mean is that the pedigrees of the leadership has been associated with previous success.

In contrast, a true “great team” is a group of people who work well together. They are aligned in spirit with diverse points of views and multiply each others efforts. There is chemistry, trust, and camaraderie. A great team working in unison will usually beat a group of great players.

Last year, I read The Boys in the Boat. (Good book) The subject was about crewman during World War II; (people rowing in a boat – see picture).

The key element that inspired me is the description of how winning speed is attained. Speed did NOT come from the number of strokes per minute. You could beat a team with almost half the strokes per minute if your strokes were in true unison. In other words, it was the asynchronization of strokes, the little inconsistencies between rowers that created drag. When everyone was in true alignment, the boat would “lift out of the water” and the rowers felt like they were rowing in pure air.

That’s what working on a well functioning team feels like. It’s bliss. Not everyone has experienced the joy of being a part of a team that works like that. I have had a few years out of the last 30 that felt that way and I think I only achieved maybe 75% of true team enlightenment. (Maybe less)

The last two years have taught me a great deal about alignment, communication and how team conflicts can be detrimental to the overall success of the company and certainly to my own happiness.

My advice to VC and other people evaluating companies is to ignore the pedigrees of the team and instead look for the following signs of a great team:

  • Do the department heads think they are on the team they manage or are they on the e-team? You shouldn’t be both, otherwise you are neither. In other words, Is the e-team a bonded team or a collection of department heads?
  • Is there easy and active collaboration between department individual contributors or is each objective owned by one department and not collaborative?
  • Are the arguments about merits of the ideas or about word-smithing and consensus? Are there healthy discussions or is everyone trying to get along or hiding animosity?
  • Is there clear awareness of the big objectives or does everyone have their own marching orders that are separate from other people?
  • Do people get excited working and even talking with each other?

Alot of these things are hard to determine by just one or two interviews. I suggest taking multiple people to lunch and trying to get their view outside of the office. I imagine most companies are not working like the Boys in the Boat, but you don’t need to have an Olympic level team to succeed. You just need to be better than your competition.

I won’t beat this to death, but at this point in my life, I am trying to focus on teamwork and surround myself with people who “get me” and whom I want to interact with at work.

One last metaphor. Great rock bands aren’t made of the best players of every instrument. They are not the sum of their parts. They make great music because of the chemistry between the players. No chemistry, no great music. Same goes for any team.

I’ll end with a quote (that may never have actually been said) from one of the great teams in history.

Pete Best is a great drummer, but Ringo…Ringo is a great Beatle. – John Lennon