Catherine Trombley: teamwork, the truth about teams

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If you’ve had your performance review lately, you have probably received a score regarding your ability to “work well within a team”. If you are in the upper strata of management, this question has likely not come up in your performance review in quite some time (if you even have performance reviews anymore, that is). Why do we emphasize teamwork for some categories of employees and not for others? Is there some kind of graduation ceremony whereby you fulfill all your teamwork requisites and can become a lone wolf?

In Human Resources the dichotomy of team vs. individual comes up frequently and is the cause for many peer complaints, workshops, employee frustration, and countless other issues. What is really at the heart of this apparent polarization?

Many of us have come to peace with the notion that some people are simply more extroverted or introverted than others as a way of explaining team involvement. Others feel that after reaching a certain level, team work does not apply to them any longer. Yet there seems to be another force at work that defines how we interact in a team. That is our sufficiency and value within our workplace network.

What do I mean?

Team members are more than just the person sitting next to you. You could sit next to someone for 30 years and not have any substantive contact other than borrowing their stapler. True teammates are those you collaborate with, complement each other’s skill sets, and perhaps even ground one another in the feasibility of a timeline or regulatory restrictions pertinent to a current project. There are countless ways that your interactions define who makes up your team. We must also realize that we are all part of a team or even various teams. This is essentially what we were hired for whether we realize it or not.

The value you bring to the team determines how connected you are to others within your workplace network. Connecting to your network is something introverts and extroverts alike do every day through their work and the value and intensity of their connectivity is defined through the quality of their work. A thoughtful report by your introvert colleague on the legal issues facing the launch of your new product or a bursting list of qualified sales prospects from your extrovert sales colleague are both valuable and necessary connections in the workplace network.

By network I mean the workplace plane on which you connect with others and transmit your value for success. You needn’t work in the same office to be in a network, you could telecommute, be halfway around the world, or even at different companies and still form part of the same network. Make no mistake, in today’s day and age, your value to the network becomes more and more apparent the greater the physical distance between you and your teammates. You could have graduated at the top of your class at Oxford or be connected to the highest echelons of society, but unless you are able to connect to your network and contribute anything of substance, your value to the team will be zero.

Look around your office or scroll through your contacts and you will naturally identify one or two people who are the constant source for information, guidance, creativity, direction, revenue, and nearly any other metric you can think of. These dynamos are your high-value individuals, the axis of your workplace network. They are highly valued because of their connectedness to others and their ability to keep others connected.

On the surface, these individuals seem to be far more needed by the team than they actually need the team. Because of their position as a resource for knowledge, direction, and countless other things, they are constantly connecting to the team in the form of answering questions, hearing concerns, and solving problems. Those dynamos who make the most of their position and view this constant feedback loop as a means to perfect the mousetrap are those who become the most successful. Those who dismiss their connectivity as endless nagging from employees that prevents doing “real” work will surely fail and lose their place in the network, having not wanted to participate in it.

Indeed the dynamos appear to stand on their own, and for a savvy decision-maker from a competitor are just the type of person to be poached away to bring success to their own company. But the truth of the matter is that these dynamos of your office, while indeed power houses, do need the network of their team to continue generating the same level of value. As uncovered by Boris Groysberg’s book, Chasing Stars, after examining 1000 star analyst from Wall Street Investment banks:

“Star analysts who change firms suffer an immediate and lasting decline in performance. Their earlier excellence appears to have depended heavily on their former firms’ general and proprietary resources, organizational cultures, networks, and colleagues. There are a few exceptions, such as stars that move with their teams and stars that switch to better firms. Female stars also perform better after changing jobs than their male counterparts do. But most stars who switch firms turn out to be meteors, quickly losing luster in their new settings.”

Often when taken out of their current workplace network, high-value individuals are not able to replicate their success. Only those who are in-tune with themselves (strengths and weaknesses alike) and realize the value of the team they belong to or can identify that the team they are moving to can replicate the network in which they have flourished continue to demonstrate success.

Are teams really that important you might ask? Aren’t we instilled with the workplace adage, “no one is indispensable and everyone is replaceable”?

While it’s true that everyone within a team is replaceable, what must be considered is whether the replacement is of the same caliber as the former team member. The replacement may be better, worse, or roughly equal to them. The impact of the replacement on your team is absorbed by the remaining team members’ ability to compensate for lost value or to accommodate and find a place in the network for the new set of skills brought by the new member. But just as the grade of gasoline you place in your car effects the performance of your vehicle, so does the quality of your replacement affect your team.

Still many in the business world are reluctant to embrace the concept of team over individual. Let’s take a look at a recent comment by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg on the subject. In public statements that justified his acquisition of FriendFeed for $47 million (roughly $4 million per employee), he stated the following:“Someone who is exceptional in their role is not just a little better than someone who is pretty good, they are 100 times better”.
Zuckerburg’s hyperbolic comments (linguistically and financially) make it no surprise that over the past two weeks, the Harvard Business Review blog has featured a number of entries offering a response to his comment.

It seems Zuckerburg intended his comment to mean that all you need are the dynamos and not all the extra team fluff. And this is precisely how many blog responders have analyzed his comment. Some applauding him for saying what so many CEOs have dared not to utter for fear of seeming politically incorrect , while others have sought to ground his comment by emphasizing the value of the team.

I tend to agree with the latter and would stress that perhaps Zuckerburg in his zeal to acquire this organization may have overlooked the fact that he has not only acquired a top-notch executive team but perhaps a dynamic support team behind them as well. Let’s hope so, or he will soon have a hefty hole in his wallet.

Bill Taylor, co-founder of Fast Company magazine, whose Harvard Business Review blog entry, “Great People are Overrated,” touches on my own view point and offers the example of the FC Barcelona football club which has been getting increased attention, including from The Economist , for being an underdog that has grown into a force to be reckoned with. How have they accomplished this? By focusing on the whole and not just the shiny parts.

FC Barcelona, known to some as Barça, has created a strategy of cultivating their own players for success instead of acquiring a string of hot international players. Barcelona has its own football school, La Masia, which inculcates in its students (future players) character-building as much as footballing. Students at La Masia are instructed in team spirit, self-sacrifice, and perseverance. The results of growing its own talent can be seen most popularly in Lionel Messi, the young Argentinean who during the 2010 World Cup was hailed as one of the rising stars of football and has been brought up by Barcelona and La Masia where he began playing as a young boy. But what seems to be most important is that Barcelona emphasizes the concept that they are “more than just a club” not only with its players and leadership but with its fans.

To return to the concept of the value of your connectivity to the team, it seems that Barca has fully tapped into their network and instills in all who wish to connect with them the value of the greater good and reliance on one another: coach, captain, team, and fans alike.

So after a break for some foot ball, let’s return to the original question of this posting, what is really at play in defining our team orientation?

In my view, being individually-oriented is not a characteristic of Type-As or introverts (which if you really stop to think, that such opposite personalities hold being individually-oriented as a stereotype seems a bit paradoxical). Rather focusing on yourself over the team seems to demonstrate a clear weakness in terms of understanding and having confidence in one’s own talent. Perhaps it is a fear of losing talent by sharing it with others or causing your talent to lose its uniqueness. The psychological underpinnings for this are a subject for another time and lengthier place. But what’s clear is that if you are truly talented you will not just sit on the sidelines of interaction but will be sought out by others for your expertise. The more you hold back on sharing your expertise, the less connected you become and the less sustainable your success or stature. Just imagine what would have been of The Beatles or Bill Gates had they jealously guarded their expertise and talents for themselves and not sought out a network

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About Catherine Trombley

An international professional, Catherine Trombley brings an innovative approach to the world of international insurance at Rutherford Financial Services Inc. In an industry so focused on the needs of individuals and groups, a truly personalized approach is needed.

Prior to coming to Rutherfoord, Catherine was involved in translation and interpretation. She dealt with clients across a wide range of lifestyles from Embassy personnel to underpriviledged medical patients. My experiences in this field have taught me the need for clear communication across cultures as well as how critical it is to understanding multiple points of view when attempting to disseminate knowledge across a linguistic or cultural barrier.

Bilingual in Spanish and English, fluent in French, with knowledge of Portuguese and Arabic, Catherine is always interested in connecting with people... if it can be in their native language, all the better!

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