It’s become standard practice to refer to a company’s employees as a “team”—a word we usually think of in reference to competitive sports. But what does it really mean to call your employees a team? And how do you take the concept of a team and turn it into something extraordinary in the corporate setting?
Think of some of the great, virtually unbeatable sports teams of the past—the New York Yankees in the late 1940s and early 1950s; the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team in the late 1990s; the New England Patriots in the 2000s. They all boasted enormously talented players, certainly. But plenty of teams have talent. A great team has to be more than the sum of its parts. It has to be more than just a collection of individuals. Take it from Michael Jordan, a superstar who knew the importance of a great team: “Talent wins games,” he has been quoted as saying. “Teamwork and intelligence win championships.”
THE POWER OF THE PLAYER-COACH
My approach to leadership has always been team-centric. Picture your company as a team and the industry and landscape as your arena, your challenge day in and day out. From there, it is important to have a shared mission and it is your job to rally everyone around that mission. I believe that is what ultimately keeps people motivated and accountable. Think of yourself as a captain and a player-coach, someone who simultaneously holds both playing and coaching duties. In other words, do not put yourself on the sidelines; you’ve got to be able to see both the big picture and the most minuscule details. As leaders, it is our job to see the vision and help inspire the team, reminding them of the shared mission often. It’s essential that you are shoulder-to-shoulder with your employees, but also always looking ahead to the next challenge.
The ultimate player-coach, head coach of the Seattle Seahawks Pete Caroll, said it best: “Each person holds so much power within themselves that needs to be let out. Sometimes they just need a little nudge, a little direction, a little support, a little coaching, and the greatest things can happen.” Ultimately, in a leadership role, it is your job to unlock your teammates’ potential and nurture the all-for-one, one-for-all spirit that elevates every winning team. By grounding the team in that collective vision, you will keep them connected to the difference that they’re making in this world. Leadership is all about setting the tone and developing the right work environment so everyone can shine in their own way.
INTERDEPENDENT SYSTEM OF TRUST
A team is, at its best, the ultimate support system. And trust is at the crux of that. When there’s trust, you can move faster and make better decisions. Collectively, we are all interdependent on each other to see the mission come through. One person’s strengths make up for another’s weaknesses. A single teammate isn’t going to solve big issues on their own. In fact, that individualistic “I can do it all” attitude is something I discourage. Showing vulnerability and asking for help shouldn’t be a bad thing. That’s a sign that a culture of collaboration has been established. If anyone on my team is having trouble getting to the finish line on a project, they know there is always someone to give that final push.
As my company’s “coach,” it’s my responsibility to put together (and keep together) a dream team, where everyone’s individual skills are complementary. It’s a complicated process, equal parts intuition and experience, but it pays off when all the puzzle pieces come together. Another quote? This one comes from one of my personal superstars—my dad: “You are who you surround yourself with.” But keep in mind that you too have great responsibility, as people are choosing to be surrounded by you. As a leader, you are not assigned a title, it is very much earned. The better version of you that you are, the better people around you can be.
EXTRAORDINARY EXISTS INSIDE
Eight out of 10 times you’re doing great work internally. Sports are, by nature, competitive. So, where does the competitive spirit fit into the overall picture? How do you light a fire within your employees to make them want to be their best selves and deliver their best work to the collective team? It is often said that the “grass is always greener” and sure, that can be true. But I urge you to look inside. Look at where your employees thrive not only professionally, but also personally. As a leader, spend a majority of your time diving into what is working and then amplify those strengths and build confidence one by one.
Pete Caroll said, “It’s about us getting ready to play. It’s not about the other team. We’ll beat ourselves before they beat us.” Focus on your own a majority of the time, while keeping a peripheral view of your competitors to stay informed. Think of that amplification and innovative ethos as a team that is constantly practicing and improving, honing their collective skills. When you can all get behind a mission, the team moves as one, with a common goal everyone is striving for. When that happens, you can be unstoppable.
These philosophies will help you lay the groundwork for a collaborative, innovative, and trusting workplace environment. Abby Wambach, captain and leader of the U.S. Women’s soccer team, put it best: “You are allowed to be disappointed when it feels like life’s benched you. What you aren’t allowed to do is miss your opportunity to lead from the bench.” In sum: Rub shoulders, build trust among your team, and be the visionary to help accomplish your mission. Alone, you might fumble. Together, you can rise to the occasion. That’s what great teams do.
Kevin Rutherford, CEO of Nuun Hydration.