Friday, August 11, 2017

Thoughts on how to build and retain a strong team

Over the course of my professional career, I have come to believe that behind every strong company is a strong team. From Disney’s legendary team of core animators, known as the Nine Old Men, to Google’s founding team to Squarespace and its praiseworthy company culture—the examples of strong teams achieving remarkable things are plentiful. 

Companies with high-performing teams can turn the odds in their favor and move toward success where others would fall and crumble. But as Sadhan Choudhury writes in his comprehensive book on the subject of project management, "Team building is the most difficult part of organizing human resources." 

Instead of reinventing the wheel, it is wiser to learn from those who have built successful teams and decided to share their wisdom with others. One methodology that sparked my interest comes from the team consultant guru Jon Gordon and the former head coach of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons Mike Smith.

In their book titled "You Win in the Locker Room First: The 7 C’s to Build a Winning Team in Business, Sports, and Life", Gordon and Smith talk about how strong teams are cultivated by the right culture, beliefs, relationships, and other factors. They summarize their principles as seven attributes that teams must foster in order to become successful.

Here they are:

1. Culture

"Culture drives expectations and beliefs; expectations and beliefs drive behavior; behavior drives habits; and habits create the future. It all starts with culture."

Jon Gordon and Mike Smith have taught me that strong team culture is the foundation upon which formidable teams are built. Such culture can be established only when it is shared by everyone in the organization - not just the individual team members. It must reflect the shared beliefs, goals, and habits of everyone working at the company.
The current state of company culture can be evaluated by asking questions such as, "What do we stand for?" and "What do we want to be known for?" If the answers vary, the company culture is misaligned. In order to transform an existing culture or create a new one from scratch, a strong vision for change must be developed and effectively communicated to awaken the inner fire in others that makes it into reality.

2. Contagious   

"Leadership is a transfer of purpose, passion, optimism, and belief."

As natural leaders, Gordon and Smith intuitively understand the power of a simple, compelling vision statement presented by a team leader who broadcasts positive energy that inspires other to overcome challenges and achieve success. 
Kim Cameron and Wayne Baker of U-M’s Ross School of Business and colleagues Brad Owens of Brigham Young University and Dana Sumpter of California State University-Long Beach found that, "the more relational energy a leader exudes, the better employees on that team perform in terms of productivity, absenteeism, engagement, and job retention."
But the influence of positive mindset is not limited to team leaders. When everyone in the organization shares the same positive mindset, great ideas can spread like a wildfire, igniting success. 

3. Consistent

"If you are not consistent, you will lose the trust your team has in you. When you lose trust, you lose the locker room."

I know from first-hand experience that things do not always go according to plan. Sometimes, bad outcomes happen regardless of how committed everyone was or how much preparation went into the project. In those cases, frustration and even anger are justifiable, but the absence of consistency is not.

Any company culture with a strong vision can be undermined by inconsistency. Those who are committed enough not to abandon their original vision the moment a challenge arrives are those who can achieve greatness.

4. Communicate   

"When there is a void in communication, negativity will fill it. Fill the void with great communication."

It is evident to me that communication is paramount for ideas to be shared, problems solved, and objectives set. Where there is an absence of communication, productivity decreases as negativity fills in. 

Effective communication is characterized by openness, friendliness, and focus. Everyone should be allowed to voice their opinion, and no opinion should be dismissed before being properly evaluated. History teaches us, that the soldiers in the trenches can often provide more valuable insight than the generals in the tents. 

5. Connect

"Team beats talent when talent isn’t a team."

While there are many examples in the IT world of rogue teams working alone to come up with groundbreaking products and solutions, I see such examples as rare exceptions and not something to strive for. My experience aligns with the view of Jon Gordon and Mike Smith, who stress the importance of connections. 

A team should be connected not only internally but also to other teams and to the larger work organization. Connected teams share ressources, communicate, and understand the wider implications of their decisions.

6. Commitment

"It’s not about you. It’s about committing yourself to your team."

I have seen many times the extent, to which strong team connections nurture commitment. When team members understand how their work fits into the company goals, and how the goals, in turn, impact them, they are more willing to commit to the common goal and make personal sacrifices to achieve it. 

Committed teams face difficult challenges with the same resolution and relentless desire to succeed as players coached by Mike Smith face their opponents. 

7. Care

"Relationships are the foundation upon which winning teams are built, and all great relationships are based on value, respect, love, trust, and care."

I have never seen members of a strong team that do not deeply care about one another. People who spend a considerable amount of time with like-minded individuals who share the same values and goals as they do tent to form strong bonds based on mutual understanding, respect, and comradery. 

It’s great to see team members helping one another to overcome professional hurdles as well as personal tragedies. Members of such teams are stronger as individuals because they can draw strength from the team’s collective pool of energy. 


Building strong teams is a complex process that requires a comprehensive approach. It is also a process with tremendous potential benefits for the individual team members and the organization that employs them alike. 

The 7 C’s methodology created by Jon Gordon and Mike Smith describes foundational principles for effective team building and team maintenance. The methodology can be easily adopted to suit the needs of software development teams working in both agile and traditional environments.