UPDATE: I totally forgot one critical part of what I spoke on being a team leader – thankfully Dave Fancher’s summary of KalX reminded me.
Saturday at the Kalamazoo X Conference I gave a talk on building great teams. I did it sans slides, but wanted to follow that up with a blog post covering the points I hit during the talk – so here it is!
The trophy in this picture sits on the top shelf of my closet. I have a look at it frequently as a reminder of what a group of regular folks can do when they put their minds to it.
The trophy is from the 1991 Elmendorf Air Force Base Intramural Volleyball championships. At the time I was the player/coach of the 962 AWACS’s volleyball team. Our team wasn’t filled with the greatest athletes, but we played out of our brains and knocked off other teams that were filled with tremendous individual athletes.
That is the peak of any team experience I’ve been a part of because it continues to remind me that regular folks can do amazing things if they work to a common goal.
To me, all great teams are founded on three pillars: Respect, Great Communication, Passion. No team will work to its potential (or beyond!) if any of those three pillars is weak.
Everyone on a team has to keep those in mind, both individual members and leaders alike.
You as a Member of a Great Team
As a team member it’s your job to figure out how to make your team, not yourself, shine. Fall back to the three pillars and think about how you’re dealing with them.
Respect: Everyone’s got opinions. You’ve likely got a passle and you should feel free to raise ideas and suggestions, particularly in areas which may impact the success of the team. That said, think about how you’re throwing your ideas out to the rest of the team. Just because someone’s baby is ugly doesn’t mean you need to phrase it quite that way. Change “Your code sucks” to something helpful and easier to swallow, like “I bet if we pair up we can figure out a way to cut this method’s cyclomatic complexity from 352 down to something a bit more manageable as well as make it a bit more readable and testable.”
You also need to be able and let go of your own ego, particularly around your own ideas and opinions. Somewhere I heard the phrase “strong opinions, weakly held.” I’ve always kept that to heart, because it’s particularly apt in our industry. I have extremely strong opinions on how to build great software: frameworks I favor, tools I use, methods on how to actually create software. I have those strong opinions because experience has proven these particular things help deliver great value.
I hold those opinions weakly: show me a better way and I’ll change in a snap. At the end of the day I’m in favor of anything that lets me spend more time on the couch playing XBox with my son or riding bikes with my daughter.
Communication: What are the team’s goals? Having difficulties with someone on your team? Stuck on a task, but aren’t stepping up to ask for help? Those all fall under Great Communication. You’re a part of your team’s communications ecosystem.  You need to step up to the plate and ensure you’re doing your part to keep that ecosystem healthy. It’s rarely easy to try and work out interpersonal issues with someone on your team. On occasion it blows up. You know what? Just because it’s hard doesn’t let you off the hook. Work hard at Great Communication because its benefits tremendously outweigh the effort it takes.
Passion: Get fired up about what you do. Yes, sometimes you have to suck it up and get that lipstick on a pig; that’s just a fact of business life. Offset those dreary periods with excitement about other things. Throw a lunch and learn on something interesting. Reach out to pair with someone you haven’t before. Look to learn something new. Share that excitement with others on your team.
You as the Leader of a Great Team
Do everything I just wrote about, but turn it up to 11 – and start with the respectful attitude with which you treat your team.
As a leader you can’t have the same sense of humor you do with peers. You’ve got to be very, very careful of how far you go when cutting up with your subordinates. You can’t in any fashion afford to point edgy, biting humorous insults at your team. That kind of humor (which I actually enjoy with friends and peers) isn’t at all appropriate when directed at those reporting to you.
There’s a completely different context and undercurrent when a boss fires off Mom jokes or insults at their subordinates – and a leader should never, ever even playfully joke about firings, i.e. “Whoever wrote this code should be fired.” These sorts of jokes always cut subordinates more deeply than you realize, and cutting up about firing someone over bad code/design/architecture/tests will crush down your team without you ever having a clue about it.
I can’t emphasize this enough: take care with the humor you present to your team. Make humor a big part of who you are as a lead, but stay far, far away from anything which can have a negative connotation.
Above and beyond that, build a great team. You need to take care forming your team – or improving the team you’re given. As the leader it’s your job to line up the best possible members for your team or work hard to deal with the ones you’re given – and “deal with” may mean moving unproductive members off the team. Makeup of your team has to be something you are willing to go to the mattresses on. Fight to get only great members, fight to turn existing members great, fight to get rid of members who aren’t willing to come along for the ride.
Once you’ve gotten your team built, empower them to do great work. I’m a firm, vehement believer that nobody does well under micromanagement. Set broad goals for your team and individual members, give them some borders on how to get that work done, then step back and watch them do amazing things. You’ve set your team up with great folks, or the potential to be great. They don’t need you to guide them every step of the way.
Empowering your team doesn’t mean you ignore them and abdicate your role of leader: you do need to monitor progress, and in no way, shape, or form does this get you off the mentoring hook. Checking progress from time to time ensures your directions weren’t completely misconstrued or that things haven’t gone off the rails. Checking progress does not mean you’re expecting hourly updates on everything though.
Closely tied to empowering your team is your role as Remover of All Things Roadblocky. I am absolutely not the sharpest tool in the shed. I look to get those folks on my team. What I am great at is helping those folks by getting every friction point out of their way I possibly can. I fight for hardware and get creative about sharing it with others when I can’t get what we really need. I push through for process changes to get asinine hindrances removed. Rinse, repeat. That’s one of my personal favorite, most rewarding things to do as the boss: solve problems so folks can shine.
Don’t forget to recognize the progress your folks are making. Teams get bogged down in minutia, so it’s important to give regular shout outs when they’re deserved. The ever-important BVC is critical so the team sees progress over time: “God, we sucked this week, but look at how much value we delivered this month!” I also make use of Amazon.com gift cards and foodie packages from Zingerman’s when the entire team’s done something really cool – like hit major milestones.
Be Part of a Great Team
Building, running, and being part of great teams isn’t easy. It’s a lot of hard work and care and feeding of your people – and it’s worth every penny. I’ve been on dysfunctional teams, I’ve been on teams that were just OK, I’ve been part of amazing teams that continually astounded me. Amazing teams can happen.
Make one. Be part of one. It’s life changing.
 I just totally invented the phrase Communications Ecosystem. Feel free to use it. Or not.