Cultivating a team of ideal team players

August 19, 2019
12 min read
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Earlier this year I came across a book that helped open my mind to a great way to build great teams; The Ideal Team Player by Patrick Lencioni. I've since been applying some of the theory from the book to my team, and wow, what a positive effect it's had! So, being the really kind person that I am, I shall now share with you how I went about it and look at the improvements I've seen in the team since then.

So are you going to tell me what The Ideal Team Player is actually about?

Well, I mean you could have just followed that link above and learnt this yourself, but I suppose I am writing this article to provide you with this very information... okay, okay, I'll tell you. The premise of the book is that there are three key traits that, when all are working well in balance, make for a person who is an ideal team player. That is, a person who gets along with others, has a desire to grow and isn't going to brag about themselves all day long. These three traits are Humble, Hungry, and Smart. The book is written in narrative form and makes for a very easy read, and I'd strongly encourage you to add it to your reading list (and if you don't have a reading list yet, stop what you're doing, create a list, add this book to the top of it, and come back once that's done... I mean who doesn't have a reading list... who are you!?).

So what are these traits all about? Let's take a look.

Humble people don't have a big ego. They will praise others for something well done, freely share credit and won't go bragging about their own accomplishments. They will strongly align themselves to the goals of the team and will prioritize the team wins over their own.

Hungry people are always on the look out to grow; to grow their knowledge, their responsibility, their helpfulness. They are self motivated and have a desire to go above and beyond to do more. They require little to no motivation from their manager to keep going.

Smart refers to people smarts, aka, emotional intelligence. These people are very aware of how their actions and words have an effect on others. They take the time to think about how they can convey information such that it can be received in the best way possible. They are good listeners, ask good questions, and actively engage in conversations.

What happens when Humble, Hungry, and Smart are missing or out of balance?

Well aside from the obvious, where by you have someone who's lacking in all three and is just all around unpleasant to work with, there are some fun characters that arise when someone is strong in one or two of the traits, but lacking in the others.

Celia is what some refer to as a skilful politician. She's extremely motivated to take on more, she's confident, and she's everyone's friend. When she wants to do something, she's great at saying the right things to the right people to get her way. She's also not one for sharing credit and will put her own goals above those of her team. She's doing pretty well in the Hungry and Smart traits, but lacking in the Humble department.

When you bumped into Chester this morning he stopped in the hallway and called you out for a job well done on nailing that latest feature you've been working on. His upbeat attitude and big smile made you feel warm and fuzzy and set a great mood for the rest of your morning. What a great guy. The team has been trying to bring on some new technologies and processes to help them level up, but Chester has been staying out of that. He's quite happy with how things are and isn't in a hurry to have to learn anything new. Chester's is a lovable slacker. He's got the Humble and Smart traits in spades, but he's not very Hungry.

In comes Xavier, you say high to him as he walks past but he doesn't look up to acknowledge your existence, he's here to get stuff done, not socialize with the likes of you! You've gone over the team goals with him a few times now, but he tells you that he knows better. His ideas are better than yours, and he's quite okay rolling over you to get what he wants. This is Xavier, aka the bulldozer. He's got Hungry down packed, but where on earth are Humble and Smart!?

As you can see, there can be some pretty down right disastrous outcomes if these three virtues get out of balance. It's worth noting, of course, that we're not here to pigeon hole people, these are just a couple of examples of how things could turn out. Each person will have some slight variation of level and balance on the three virtues that will make for some fun and exciting combinations.

Going from theory to reality

Let's imagine a world where you've got a team of people who are all ideal team players. Each of them are well balanced across the three virtues, Humble, Hungry and Smart, and continue to grow across these traits. This is a team who is going to work together extremely well. You can picture a team where everyone is open and honest with each other, lots of stuff is getting done, and lots of new things are being learned and applied. This is the dream, but how can we get there?

Start by looking at yourself. How do you rate across those three virtues? Focus in on the one you consider yourself weakest in, and set yourself a S.M.A.R.T. goal to improve yourself in that area.

Let's now assume that you're the leader of your team. If you're not, but you still want to apply this to your team, make sure you raise it with your team leader in your next one on one! Perhaps even share this article with them to convince them of its goodness. If you're reading this because you were sent here by someone on your team, make sure to give them a high five and praise them for this incredibly valuable thing they've shared with you.

So, as the team lead, you will want to rinse and repeat the goal setting exercise with each member of your team. In everyone's next one on one, talk to them about Humble, Hungry, and Smart. Ask them for what they see as their weakest of those three. Coaching them to identify their own area for improvement is important, because they'll feel a stronger sense of ownership on improving as opposed to you just telling them from on up high. Once they've identified an area, walk them through putting a S.M.A.R.T. goal together to make the improvement.

Making it more substantial by getting the whole team involved

Now that everyone has their own area that they're working to improve, it's time to go to the next level; opening up to the team. During your initial one on one with each team member, make sure to ask them individually how comfortable they would be sharing their goal with the rest of the team. If you get some strong "no" responses, dig in a bit more to understand where that "no" is coming from. There may be an underlying feeling of distrust with one or more people in the team, and that in itself is useful for you to know so that you can start to manage improving that trust in a possibly separate way. This exercise itself will help improve the trust in your team, but if there isn't a decent base level there to begin with, it might prove difficult to follow.

Assuming you get everyone on board with the idea of sharing their goal with the team, the next step is to gather the troops. You could do set a dedicated meeting for this, or do it as part of your next standup, whatever seems easiest. Go around the room, starting with yourself, and share the area you're trying to improve on and the goal you've set for yourself. As you go through each person, also ask them how they'd like the rest of the team to help with their goal. It may be that they let Celia know when she starts bragging about something she did, when in fact the entire team contributed. It might be letting Chester know that he once mentioned he had done some TDD before, and it'd be great if he could give the team some training on it. The goal here is to set some criteria in which each person would like to get feedback from their team to help achieve their goal. Make sure to specify the communication method as well, as some people like in person feedback, whereas others would prefer an e-mail or IM so they can process the feedback asynchronously.

Keep it fresh to keep it fizzing

It's great that everyone has shared their goal with the rest of the team, job well done! Now it's important to keep this fresh in everyone's mind. I'd start with talking about it at standup for the next few days, and then checking in once a week for the first month or two to see how we're all going. You'll likely find that feedback between the team isn't happening as freely as you'd imagined. This is pretty normal, as giving constructive feedback can be quite daunting to some. If this is the case, make sure to coach your team on how to give feedback and help them as much as possible to deliver it.

The goal here is to keep the topic at the top of everyone's mind. It takes time and commitment to give an initiative like this legs, so don't be that person who just drops a zinger of an idea on everyone, and then runs off on to the next idea leaving this one crying and lost like a toddler who didn't follow you like they were told to.

Don't forget about the hiring process!

A brief but super important thing to note is that if this is something you're driving with your existing team, you'll really want to make sure you incorporate it into your hiring processes. Screen for these traits and talk to the candidate about them. Explain to them the culture of the team and how it incorporates these ideals. This will help both of you decide if the team is the right fit.

We've found using these terms has made it really easy to talk about traits you noticed in people, but historically couldn't quite put your finger on. Make sure to talk about this during your post interview debrief and be very mindful about hiring "a gun" who doesn't seem to show balance across the three virtues, because as Admiral Ackbar would say, it's a trap!

You can't catch the rainbow, but you can keep running towards it

At some point, assuming you continue your focus on your goal to improve in one of the three virtues, you're going to get to a point where that virtue is no longer the weakest; it may have even become the strongest! You'll want to check-in with yourself and your team semi-regularly to review this and adjust your focus to another of the Humble, Hungry and Smart traits as necessary. The idea here is to constantly improve one trait at a time, but also to keep all three in balance with each other. We don't need another Xavier the bulldozer on our hands!

So come on, time to share, how did this pan out for your team?

Really well! It was a really big boost for trust and psychological safety within the team, as we all allowed ourselves to be vulnerable in front of one another while talking about this. It's also helped everyone, including myself, to reflect on where we're at in our Humble, Hungry and Smart journey, and to make use of the team to help drive our own improvement with their feedback. I'm really excited by the incredible progress we've seen so far, and I'll be continuing to keep this as one of our focal points as we all keep growing.

And that's a wrap! By following this concept you'll be able to develop yourself and your team into an unstoppable force of ideal team players. Everyone will be able to work together more effectively and start smashing through all the challenges that can be thrown at them.

Are you already a supporter of the Humble, Hungry and Smart philosophy? If you are, I'd love to hear how you've applied this to your team!