Working in Teams

For the last two weeks, one of my team members was out. I admit that I panicked when I realised I had given her 2 weeks off rather the one I originally thought. Right in the middle of kicking off budgeting season – I started thinking that once again I oversaw business needs with being ‘nice’ to my team.  I was glad to find out that my fears were unfounded. We are a team now, so this is now possible. And it is AMAZING. 

What does it mean to work in a team?

It is the typical interview question for small, medium or large corporations.

‘Tell me when you have has a good (or bad) team experience and how that worked out for you?’. 

And some may think – well actually I work so much better on my own without the distraction of a team, how should I put this to you… At times I considered whether that was the case for me as well. I was often part of small teams in banking, with a wide gap between myself and a more senior person, which would mean I would operate autonomously in a lot of areas. Also, twice I decided to join ‘one man shows’ that became ‘2 man teams’ and I thrived (by the way, they were both women). It only takes 2 to tango right? So yes, when I am doing my excel, I am better left alone, when I am starting the thought process of an analysis, I am better off with my blank sheet of paper in a quiet office. So sometimes I wondered if this was my best self. Only partially is the answer.

As I grew my 2 man teams to larger well functioning teams (we are 5 now), I focused on creating a structure that would allow each one’s individual to thrive in the moment that the spreadsheet just needs to get done, but also one where collaboration increases our chances of success.

As a management team we get pulled in multiple directions and constantly switch our roles. And a team makes this operate smoothly. When I left the office early today for a school event and got the message that my team ensured not to leave the office without huddling around a big deliverable I had asked to be kicked off I knew I was doing something right. 

So what is it that needs to work in a team, what makes teams work so well and why do people like them that much? I will probably need to pull out a few HBS articles on how to properly set up teams, as research often speaks higher than anything else.

Today I wanted to focus on the sheer benefits of working on a team, for those that may be less believers. I see many benefits in working in teams, but I will focus on 3 today – mostly because this post risks becoming too long.

Diversity

First, and not as a cliche, the diversity. Different people will bring different perspectives, approaches and think in different ways. Now, this is naturally on the basis that you don’t just hire ‘mini me’s’ and that you actually seek to assemble a team that is complementary in skill and experience. The other assumption that I am making is that you have also created and foster a culture of challenge. In my charity, the team is diverse in background and experience. My 14 years experience in banking could very easily combine with my sister’s other 14 in the City to make this a high pressure, high over-achiever team. We combine that with my Mother’s 30 years of running businesses with a more chaotic approach, who is less daunted by the constant putting down the fires that we get hit with when nothing in Mozambique works that day. Right now, we combine the “raw” straight out of school intern with the somewhat-international-experience intern with significant international development work and zero excel skills and a “return to worker” who has brought her high performing skills from a corporate career into the non profit sector. Talk about eclectic. I will not even talk about how we manage such different personalities, as today it is not about what makes it work, and I have certainly not fine tuned this to perfection.

But what I believe makes us thrive is the constant diverging views, approaches and how we can bring them together. And I am not even adding the volunteers and local workers we have on the ground to the mix.

Diversity – and no I am not playing a feminist here – is I believe a key benefit of working in a team, the capacity to see the world from someone else’s views – even when we don’t like it.

Support System

Second, the support system. To my first story on the holidays, a team allows us to actually exist beyond the pressure of work. As a manager, I may still be online a lot when I am out of the office but the comfort of a team allows me the flexibility to take time off even if in the middle of the day. And I take the same approach when any of my team members have to do the same.

For this, collaboration and a no silos approach is key. In the COO team, one of my team members was originally very focused on a specific side of management – on expense governance and management. That had 2 problems – first it was hard for anyone to support her if she was out (other than me, who had previously done that role) and secondly, it was harder for her to support the rest of the team, which I could feel at times it was frustrating for bother her and the rest of the team. In time, even though she kept an ownership of that area, we have found different ways to integrate her in different components that are somewhat related and where she can also have an impact, and created a structure that we can all support each other.

Working in silos can sometimes feel more efficient when first setting up a team. However, in busy times, it is all hands on deck. A support system is what many business owners lack in the first years of being a solo entrepreneur or a business owner with many technical roles below but not necessarily anyone else managing the business. Being a CEO can be a lonely place, as the weight is all in your shoulders and if you don’t show up for work, many of the things do not get done.

It was life changing for me to start having staff at the charity, as that allowed me to i) feel less pressure, ii) deliver more and iii) focus on more CEO like stuff. This year alone, I had made it my goal to hire a finance intern to help me on the accounts side alone. For a long time I had wanted that but recognised perhaps we could not afford it. As part of our offsite work we did in December, that was one of my top identified challenges and I promised the team I would work on it. I hired someone to support the finance side and I have not regretted it one day. The support she gives me and the rest of the team is key to the performance of the team this year (and to my mental sanity).

Growth Opportunities

Finally, the growth opportunities. Teams allow each individual to grow and develop. To grow by learning from others, both technically but also in terms of professional approach. As a person that thoroughly enjoys developing myself and finding new opportunities, that was a key hindrance for me in my “2-women-teams”. I struggled to venture into new fields of opportunity, I struggled to find time to grow the business, to grow what I wanted to do. With a team and a support system in place, opportunities can be created to allocate time to new projects, experiment with new opportunities.

In the past 6 months, all of our London team members (including myself) have a stretch assignment which  is not necessarily the priority assignment/ core job but that allows them to expand their skills, work a different area, expand networking or all of the above. That time allocation is only possible because we support each other as a team. Myself, I was given a new role 6 months ago, and I know that is only possible to do because I have a team. And I am grateful for that.

At HBS, it is a key part of your experience to be allocated to a “Learning Team”.

I never realized how much that name meant to me. It was a team of “non competing” cross section members, which had diverse backgrounds and experiences and got together every morning to pre-discuss the cases of the day. Our Learning Team kept going until very late in the year, and I know some even outlasted us, and looking back the scenario was set for it to perform. There was diversity, there was a support system in place for us to help each other, support each other, most often taking turns on which core skills was most required that day. I struggled through some Operations cases and then ran my team mates through the accounting cases swiftly. We were complementary and saw each other as a way to grow together. That was an excellent team experience.

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