Bring Your Life Lessons Into Your Team Culture
When I was a freshman in high school, I tried out for the basketball team, making the varsity team by the skin of my teeth. I rode the bench most of the first year—until during the last game of the year when one of our seniors got injured. During the injury timeout, our coach approached my other freshman teammate—which was a good call as she was better than me—and asked her to sub into the game, but she was so nervous she said she wasn’t ready and declined.
I saw this all unfold right next to me. Then, my coach came to me with the same request. As I looked down the bench to my right, there was nobody left on the bench given foul-outs and injuries. It was either me or nobody. I just went for it.
Suddenly, the court seemed the size of a football field to me. I was like a duck on a pond—on the surface, everything looks calm, but beneath the water, those little feet are churning a mile a minute. (Yes, that is a Jimmy McGinty quote from the movie Replacements.)
Within five minutes on defense, I stole the ball, which meant I did something right. However, given my overwhelmed state, it also meant I didn’t know what to do next! After just standing there on the court for a second (though it felt like an hour), my screaming teammates yelled for me to pass the ball. I did, and we scored.
For me, this was both a moment filled with excitement and anxiety all at the same time—a paradox of emotions. I knew then that I wanted the excitement and could work on the anxiety with more practice and experience.
So, during the summer between my freshman and sophomore years, I spent hours every day outside practicing in our driveway. I went to camps to learn more techniques. I also had lots of help from my brother, his friends, and my dad. As a result, I got better and better each day.
Then, when I went to tryouts during my sophomore year, I earned a starting position as a two-guard and played that position through my senior year.
There are two things I learned from this formative life moment:
- Say yes to opportunity even if I know I won’t be perfect at it or I fear it.
- I can improve if I put in the work and practice.
Both are lessons I try to remember in my daily work as a leader. These formative concepts shape how I want to lead and the culture I want to build with my FlashPoint team.
- Instead of focusing on the negative or what went wrong (like not knowing what to do with the ball after I stole it), we should focus on encouraging and empowering the right (that my team helped encourage me with the right next step to pass the ball).
- Instead of trying to prove our individual value, we should focus on creating value through and with our team (not being an all-star but being part of an all-star team).
- Instead of focusing on seeking individual perfection, we should create a culture of inclusion, learn from mistakes, and improve over time.
Each choice we make with our teams adds to the overall team culture. As leaders, we should be asking what choices are we making that tear our team culture down? What choices are we making to build our team up? I know I have personally made choices at times that haven’t been perfect, but I keep practicing and trying to get it right. As Brené Brown says, “I’m not here to be right, I’m here to get it right.”
As leaders in our organizations, we are all tasked with certain outcomes—meet our goals, retain our team, ensure high performance, have strong employee engagement, and more. The tough bit about team culture is that it’s the collection of thousands of individual choices over time. So, at the moment when we or our team members make choices that negatively impact the culture or another human on the team, we don’t usually notice it right away. It’s sneaky and sidles up on us.
That’s why every choice we make should be in support of each other, in support of our clients, and in support of our overall commitment to learning and growth. When we don’t get it right, we should willingly apologize and practice getting better next time.
If your team culture needs some repair or rebuilding, I’d recommend two things:
- Retrace your steps. When we lose something, like our keys, the accepted advice is to retrace our steps to when we last had them. The same advice applies to our team culture. Explore when it felt better, what happened along the way, when did it start, why did it start to diminish. These answers will give you the breadcrumbs to learn what to avoid so you don’t lose your way on the path a second time. (Tip: A professional coach can be incredibly helpful in this process.)
- Revisit your core values. Our personal values (and our shared team values) can serve as a beacon pointing us in the right direction. There is never too much water under the bridge—we can always start improving what it feels like to work on a team by making new choices tomorrow. That choice to live consistently with our values will add up over time and shift the dynamic from dysfunctional to functional, not to mention the side benefit of making us all stronger and resilient human beings! (Tip: If you have not identified values before, there are several values card sort activities online, just Google!)
As for me, I’m choosing to keep practicing getting a little better as a leader each day. I hope you’ll join me on that learning journey.