It's your team NOT your family!

You are leadership material...

You are leadership material….

Soon after I founded Fairbridge Park, Jamey, one of my mentors asked me to think deeply about how I was going to work with others -- a leadership philosophy, and culture I aspired to implement. I approached this exercise by reflecting on my experiences and reading many books on the topic. I wanted to share my journey with other founders currently building their teams.

Early in this exercise, I concluded that workmates aren’t family. A philosophy of family fails because:

Incompatible value system – Families that create legacy operate on inefficient principles like unconditional love and loyalty. Ideals like “we stick together no matter what”, “us vs. them”, “no one left behind” etc., are admirable but stunt the unit’s speed to its weakest link.

Family isn’t scalable – Biological processes are slow and unpredictable. It takes a long time to produce a new member and you might not get an exact fit for that open role. Policies that promote only from within or reassigning underperformers often fail.

Incongruence – I have heard many stories of companies referring to employees as family only to then fire them without notice because of resource constraints, disputes etc. Affected employees, who have been steadfastly “loyal”, suddenly feel betrayed, and those who survive immediately become suspicious of the rhetoric and culture.

While I prefer the construct of a sports team, I have learned that teams take on different personalities. I have narrowed it to a few…

Netflix’s approach is to build an organization of top performers, working together in an environment that is high on candor/accountability and context, and light on controls. Sounds ideal!

Favorite quote“In a fast and innovative company, ownership of critical, big-ticket decisions should be dispersed across the workforce at all different levels, not allocated according to hierarchical status.”

Considerations – I struggled with the “keeper test” – the process with which Netflix continuously upgrades talent. Netflix leans heavily on compensation, often at the expense of the overall team, to placate top performers. The over prioritization of the individual (money, communication, freedom) can carry seeds -- burnout, chaos, resentment -- for the strangling of vision. 

Alex Ferguson’s leadership approach focuses on discipline, meticulous organization, and strong leadership presence. Sir. Alex reminds me of Mr. Pfaira the tough Headmaster of my school in Zimbabwe.

Favorite quote – “Rio Ferdinand confronted me.. ’Where have you been? It’s not the same when you are not here’… It didn’t matter that Carlos Queiroz was running the training sessions and the routine and drills where exactly as if I had been there.” During his tenure, Ferguson was present at all but three of 1,500 games.

Considerations – I remember listening to Sir. Alex’s press conferences where he referred to his players as “boys” and swiftly put errant players in their place. He was the gaffer, and the team achieved dramatic victories. My reservation with this model is succession… the building and transfer of institutional knowledge. Such teams die with their leader. Sir. Alex’s tacit knowledge, and his strong personality were irreplaceable. And, since he left, Manchester United has been a shell of its former self.

Bill Campbell’s approach was team first, with a focus on people. Bill was effective as a coach because individuals simultaneously felt supported and challenged. He managed to guide organizations to strive for the best idea, not consensus, and those who “lost” still felt safe, motivated, and valued by their teams.

Favorite quote“The common notions that the best teams are made up of people with complementary skill sets or similar personalities were disproven; the best teams are the ones with the most psychological safety. And that starts with trust.”

Considerations – The power of the model, i.e., installing a neutral outsider as coach seems difficult and perhaps idealistic. Bill was not involved with strategy and execution at the companies he coached. He depended on the ability to influence and the willingness of his organizational sponsors, often the CEOs, to not exempt themselves from his ideas. Additionally, when screening for the coachable types, firms might exclude the unconventional outperformers. However, when done well this model can be scaled into a valuable organizational asset.

Where am I now…

It appears a model that finds a desired balance among superior execution, belonging, and sustained buy-in of the firm’s vision gets it done. I am curious which approaches others have encountered and recommend. I am currently (re)listening to Jef Graham’s podcasts series on startup CEOs and reading Deborah Gruenfeld’s book Acting with Power. What are you reading?!