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Lessons from the Turf: What it Truly Means to Be a Team

By Charity Boyette

Tractus COO

We celebrated the Thanksgiving holiday this past week and, in our house, that means a break from work and school, lots of food (okay, lots of carbs), our annual post-dinner viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life, and – most anticipated of all – watching lots and lots of college football. You may ask, what does collegiate athletics have to do with management tradecraft? Quite a bit, as it turns out. Photo credit: Virginia Tech Athletics

Our family are big Virginia Tech Hokie fans, especially when it comes to football. This year it has been a tough one to be a Hokie supporter: the team has a new coach, lost several players to the NCAA transfer portal, and has fallen short in most of their games. My husband and I passed the time during a recent car trip debating why the team has struggled so much this season, which my husband attributes to the new coach not yet having the team roster needed to execute the plays he likes to run. And that got me to thinking about coaches, individual players, and building productive teams…

Teams are such a popular topic in organizations. We hire people who can demonstrate they are fantastic teammates. Most of us are members – or leaders – of them. Our organizations are filled with cross-functional teams, shift teams, project teams. The built-in collaboration tool in Microsoft’s Office Suite is even named “Teams.” It seems to me, though, that we often use the word “team” when we actually mean “work group” or the more cumbersome “group of co-located people.” That’s not to say that, in the more common usage, these groups aren’t collaborative, but there is an important facet to teaming that, too often, we forgo. To demonstrate this, I return to the realm of athletics and my husband’s point about Virginia Tech’s new football coach.

In athletics, individual players are often (if not primarily) selected on the basis of both their demonstrated abilities and their potential contribution to the team in combination with other players. For example, a football coach of a team with experienced running backs with impressive speed and the ability to sidestep defenders may focus on recruiting larger offensive lineman who can create more openings for the backs to run the ball. Each member of an athletic team contributes toward the overall goal, but for true teams to be successful in attaining that goal, their contributions need to complement each other’s to create capabilities that transcend individual achievement. This is the magic of the team: when the right abilities are brought together with the necessary resources and environment, great things happen. The US men’s ice hockey team defeats the USSR team at the 1980 Olympics. The Boston Red Sox break the Curse of the Bambino to win the 2004 World Series. The US women’s soccer team wins four World Cups. You get the idea.

“Necessary resources” is fundamental to team success, but I don’t just mean state-of-the-art equipment or fancy practice facilities (though I’m sure they help). The resource that makes the biggest difference between team success and failure is coaching – the process of taking a collection of individual talents, blending them together, and imbuing them with strategies to leverage what each member brings to the team. This requires clear-eyed evaluation of each player’s strengths and weaknesses, along with knowing how to maximize the former and minimize or improve on the latter. Sometimes weaknesses or gaps can be mitigated through development of new techniques or improving underlying capabilities. Other times, though, this is done by adding a new team member whose strengths compensate for, or completely fill, those gaps. This is why the head of a sports team is usually given the title of “coach”[KC1] ; coaches instruct, advise, and develop others in furtherance of a greater (often collective) goal.

Here's something else great coaches do: they spot latent talent and devote resources to cultivate it. This is what separates good coaches from great ones – the ability to see the potential that others cannot. Tom Brady, arguably one of the greatest players in professional football, was the 199th pick in the 2000 NFL draft. Current NFL standouts Baker Mayfield, Hunter Renfrow, and JJ Watt were all walk-on players on their college teams. The “Milan Miracle” high school basketball team won the 1954 Indiana state championship (and inspired the 1986 movie Hoosiers). In each of these cases, coaches saw potential and invested time and energy to develop it.

Let’s bring this back to the workplace. Like on sport teams, in organizations each employee has their own contribution to collective performance; however, how often do we really consider how each role works in combination with others and, more importantly, with the strengths and weaknesses of those currently filling those roles? Is individual effort sufficient for success, or do we need to achieve that higher level of performance that only comes through true teaming? Do we act as coaches to our team members – supporting their current abilities while investing in them to develop their potential and mitigate weak areas – or are we merely directing their actions? In other words, are we building true teams, or do we oversee a collection of co-located individuals? While neither approach is inherently better than the other, recognizing which we are taking is critical to understanding the interpersonal dynamics at play in our organizations.

The Virginia Tech football season (mercifully) ended the weekend before Thanksgiving (with a win!). For fans, there is always the optimism of “next season” to buoy our spirits. In organizations, however, the work never stops, denying leaders the time and space afforded to athletic coaches to make changes to their plays and rosters. Instead, organizational leaders must take deliberate action to evaluate where they are, where they want to go, and how each member will contribute to getting them there. In the working world, we may prefer the title of “leader,” “manager,” or “director,” but the one we need to embrace is “coach.” Only then can we truly call ourselves teams.

this is true but not sure the aside helps move the argument

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