Building Strong Teams at Work: Put the Team First

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Trillion Dollar Coach" by Bill Campbell. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What’s the importance of building strong teams at work? How can you do it?

Building strong teams at work is a critical part of Bill Campbell’s management philosophy. If you’re building strong teams at work, you need people that are committed to the team’s success.

Read on for more about building strong teams at work.

Building Strong Teams at Work: Focus on the Whole Team

Campbell believed you can’t get anything done without a team, so the most important thing to look for in hiring people is a team-first attitude. The entire team’s success must be more important than any individual’s success. That’s critical for building strong teams at work.

Chapter 4 outlines principles that can help you with building strong teams at work.

Hire People Who Don’t Spell Team With an “I”

The principle: People skills matter as much as technical skills. Most business people are familiar with the platitude that you should always hire people who are smarter than you, and Campbell believed it, too, but his criteria went farther than that. When hiring, Campbell looked for smart people who worked hard, had high integrity, would persevere even when faced with disaster, and most importantly, possessed a team-first attitude. 

You can’t have a team full of quarterbacks—every team needs a diverse array of talents and abilities. Campbell said teams needed super-smart members but also people who were good at skills like empathy and communication. He called this “smarts and hearts.” He wasn’t overly concerned with experience or technical skills because he knew these could be developed. He hired people for potential. 

Campbell paid attention to how existing managers and employees talked and acted. Did they say “I” a lot or did they say “we”? Were they willing to make concessions? Did they get excited about other people’s successes? He championed the idea that it was a leader’s job to be an enthusiastic cheerleader. Campbell was famous for clapping loudly when someone finished a staff meeting presentation on a new project or a new idea. (One of the Google executives named this behavior “BCC” for “the Bill Campbell clap.” New team members even practice it during orientation.) 

Get the Right People to Tackle Each Problem When You’re Building Strong Teams at Work

The principle: When faced with a problem, the first step is to ensure the right team or individual is handling it. On the football field or basketball court, if you’ve got the wrong player in the wrong position, the team can’t win. Campbell’s motto was “work the team, not the problem.” Business leaders don’t need to be overly concerned about a problem’s nitty-gritty details as long as they have the right individual or team in place to solve the problem. 

Example: In 2010, Steve Jobs of Apple believed that Google’s Android operating system was violating Apple’s iPhone patents. Apple sued the Android phone manufacturers, who were Google’s business partners. Even though Campbell was friends with players at both Apple and Google, he didn’t get involved in solving the conflict. Instead, he focused on putting the right player into action. He told Google’s CEO to utilize engineering chief Alan Eustace to negotiate with Apple. Eustace had the best skillset for the job. Because he was an engineer, he was able to get the engineers on both sides to talk to each other.  

(Shortform note: Eustace achieved much greater fame in October 2014 by jumping from a helium-filled balloon floating in the stratosphere. He holds the world’s highest freefall record at 135,899 feet.) 

Partner Up on Projects

The principle: A strong leader will pair people up to work on projects or make decisions. These pairings enhance peer relationships and make the entire team stronger. When Campbell paired people up—especially people who hadn’t worked together before—he knew he was building alliances and trust within a team. 

Example: In 2008, Campbell asked Jonathan Rosenberg, senior vice-president of products, to seek out Google’s new CFO Patrick Pichette and mentor him. This helped Pichette navigate his way around a new environment, but more importantly, it created a new pair of trusting teammates on CEO Schmidt’s team.   

Partner/Peer Feedback

Because Campbell believed that peers were better at evaluating each other than managers were at evaluating their subordinates, he helped to develop a peer feedback survey at Google. The survey examined job performance, relationships with peer groups, leadership, innovation, and behavior at meetings.  

Potential Survey Questions

In the last year, did this person:

  • Perform at an extraordinarily high level?
  • Demonstrate strong leadership skills?
  • Achieve results that benefitted both her team and the company?
  • Raise the bar on what’s possible for the individual, the team, and the company?
  • Collaborate well with others?
  • Resolve issues with and champion the work of peers?
  • Make meaningful contributions during team meetings?

Open-ended questions:

  • What sets this person apart and makes her particularly effective?
  • What feedback do you have to make this person even more effective?

Confront the Problem, but Don’t Dwell on the Negative

The principle: Bring negative issues to light, discuss them and solve them, but don’t let the team wallow in them. Campbell liked to identify the elephant in the room, which was often a problem that nobody on the team wanted to talk about. He’d make the problem transparent, then challenge his team to tackle it and solve it. Then he’d quickly move everyone past the problem without assigning blame. A leader’s job is to keep the team focused on positive momentum. 

Supporting research: Psychologists call this problem-focused coping as opposed to emotion-focused coping. It’s more effective for problems that are solvable. Teams can get the emotional “venting” out of the way, then get to work on fixing the problem.  

Building Strong Teams at Work Means Showing Up When They’re Down

The principle: If you and your team are struggling, recommit to the cause. Your team needs a leader now more than ever. When times are tough, leaders need to show even greater loyalty, commitment, and decisiveness. Leaders must always strive to win. In sports, this technique is known as “positive coaching.” It means practicing a relentless optimism even when you have a losing record. 

Example: At a critical point just before Google’s initial public offering, CEO Eric Schmidt wanted to quit. His board had asked him to step down as chairman and CEO. They wanted to hire a new chairman and keep Schmidt as CEO only. Campbell knew that Schmidt’s feelings were hurt, but he also knew that the best thing for Google would be to keep Schmidt in place as CEO. He knew he had to appeal to Schmidt’s loyalty to the company. 

Campbell suggested that Schmidt agree to step down temporarily as chairman and remain as CEO, and Campbell would see to it that he would later be reinstated. He convinced Schmidt to push down his pride and hurt feelings and work toward a bigger goal—to do what was best for his team and for Google. Schmidt obliged, and three years later, he was reinstated as chairman. 

Exercise: Take Steps Towards Building Strong Teams at Work

Whether we realize it or not, we’re all on teams. We might lead teams or be assigned to teams at work. We might be part of “family teams” that take care of elderly parents or watch over siblings, nieces, or nephews. We may live in a neighborhood where neighbors occasionally gather together to solve problems. 

  • Think about the teams that you’re on, whether they’re formal or informal. Make a list of each team and a brief description of what makes that team function well (or poorly, if that’s the case). 
  • Next, ask yourself how you might be able to contribute more to your teams. For example, could you step up to be more of a leader? Could you be more of a cheerleader for others on your team? 
Building Strong Teams at Work: Put the Team First

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  • How Bill Campbell went from football coach to tech coach
  • The 4 pillars of Campbell's leadership philosophy
  • How the King Arthur Round Table model for making decisions empowers employees

Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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