How to Be a Team Player

As a technical manager and leader, a great deal of your responsibility is to mentor, coach, encourage, and grow people. Accomplishing tasks and moving projects forward is indeed important, but you need to make sure that you are taking care of people. But in order to do this you need to have a toolbag full of ideas and concepts to use.

Most people that I’ve worked with, especially technical and knowledge roles, want to succeed. They want to be very good at what they do, and they want to be recognized for that. A challenge that you will face as a leader of such people is guiding them towards true success, which means success for the team, not just themselves individually. You can be the most skillful, brilliant, and knowledgeable practitioner of your domain that ever existed, but if you’re not helping the team or the organization succeed with that talent then it doesn’t matter. To put it another way, no one really cares how smart you are off in a corner by yourself, they care about how smart you are with helping them with their own challenges.

It’s important to lead by example in this arena. How can I expect people to respect each other and work together as a team, if I’m not doing it myself? Thus, there are several things that I do on a regular basis to make sure I’m following my own rules. Keep in mind, the purpose of this is to lead by example, so when I talk about following these rules, part of the goal is to coach people to learn these rules and embrace them as well.

  • Ask other people what you can do for them

During the day-to-day, it’s very easy to get caught up in my own to-do list and be focused on getting my stuff done. But I believe in the old adage, “A rising tide lifts all boats”. Yes, my stuff is important, but other people’s stuff is important too. And in fact, although this can seem counterintuitive, helping other people get their stuff done (maybe even at the expense of my own) can in the long run be more beneficial.

This is especially important at the leadership or management levels. After all, your entire strategic goal is to help people accomplish their tasks, so why wouldn’t you help them when they need it?

One simple approach to this is to simply ask people what you can do for them. Even if they don’t ask for anything, if you ask with honest concern and sincerity, it can be a big morale boost for them to know that you care about their work and their challenges, and you can be there to help them. What I’ve found is, if you can actually follow through with helping them with what they need then they will trust and respect you.

Now obviously I’m not saying that if you’re working some critical task that you stop for a week to help someone with something trivial. And I realize that constant interruptions can knock you out of the zone and greatly impede your productivity. But I frequently tell people they need to use their professional judgement when it comes to interacting with the team. If, during a quick break, I see someone has asked for help in an IM chatroom (for example, they just need their password reset or something), then being willing to jump in and help may be more important than you realize. Your couple of minutes of time may have saved them hours of trying to get that simple issue resolved.

  • Adjusting to other people’s communication methods

This is an extension of a common and well-known management technique. Different people receive information differently, learn things differently, and have different motivators. So it’s up to you to figure out what works with them and adjust accordingly. This goes true as well for communication. Some people like small talk. Others just want the facts, in a concise and clear manner. Some people like to be given strategic goals that they can then decompose and solve on their own. Others need clear and specific tasks to accomplish, along with clear expectations of due dates and what the results should look like in measurable and verifiable ways.

This can sometimes be very difficult because some people don’t always know what works for themselves, or in fact might actually tell you one thing when in fact it’s another that works for them.

A great example of this is the level of detail in your guidance. Most engineers don’t like being told what to do, and would prefer that you leave them alone. For a long time I tried this method of technical management, especially with senior-level engineers. I would give them higher-level goals and business objectives, and then cut them loose with the understanding that they needed to figure out what problems to solve and how to solve them. What I’ve found, however, is that this isn’t really fair to them. I sit in a lot more meetings and have more enterprise-level cross-communication than they probably do so I have a stronger understanding of what the tactical goals really are, and what needs to be done by when. Since then I’ve adjusted and I try to give more clear expectations in terms of measurable results and due dates, and that tends to work better (but only with some engineers….there are still others that are good at figuring out what needs to be done and then doing it).

The challenge you may face is that many people don’t even try to adjust to other people. They stick with what they know and what is comfortable for them, even if it’s not working. And if pressed on this, a common response is, “well why doesn’t the other person change THEIR communication method”? A good response to this, I have found, is to appeal to their desire for teamwork and their level of seniority. For a senior-level engineer, they should be given guidance that part of their responsibility is not just to accomplish the tasks assigned to them, but to help mentor other people and also to contribute to the positive culture and morale of the team. Also, as a senior-level engineer they should be able to help understand the strategic goals of the organization and provide input on the tasks and roadmap to achieve those goals. Most senior engineers, once they understand that their contributions like this are not only accepted, but expected, are more than happy to help.

  • Don’t be a jerk

If pop culture has taught us something about this, it’s that you can be super smart and accomplished, and thus you can be a total jerk and it’s perfectly fine because you’re indispensable. (Think Tony Stark, House, Sheldon Cooper, etc). The reality, however, is that this is not true. No one is irreplaceable, no matter what you think. There are other smart people out there who will figure out the things that “only you know”, and the organization will survive. In fact, the organization may even become stronger because they will have plugged the gaps brought about by the loss of your knowledge.

This is something that I have to constantly remind myself, to the point that I have literally started wearing a rubber band on my wrist that I occasionally snap. I have a bad habit of interrupting others and steamrolling over their ideas, and while I don’t think of myself as a jerk I can certainly see how other people might.

I am a believer that positive culture, work ethic, and teamwork will outperform individual talent. But in order to achieve those traits, the team needs to be able to work together. These simple ideas here can lead to people helping each other succeed, which in the long run will mean that everyone can succeed.

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