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Spotlight On: “First Team” Behavior

In our last interview with Dan Sturman, former senior engineering lead at Cloudera and Google, he shares the general characteristics that he looks for when hiring on his team—what he calls "First Team" behavior. By building a team that prioritizes collaboration and feels empowered to make smart decisions, together, it allows Dan to do the same with his peers on the executive team. Meaning that he can focus on providing the CEO with thoughtful counsel, and along with his peers, help to better navigate and grow the organization. 

Don't forget to read Parts 1 and II in his interview series where Dan shares with us how to build great teams and  how to execute an effective candidate search

Peter: You’ve made the point that it’s important to focus your search on those primary traits for this role. However, are there general characteristics that you tend to include in any role at any company?

Dan: As I’ve stressed in the prior two articles, central to my hiring process is understanding what strengths the organization needs in the new leader. That said, there is one behavior I find I always want in a leader and is almost always on my list of primary traits. Now, this may just be the nature of my own leadership style; I wouldn’t be surprised if other leaders have a different core set of traits—so “your mileage may vary”, but hopefully it provides a useful guideline to think about when finding and structuring your own leadership team. 

The most important aspect for me in a new leader is that they understand and have exhibited “First Team” behavior. That is, that they know that their primary role is to operate as one with their peers who together are leading a larger organization. Secondarily, they need to be an outstanding leader and supporter of whatever organization they’re managing. I find that teams that act as a true first team dramatically outperform teams that behave as a set of fiefdoms, even if the individuals leading those fiefdoms are very talented. I also find my job as a leader is a lot easier with such a team and also gives me the space to focus on collaborating with my first team (my peers!) to better navigate and grow the organization. Why is that important? Because working closely my peers (say the executive team of the company) frees up the CEO to focus on where they can have the biggest impact, and ensures a much closer connection of my function (i.e. the technical team) with other functions within the company (say Marketing or Sales). Those are things that are much harder for the team reporting to me to do, which is why it is so important that I have the time to do it!

What Does “First Team” Behavior Look Like? 

First team behavior is an environment of collective problem solving, where individuals feel it’s okay to bring up problems and issues and work them through with their peers. Peers also help solve each others problems. A great sign of this behavior is when one leader volunteers to give up a very strong member of their team to help solve a bigger problem within the overall organization, even if this move creates a non-trivial problem for themselves. (Side benefit: such movement also creates more career growth and thus improved morale for employees!) First team behavior also leads to more effective and efficient performance management of the team. Leaders don’t focus solely on “supporting their people” but instead can focus on being honest about team strengths and challenges with their peers.  

A good test of first team behavior is to compare your staff meetings with your one-on-ones. Which meetings tackle the more substantial issues? In which meetings are your team members willing to bring up their real challenges and fears? If it’s in the one-on-ones then you likely have work to do on building a first team. The teams that I am proudest of having built are ones where the one-on-ones are very much secondary to meetings between team members.

Note, that while first team behavior is incredibly important to the teams I build, it may be a secondary vs. primary trait in my interview process. If I already have a team that strongly exhibits first-team behavior, then you just need a candidate you can coach in this direction. However, if you’re building a new team from scratch, it’s critical to hire for this behavior. In all cases, I’m careful to ensure any candidate is coachable this direction.

How Diversity of Thought Can Create a More Effective Team

Another aspect that is related and complementary to first team behavior is diversity. Here I am specifically referring to diversity of thought and experiences, though I’ve found that diversity in ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation strongly correlate with this. Thus I find focusing on building the second really helps build the first.  

Consider a team which exhibits outstanding first-team behavior.  Then consider how much stronger that team will be if they all approach problems slightly differently! You get peer-led discussions that tackle issues holistically. Peers that trust each other quickly learn to seek out others with different strengths from their own. For example, “I have a vision for what our team needs to do, but maybe X can help me get this into an effective process so that the team actually executes ir”, or “This team is strong but isn’t pulling together because this vision isn’t crisp. Y is great at getting these messages on target—I’ll ask her to help me.” This is all far better than everyone seeking out the boss on these issues!

Of course there is always significant risk that folks who approach problems differently are harder to craft into a true first team. People often get frustrated with different approaches to problems when they don’t realize that is what is going on. For example, the leader who is very empathic and thinking about how a team might react can often frustrate the leader who is very strategic and focused on the big picture, and vice versa. I find that it’s important when building a new team or recrafting a team (i.e. you step into a role with an existing team), or even bringing in new team members that you find a way to anchor the idea that “people think differently” and develop a mechanism to discuss this.

What has worked for me is to use some sort of personality assessment such as Meyers-Briggs, HBDI, or True Colors. There are many of these and I don’t think it matters too much which you use (none of them are terribly deep scientifically). What does matter is that they bring your team together to discuss how they think differently and take different approaches to problems, and they significantly raise awareness for later discussions that different members of the team may think and act differently all with the shared goal of team success. I’ve found that the vocabulary behind these assessments become part of the lingo on your team, in a way that disarms a conversation. For example, “Oh, you’re J (from Meyers-Briggs) is really coming out! (with a chuckle)” vs “Could you please just drop the process stuff, I don’t care about that right now! (in frustration)”. It actually might seem like a small gesture to host a personality workshop with your team, but I’ve found that it pays off in dividends. 

In summary, when building a team I look to ensure strong first-team behavior, and with that look to build from a diverse set of thinkers. While those two traits can work against each other, with focus from you as the leader the combination has been the cornerstone of the best teams I’ve been a part of.