Month: May 2014

We are developing leaders, but should we be developing team captains?

Tottenham+Hotspur+v+West+Bromwich+Albion+Premier+fr6cdT8PwaOlLast week, I was at the Conference Board of Canada’s Future of Work conference. My Director was there on behalf of TELUS, talking about leadership and engagement but we both stayed around to listen to a few sessions. For me, the standout was the panel that featured three millenials sharing their thoughts on inspiration, leadership, and working in today’s changing environments.

Hearing three intelligent, young leaders was a unique look intowhat the next generation of leaders expects from their people and themselves, but the reason this panel was so important for me was the aha moment it provided. When asked what she looks for in a leader, AJ Tibando – CEO of SoJo – responded, “I resonate more with the team captain than the head of an organization.”

In a succinct thirteen words, AJ defined the struggle with my own leadership style and identified the huge gap I see in almost every organization with which I work. I’ve always struggled with the concept of defined leadership. This is not a form of rebellion; I’ve been lucky to have great leaders and honestly try to learn from everyone I work with. The struggle for me is that once a leader is removed from the field, it’s harder for the leader to earn the trust and create the bond that is so crucial to any sort of reciprocal relationship.


I’ve always felt that the best way to show leadership is to model good behaviors, work as hard as possible, support your team (and your teammates) and develop the expertise that others can rely on when things go bad. Losing that connection to my teammates terrifies me. The idea of standing off to the side, dictating strategy and watching players play is crucial to an organization, but real-time decisions require someone that knows a project inside and out, has the skills required to change direction immediately and the trust from the team to know that even if the changes aren’t completely understood or supported, they were made for the good of the team.

When I was in tech, it was common practice to have a senior developer – a go between management and the coders that could also solve problems – but that role doesn’t really exist in formal leadership. We have mentors, coaches, managers, directors, vice presidents but most organizations don’t have team leaders. All too often we saddle project managers to be responsible for line items, budgets, timelines and team health.

Flatness encourages everyone to lead in their own way, but the reality is, many people don’t want to lead or feel uncomfortable being accountable to (and for) their peers. People often need the chain of command to be defined by a solid line, not an ever-changing dotted one. I understand that no one wants to add another layer of hierarchy, but developing team captains is a great way to support project teams, empower employees and introduce high potentials to the rigors of formal leadership. It’s an incredibly practical way to determine if an employee will make a good leader before they are promoted and also for them to determine if that role is actually something they want in terms of career development.

But the reason I think a team captain makes sense is that it is a great way to offer team members support from someone that has earned the trust of the team through action, not title. Often athletic teams vote to determine the captain (and it’s rarely based solely on talent), and establishing trust is one of the hardest things for any leader to do. Getting that vote of confidence on Day 1 makes everything easier.

How can a team captain help?

  • Understanding and solving problems as they are happening, not waiting for half-time or the next game.
    Organizations and employees require access to content and expertise in near real-time. Customers wont wait for us to check an inbox. They use social channels to contact us and expect replies in a timely fashion. Employees can’t always wait for a weekly 1:1 or hope that their manager can shift priority to help in that ever shrinking window. Having an expertise empowered to make decisions will improve customer support, team productivity and confidence.

  • Understanding not only the strengths and weaknesses of each player, but how to set them up for success.
    If you’ve ever played on a team, you undoubtedly understand not only what a teammate does well, but how best to set them up to maximize on their talent. The best example I can give is one from my high school basketball team. In the playoffs, we had the ball down one with about twenty seconds left. Our coach called a timeout, and quickly drew up a play to get our centre the ball on the low, right block. He was our most consistent scorer, so it made sense, but as he explained the play to our team, you could see our centre shrink. He wasn’t nervous or scared, but he simply admitted that he “hates getting the ball on the right block.”

    Our coach reacted as most would. He changed the play and went away from our best option. He assumed that our centre let the pressure get to him, not that he would simply rather get the ball on the other side of the court. It’s no different than assuming that Sarah’s passion for coaching makes her the ideal candidate to develop a new electronic/social coaching community when she is reluctant to use social technology and prefers to interact face-to-face or over the phone.

  • Understanding the pressure the team is under.
    Leaders in progressive organizations preach work life balance, but the reality is that when it’s crunch time, few leaders simply tell employees that it’s ok to sign out after 7.5 hours when the work is not done. That’s no longer a reality. Team are constantly asked to do less with more, and it’s harder and harder for an employee to take their foot off the gas.

    Having support, coaching and expertise and empathy goes a long way when demands continue to increase. It’s easier to take the news from someone battling on the field with you and hopefully, the team captain has the respect of management to push back when the team is burned out.

  • Develop trust in the system by playing within it, not just dictating the formation or lineup.
    It’s no secret that strategy comes from above. That will never (and should never) change. We can work hard to ensure that everyone understands the decisions and – when appropriate – has a chance to provide insight and feedback on potential changes in strategy. Bottom line, you can’t have 40,000 people trying to drive the boat, you can simply help each person understand how they are helping the vessel move in the right direction.

    Having a team captain will help leaders understand how to augment the strategy. They can help empower the team to make small changes because they have a complete understanding of what those small changes will mean and allow the team to shift more quickly.

  • Collaborate for the good of the team, not simply to get the result
    When you work with a team on a day-to-day basis, the bonds you develop are often unbreakable. We spend as much time with the people we work with more than we see our spouse or kids. Team captains understand those bonds and know the impact of severing them. The best teams work with each other to solve problems; they try to win with the pieces they have, not demand an influx of new talent to fill gaps.

    If you look at any organization, managers/owners make large scale changes when things are not working whereas the players try to make minor changes to how they operate in an attempt to achieve desired results. Splashing money and adding new team members can work in the short term, but consistency and trust are dramatically impacted by significant transition. Attrition, disengagement and productivity are all a result of the uncertainty new leadership and new roles/responsibilities bring, and ideally a captain can help minimize the distractions and confusion by helping leadership how major changes will impact team health.

  • Focus on the the immediate, as well as the long term success.
    Visionaries and strategists need to focus on the long term. Obviously, businesses operate quarter to quarter, but the organization can’t fixate on the next ninety days. Team captains can understand the long term strategy and help the team focus on the immediate wins to align to the strategy.

    Employees want to understand how they are helping customers, driving profit, developing required skills. People want to feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves and if they can’t understand how the day-to-day relates to the three-year plan, you risk losing a good employee to another opportunities or, even worse, you risk keeping an unproductive, unmotivated employee.

  • Kevin Durant: a shining example of authentic leadership

    durantWithout question, forcing sports metaphors onto the corporate world is a tired approach. We’ve all been given pep talks and read blog posts that are littered with athletic analogies and references to great teams or star athletes.

    As a sports junkie, I know what it’s like to idolize your favorite player and blindly follow your favorite team, but as I’ve grown up the notion of modeling our work life after the games and players we watch seems more and more naive.

    That’s why Kevin Durant’s tearful acceptance of the 2014 NBA MVP award was so moving. By all accounts, Durant is a young man (he’s only 25) that routinely does the right thing on and off the court without demanding recognition or adoration. In today’s sports world, one driven by personal brand and money, he deserves credit for caring about winning, getting better, his teammates and the city he plays for instead of commercials and fame.

    Interestingly enough, Durant’s quiet demeanor often leads to people asking about his leadership skills. Because he is calm and calculated and rarely thumps his chest, whenever he fails people ask if he has what it takes to lead and win. I know the introvert vs. extrovert argument has been debate to death lately (the reality is that most of us are probably ambiverts) and how you act should be dependent on situation and audience, not your predisposition, but at least sixteen minutes of his acceptance speech proved that Durant is the type of leader we should all strive to emulate.

    Why you ask? His speech is riveting so I encourage you to watch it, but here are some key points that demonstrate the characteristics of a great leader:


    On the biggest stage, Durant refused to shine the spotlight on himself. Obviously, the MVP is an individual award but Durant showed his fragility. He opened up about his fears and shortcomings. He admitted he is not a vocal leader and he makes mistakes. Never once did Durant make this award about himself and his dominance. He thanked everyone in his life for the help they gave him in his quest to be better.

    It’s rare that leaders talk about shortcomings, at least outside of superficial ones. Self-deprecating humor is one thing (trust me, it’s the go to in my bag of tricks); actually opening up and sharing your insecurities and flaws helps you connect with your team. Empathy is the glue that forms bonds that aren’t broken by a bad decision or a tough quarter.


    For me, the most emotional part of Durant’s speech was the ten minutes he took to thank his teammates. MVPs always thank their team (it’s kind of like thanking the Academy at the Oscars), but Durant singled out every player and gave specific reasons he was grateful to they were part of the Thunder. These weren’t really basketball related. Durant talked about player’s stories and what they meant to him as a human being. He showed that this team was about more than basketball, more than results. He thanked veteran players and rookies alike.

    I don’t know how his teammates felt, but I know what it’s like to have a leader publicly admit how much your mean to him as a person and how that impacts a relationship. For me, it was a note to my Father when he got sick. TELUS offered up a couple of passes to the PGA Skins game in Nova Scotia, and that generous gift would have been enough for my Dad (and enough for me), but my boss included a note about me; how I help him every day and how I’ve grown in the 8 years we’ve worked together. It was a chance for people in my life to understand what I do and who I am. It meant the world to me and to my Mom and Dad. For members of the OKC Thunder, it was a chance for their friends and family to see why they are so important to the team and Durant.

    People want to feel supported and challenged at work, but they also want to feel like they are making a difference. When orgs change, we all get celebration emails of new titles. When senior leaders leave, we are told of their great accomplishments. How much would it mean to your team if you sent out a similar note thanking them for what they did to help YOU get to your next milestone?

    Good enough is not enough

    Durant is at the top of his game, just finishing the best regular season of his career. The award asks him to reflect, but he points out the Thunder have bigger goals. This individual recognition, while important, is not the end goal. No one is perfect, but great leaders should always try to be. The Thunder and Durant himself have had some tough losses and criticism over the last year, and being voted most valuable would be the validation most of us need to prove our critics wrong. For Durant, the goal is to be world champion. Anything else is not good enough.

    Orgs are always asking us to do more with less. We are asked for bigger wins through cheaper solutions. We judge ourselves on quarterly or yearly performance, but a great leader knows that targets will continue to increase and should focus on helping the team understand continual improvement as well as short term success.


    Like most great leaders, Durant is supported by a high achieving teammate that could probably run his own team. Russell Westbrook brings a completely different skill set to the table and his strengths help let Durant lead in his own way. Too often, leaders take credit for assembling a team without acknowledging how much they rely and need their direct reports to innovate and drive results.

    Durant praised the work effort and skills of his friend, but he also acknowledged that Westbrook takes the brunt of the criticism from the press and fans, shielding Durant from that added pressure. Durant understands how some of the top performers on the Thunder actually let him focus on what he does best and to shine the brightest in the public eye. Durant deserves the MVP, but if he wasn’t supported by someone like Russell Westbrook, his flaws would be more obvious.

    It’s important to remember that even when you are leading the ship, there are people doing things you can’t do and those people are vital to the health of the team. If your key players leave, the team and your performance will suffer.


    Durant’s concluded his speech by a moving thank you to his mother. He acknowledged she is the reason he’s a success. He thanked her for everything she is, and everything she helped him become. I’ve been lucky; I’ve worked with good leaders that helped me get better. I’ve learned from each of them and as a result, try to help people develop as well. I once heard that your leadership style is like a quilt made from pieces of fabric that are sewn together. Lessons learned that help define who you are and how you can lead.

    Acknowledging the leaders that helped become who you are is important, but remembering to help people shouldn’t be optional. You as a leader need to give back. Your piece of fabric will help people finish their quilt.

    Be yourself

    We’ve all seen award ceremonies and heard famous people pretend to be something they are not. As awful as Michael Jordan’s acceptance speech was, it was authentic. He made his career out of stuid grudges, belittling opponents and teammates and demanding perfection. His speech reflected exactly who he truly is. The same is true for Durant’s. He cried. He talked about things important to him and let us see who he really was.

    It’s impossible to connect with and lead everyone perfectly. All you can do is be yourself, be accountable and be fair. Those characteristics should be enough, but reinventing yourself to force connections will never work.