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.

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