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.

  • Fresh start: TELUS Transformation Office

    services_hero-300x139Wow. Yesterday already seems like a distant memory. For most of the last year, I focused on building marketing materials, doing research, creating strategy & recommendation documents and working with pilot customers in preparation for a new role within TELUS. Knowing that as of yesterday we finally moved from planning to reality hasn’t quite sunk in – you know, forest through the trees type of thing – but my work  life has changed completely.

    Yesterday, we launched TELUS Transformation Office, a future of work consulting wing within TELUS that aims to help organizations improve corporate culture and improve employee engagement. Ideally, we can take our experience, insights and successes and help other organizations in their own attempt to evolve leadership, digital readiness, career & talent services, and the onboarding experience.

    Without question, this is a new type of mentality for us. Learning is a unique space. I honestly believe that there are very few walls between people in this industry. We’re all in the business of helping people, whether it’s internally or externally. We share freely on blogs, wikis, chats, twitter, at conferences and basically in every forum possible. We all have the same, altruistic goal; to make work better for the people we support.

    Right now, most of this sharing is done informally and meant to inspire, not transform. By formalizing the process, we hope that organizations can get the traction not only to start the journey, but to continue it. The end goal is too important to have it pushed to the side of the desk or the left to the energy and influence of a few dedicated workers.

    I was in a very fortunate position. I loved my job and I love working for TELUS. In terms of Enterprise learning/collaboration and corporate culture, TELUS is pushing the boundaries and changing the conversation. It was no longer a desperate ask of “how can we fix this?” When we talk to anyone about the state of learning, collaboration and culture, they ask “how did you fix it?” It’s no longer theoretical knowledge. Great culture and collaboration is reality at TELUS.

    In my (almost) five years at TELUS, we’ve gone from virtually no social technologies and very little cross functional collaboration to an industry recognized success story. We’ve incorporated a leadership model that encourages collaboration and as a result, we’ve deployed new tools and cultivated a workforce that not only understands how to share and leverage technology, but why collaboration is vital to our business and can dramatically improve the customer experience. Simply put, we’ve taken our ideals and moved them from an HR project to a organization-wide vision. The difference is huge.

    Basically, in terms of learning, my role was as close to the perfect fit as I’ve come across. I was able to explore tools, work with new people and really try to prove value in the methodologies and capabilities we’ve been preaching for years. We were able to successfully unite leadership, learning and collaboration. That’s probably why the possibility of helping other organizations do the same thing is so exciting. It’s no longer a pipe dream. The need is there, the technology is available and – without sounding like a documentary trailer – the time for change is now.

    Society isevolving; it’s harder to get people’s attention and as learning professionals we need to constantly reevaluate our approach. It’s scary, but it’s also exciting. We know that the fundamentals of leadership and learning should be blended with the move to a more technology based ecosphere to help people understand how to succeed and feel connected/supported. We know that people demand more from their job than just a pay cheque and that right now and we know that almost half of the people that go to work each morning aren’t happy. This needs to change and we want to help.

    Watch this video to learn more about how we transformed TELUS, and how we can help you.

    Leadership: It’s not a marathon or a sprint

    runningWhat was your time?” One time over beers, my brother-in-law suggested that asking people about their race time is a more clever way of saying, “I don’t run very much.” Running, like most passions, is an ongoing, ever evolving journey. It’s not about a single race or distance completed. Knowing you ran a 40-minute 10K or sub-two-hour half marathon five years ago doesn’t mean much today. Are you still running? How has your routine or thoughts about running changed?

    Until running becomes a meaningful part of your day, you are not a runner. You are simply going for a run. The same is true for leadership.

    This may seem like an odd intro to a post on leadership, but as I scrolled through my twitter feed last night, I got very nervous. We’re starting to slide down a very slippery slope.

    Without question organizations need a vision to define actions and model behaviours. I know that people – myself included – search for inspiration from other people, but I feel we’ve gone too far. We’ve got too many visionaries and not enough examples of actual, practical leadership. Leadership is based on historical and future facing methodologies. It should evolve over time, and truly shines when things go wrong. Leadership is not a Buzzfeed like list of PowerPoints, clever acronyms and analogies.

    In twenty minutes last night, I saw thousands of posts from hundreds of very smart people. I know Twitter’s 140 characters are meant to inspire, and without question, if you keep scrolling something will resonate with you. I saw leadership compared to sports teams, war heroes, emotions, inanimate objects, childhood actions and breathtaking art.

    This is great for some people, but personally, I’d rather read about the impact and learn how these comparisons inspired action and people. To me, talking about models, acronyms and finding inspirational quotes is no different than asking someone what their last race time was. Leadership is an action; a passion that you should develop and display with purpose and routine. Finding a quote that resonates with your view of leadership is good, but using that inspiration to form your leadership style is the real challenge. You are more than your time, and you must be more than someone else’s words.

    People look at TELUS as a textbook example of great culture and strong leadership. I honestly believe that to be true, but not because we tried to implement ideas that were so radical to those proposed by our competitors. There was no silver bullet, and no singular model that helped us drive engagement from 53% to 83%. I think we just focused on the value of culture more than some organizations and dedicated our efforts towards creating a culture that allowed individuals to feel supported and fulfilled.

    We worked hard to create a leadership model that is accessible to all, but the real benefit is the playbook we created to help people understand the behaviours and actions that help all team members display leadership regardless of role or tenure. While that may sound like HR speak, the reality is we enabled team members to lead by example and inspire others. It’s not the model; it’s how the model is put into action.

    People are naturally inspired by charismatic people speaking to an audience, but I’m inspired when people do amazing things without the luxury of an eager audience. I see true leadership in small wins, like when I hear about an engineer developing informal curriculum on his own time (without being asked), simply to help are field techs learn about IPV6. Leadership cannot only come from those with titles and reports.

    I take my view on leadership (ironically, considering the theme of this post) from a quote that’s been on my wall for years. Yvon Chiounard, the owner of Patagonia and protector of the environment once said, “To do good, you actually have to do something.” It’s such a simple idea, but one that’s shaped how I interact with people and try to lead. I have no reports, but I work with new people every day. I don’t have a leadership toolbox, just a work ethic and desire to help.

    Organizations need to maximize the power of the individual and celebrate the results. Employees should feel comfortable voicing opinions, surfacing ideas, but they must be empowered to put ideas into action. Our role, should be to nurture and share the successes with the rest of the organization. Showcasing the tangible results of all the hard work will help transform leadership from a concept into a continuous action. Real life examples of leadership and success will motivate people. They are the stories that build trust in a concept and in each other.

    It’s easy to talk about leadership concepts, just like it’s easy to talk about running shoes, past races and training tips. The real challenge is getting people to actually go for a run or to be a leader. When we actually start doing either, we fail, we learn, we sweat and we hurt. We also grow, we improve and we find our stride.

    We need to help people become runners, not just tell them to go for a run.