I was watching my favorite show on TV this morning – GPS (Global Public Square) with Fareed Zakaria. It is a hugely compelling show because Zakaria covers world issues that will affect all of us in ways that are accessible and with frameworks for processing disparate information. He brings knowledgable experts from varying points of view but never books anybody that engages in yelling matches.
The show has become my best curator of which books to read (including my favorite of last year, The Accidental Superpower) and my go to for understanding geopolitics of: Russia, Iran, Pakistan, China, India and of course the US. But they also take on issues in science, technology and management. Essentially it’s a replacement for reading The Economist every week (which I would do if I could find more time!). Example from this morning was a quick discussion on the “Brexit” and wether the UK will exit Europe.
This morning’s show took on the topic of “teams” and highlighted research that Julia Rozovsky and Google has conducted called Project Aristotle and profiled in Charles Duhigg’s book Smarter, Faster, Better. I haven’t read the book nor deeply reviewed Project Aristotle but the conversation on this morning’s show really resonated with me.
Rozovsky basically said that having studied 180 teams at Google over the past several years and trying to determine what made some teams perform better than others (despite every team being filled with over-achievers who work at Google) one factor stood out more than others: Creating “psychologically safe environments.” The idea is that teams that allow everybody to speak, allow dissent, encourage safe discussions where it’s ok to be wrong – succeed more.
I’m recounting this from having watched the show (I’m sure it will be online within the week) and I’m going to spend some more time reading about Project Aristotle. But the conversation rang very true for me.
It’s stating the obvious to say that great teams matter and that cultivating them will drive higher company performance vs. a group of individual contributors. But in my experience it’s surprising at how little time we as investors and as board members and startups as management teams spend thinking about how to create the best team dynamics. My observation is that many companies become Game of Thrones with warring factions and competing interests. It is not uncommon for founders to fight amongst themselves or teams to develop silos that simple can’t stomach talking with other groups so they avoid human contact and revert to flaming wars on email or Slack.
I have a board meeting coming up this week and I just reviewed the agenda. My first reaction was to wonder why no time was allocated to discussing the executive team, how people were getting along, any conflicts that exist and wether any changes would be required. In fact, I’d observe that most board meetings don’t on this important topic. Increasingly I find myself engaging executive coaches at companies an trying to help executive teams get 360 degree feedback.
The best leaders I work with tend to obsess about teams. I would observe that they’re always recruiting and trying to figure out how to bring on other talented employees at senior ranks. The best leaders I work with think about what the company culture is and how to foster it. The best leaders I work with are implementing programs like OKRs (objectives & key results) or a version of V2MOM (vision, values, methods, obstacles & measures) popularized at Salesforce.com. Programs like these seek to define a set of company objectives and then make sure that every team’s objectives are tied to the same core.
The best leaders I know encourage coaches to come in and are willing to listen to feedback about themselves. The best leaders I know are great at asking questions of others and finding ways to draw people into conversations. This was highlighted by Rozovsky / Duhigg on Zakaria’s show. The best leaders pay attention to group discussions and stop conversations that are dominated by a few key players to try and draw in the opinions of others.
Basically, the role of management discussions is very similar to my outlook over all in life – it’s about seeking out many opinions, hearing many views, testing views against your own frameworks and then making decisions once you have tested your theories and approaches. I call this process “triangulation” and highlighted it that blog post I wrote on the topic.
What watching Rozovsky on the show made me think more about was the role not only in leaders asking great questions to make sure they have complete information but also the role in team members feeling safe in being able to contribute and the fact that having safe teams produces better results because it fosters creativity, risk-taking, personal ownership and motivation. It seems obvious but I’m sure attention needs to be paid to whether we’re creating “psychologically safe environments.”
It seems strange to me that we don’t take team dynamics more seriously at startups. It seems to me that we obsess too much with product features, sales pipelines, competitive pressures, fund raising and such. I often find myself having the opposite reaction. I often find myself coaching people, “Of course we could come up with an informed view on [this topic] but I’d rather we dedicate even more time to recruiting an expert we trust to run this function.”
In the past 30 days alone I’ve had this discussion about hiring a CMO at a growing consumer startup, hiring a head of product strategy & operations at a SaaS company, hiring a CFO a rapidly growing company and hiring a Chief Creative Officer at a successful consumer products company.
And it is very common for me in coaching sessions with CEOs to spend an inordinate amount of time asking about team members: How is she doing? Is she feeling motivated? Have you challenged her enough? Is she getting enough board exposure? Have you thought about giving her a bigger role / more responsibility? Is she feeling burned out? Do we need to find a way to dial back her hours for a bit?
I think I obsess about teams because I know what a hit companies take when star performers leave. I know that bad apples in a company can bring down the productivity of everybody, which is why they need to be culled and why I recommend hiring for Attitude over Aptitude. Whenever I’m looking at new investments I pay really close attention to verbal queues given between founders or management members. I watch whether the CEO talks over other people or lets them participate. I look for non-verbal queues such as eye-rolls or sighs that people have a hard time disguising.
In short I look at team dynamics and it forms a very important part of my investment decision. I have found over time that teams that bicker publicly have deep discord internally and that teams that aren’t totally aligned in the early days of a startup become unhinged pretty easily.
I can’t say that all great leaders are warm and cuddly or are people oriented. That wouldn’t map to my interactions of senior executives at very successful tech companies. But I can say that in startups a highly functional team beats groups of individuals pulling in different directions every time.