Investing in Team Building

What do we invest in when building a company? It is cliché to say that we invest in people — but if that is not your #1 investment, you need to rethink your strategy. There are a lot of ways to invest in a team. One of my favorite books is General McChrystal’s Team of Teams. It is one of those books that I have read and reread because at different times, and when thinking about different problems, there is so much in there that applies. I initially read it when I was struggling with the challenge of transforming a large, top-down bureaucracy into an agile organization that could leverage all of the information at hand (the “know what we know” issue that plagues most large companies). I have also read it when thinking about how to build teams, as the name would imply.

The interesting thing about much team building today, is that it is actually focused very much on the individual. Investing in individual development and growth is key. Investing giving employees the tools they need to do their job is table stakes. The stereotypical start-up has foosball tables and freezers filled with popsicles on the logic that these things are fun for the people- and sure, it brings them together. Nap pods and light sabre classes, and all manner of other ironic and hedonistic pursuits — some of which may make the more cynical among us wonder if all of the “fun” hand waving isn’t a distraction at best, and at worst can be a cover up for a lack of providing more essential benefits — like high quality health care.

This is in stark contrast to the way team building is described in Team of Teams, and not the most impactful way to invest in the team. Certainly nothing about military special forces training could be described as fun. Grueling. Unfair. Pushing people beyond what they thought they could do. Putting others ahead of yourself always- and being punished for the failures of the weakest team members. But the one thing that struck me in reading the book- as well as in my own experience knowing many a member of the armed forces and having lead highly productive teams for many years, is the shared sense of a bigger purpose. In a corporate setting, there isn’t the opportunity to keep employees in the freezing ocean together for hours on end (as described in Navy Seal training), nor would it serve the same purpose- but there is most certainly the ability to create a mission that is bigger than hedonistic satisfaction.

The job itself should have inherent purpose. I am a huge believer in the inherent value of hard work. It is rewarding to the soul and I believe fundamentally that what humans have been created to do is to themselves create- which comes only from hard work. But what about if you are a leader of people in a company and you want to have a “team building” event. There is value in stepping away from the daily grind together as a team. Getting to know each other as people beyond the job title. The challenge is that to take time away from work or from personal lives, it has to be something that is more than just going out for drinks to elevate a gathering to the level of building of a team.

The key is to find something that causes people to turn away from themselves and to something bigger. To work together on something of purpose and where at the end, there is a sense of value. We had this opportunity last week, when as a team we volunteered to deliver and serve breakfast to the Ronald McDonald House in New York City. Many people have heard of Ronald McDonald Houses, but you may not know exactly what it is. I had the opportunity almost 30 years ago to experience a Ronald McDonald House in Tucson Arizona, and I learned that it is one of the most amazing and useful organizations in the world. In short, they provide a home for families who have someone (usually a child) in need of critical medical treatment at hospital away from where the family lives. In the case of New York City, the Ronald McDonald House is dedicated to serve families where there is a child being treated for cancer locally- but families fly in from all over the world for this treatment and staying for any extended period of time on the upper east side of Manhattan is financially out of reach for most people.

And so, we found ourselves, one early Wednesday morning, a group of us pouring coffees and serving up eggs and fruit to families- families who looked like any other families that could be gathered for breakfast — children, playing and carrying treasured toys, older kids chatting with their parents- all of it seeming so much the same as any other breakfast. The difference, of course, being that in these families there is a child fighting for their lives and parents who are there doing everything they can to help them win that battle.

And so, in a short couple of hours the serving of breakfast is over, but the team is left feeling like together we experienced something that goes way beyond the work of the day. There is perspective that the challenges of the next deliverable at work- as important as it is- may just be not the most important thing happening on the spinning rock we inhabit together. It is the sort of experience that makes the team happy they got up the extra couple of hours earlier to do something that allows us to share the gifts we have been given, and to appreciate those gifts because they can certainly be fleeting. That is what investing in Team building is all about- it is joining hands to serve and to give back to something that is much bigger than ourselves, and having a shared experience that has meaning.

Thank you, Ronald McDonald House, for all that you do, and for providing the opportunity for us to serve. And thank you to all of the beautiful families who shared their mornings with us, and with their smiles and their strength gave us so much in such a short time.