What Really Makes A Great Team?

by Rob Stam

I loved basketball as a kid. I grew up during the perfect time to live an equal distance between the cities of Chicago and Detroit. We had the Bad Boys of the Detroit Pistons and Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. As any kid tends to do, I became a fair-weather fan—starting with those Pistons and then changing my allegiance to Chicago. Criticize me for it if you will, but for me, it was awesome.

If you want to study team dynamics, sports is one of the most obvious example to look at. Every generation and every sport has teams that will go down in history. There are common themes that make them all great such as talent, work ethic, attitude, and coaching. But there are also some unique elements that I believe made them great, that might not be as obvious: great teams really know each other’s stories.

Every person has a story, and every story consists of both challenges and ambitions. As I watch the team dynamics in my own company and in other companies I work with, the fact that we all know each other’s stories makes me wonder if it was also a part of some of those great sports teams. With the spectacle of athletic prowess and commercialism, it would be pretty easy to miss the stories of each player and the fact that they probably shared a lot of that with each other.

Similarly, I think all too often in business we look at our employees, co-workers, and superiors as utilitarian means to a greater end. They bring X to the table, which helps us accomplish Y, and, as I result, I will get Z. Companies most often hire based on skills, education, and experience related to tasks that need to be performed. We then manage those hires based on performance goals, standards, and boundaries. But what happens when you get below the surface and really get to know the person next to you? What happens to your performance when you realize the impact it has on another person’s life?

At Navigate we’ve learned that every single one of us has had to go through something challenging in our personal and/or professional live in recent years. We all came there for more than a paycheck—we came for a fresh start. That’s probably not a story unique to us, but what might be unique is that we’ve all become acutely aware of it. When that happens in a company, it changes the dynamics because it changes the purpose. We want each other to win. We want the fresh start to be meaningful and successful. We want to look back in 20 years and know we overcame and built something great together. As a result of that perspective, we have each others’ backs.

Does it always go well at our office? No. Do we make mistakes? You bet. Do we always get along? Nope. But we always move forward as individuals and as a team. Some of us may be there for a season, others for the long haul, but we all believe in what we’re doing while we’re there. For us it’s not just about doing good work, it’s about becoming better people. As a result of that commitment, the work improves as well.

Did the Pistons know about Isaiah Thomas’ 5 am 90-minute train rides across Chicago to play basketball as a student? Did the Bulls know about Jordan getting cut from his high school team? I imagine they did, and they were all probably aware of every other challenge and ambition in those locker rooms too.

Great teams are not a collection of great talent under the direction of great leadership. That’s part of it, but ultimately great teams are a collection of individual stories, individual goals, and a collective commitment to a better story that can only be written together.