Earlier this year, I came across the story of Treasure Hunt Studios in VentureBeat. This Berlin-based mobile game company spent two years developing its first game - two years! To put that in perspective, the movie Titanic was shot in just seven months. The reason for the insane duration? CEO Kyle Smith's relentless focus on building the right team, even if it hurt the product in the short run.
"Just because someone is super-smart, you don’t have to accept that they also have a difficult personality. We learned this the hard way very early on. Spend longer looking for the smart hire that’s also humble, eager to learn at any stage of their career, and empathetic with others."
Reading the article got me thinking about the best teams I've worked on and how much of a difference those teams have made in my work quality and overall happiness. It's not just about having smart people; it's being surrounded by high achievers who also get along well and care about the mission that is really infectious. In a great team dynamic people do great work, which makes the environment even better, which leads to even more great work and more A-players joining. That's the happy side of it, but it’s not all.
The less-often mentioned reason why a team jelling is so beneficial is that when things go badly, it can be the only thing that keeps the business going. A strong team of people who care about each other can get a company through a storm that would destroy lesser teams. As I'm finding out now with my first venture as a founder, a good team can save your skin when you're in charge.
Here are four ways in which having a capable, close-knit team can save a company:
- They are a bulwark against panic amidst high turnover - It happens at companies large and small; what begins with one or two employees leaving morphs into a mini exodus of people leaving in close succession. It feels like a run on the bank to those who remain. You hope to God that person x doesn't leave, and then they do. The loss of institutional knowledge and relationships can be traumatic, but a great team culture it provides a solid platform to keep building on. Critically, this is true even when those same people feel shaky about the business's prospects.
- They’ll push themselves (within reason) - Whether it's an opportunity or a threat, every company has periods where it must dial up the intensity and fight for its future. As long as management heeds the rules for when and how to push people, great teams find a way to get the job done - whatever it is. On top of that, members of such teams boost each other's spirits without the manager necessarily even needing to. (In fact, the temptation to abuse this characteristic of great teams is often what kills the golden goose and causes teams to break up).
- They are the "corporate immune system" - Sometimes teams get too chummy and don't call out under-performance so as not to rock the boat. A team can be friendly without being high-achieving, but great teams simply don't stand for under-performance. A little while ago, I saw the best (and most genial) development team I've ever worked with get rid of a new hire who just wasn't cutting it. They did it without the slightest hesitation, and I don't think I was ever more impressed by the group. They wouldn’t let anyone wreck what they had going. There was no place for a weak performer to hide on that team, which was how they wanted it. You can’t ask for more as a manager.
- They make up for your mistakes as a leader - In my short time as a founder, I've already made a list of mistakes as long as my arm. A good team that's bought-in also understands that you're going to make mistakes. As long your make them in good faith (i.e. not because of ego, recklessness, greed, etc.) they’ll help you fix them. Nobody tolerates mistakes endlessly, but a great team doesn't get demoralized by a bad hire or stumbling block on the path to product-market fit or any of the other hurdles that are part of being in business. If you tell them that the business is running out of cash or that you need to turn the business around, they want to dig in and fight, because they're invested in the outcome.
Remember: Turning down a talented candidate because they won't fit your culture is no fun, but it pales compared to the benefits of having a team that gives you these things.