3 Traits of Great Team Players
As a creator, you are going to work most of the projects in your career on a team. The productivity and happiness of a team depends on how great people are at teamwork. From my experiences leading and partipating on many teams, here are the key elements that make a great team player.
Everyone has worked with someone that one dreads interacting with. You can predict when Bill will interrupt your lunch with a question that he could have answered for himself. Martha always waits to be assigned a task, and sits around twiddling her thumbs the rest of the time. Johnny delivers something a week late, and it still needs some serious revisions. We’ve all been there.
A team member may be an asset, or they may be a liability. Winners deliver more value than they expend. They make your company money. They make your daily work life less stressful. They deliver things that wow the clients. You know the status of the things they are working on. If something is running late, they’ve already told you.
Losers are the opposite. They expend more value than they deliver. Unless you are explicitly mentoring them, these are the people you don’t want on your team when the rubber meets the road. They tie up your valuable people by asking many questions. They have to be managed, otherwise they aren’t naturally accomplishing things. They create costly bugs, and then take no ownership for fixing them.
What are the key dimensions that separate winners from losers?
How To Be A Winner:
- Create Masterfully
- Work Autonomously
- Communicate Proactively
1. Create Masterfully
The biggest value a team member offers is the ability to directly contribute to the project. Coders write code. Designers create visual and experiential design. Project managers ensure that the team is coordinated in their work. Testers find risks and bugs. The better a team member is at his role, the more value he offers. If a team member is very inexperienced, then what he is contributing may not help the project much at all. If it requires review and feedback from others on the team, it may even cost more than it adds. It a team member is the only member in a given role, the team may be relying on him to cover that whole aspect of the project. Leaving a critical part unhandled could be a huge blow to the project.
Now, actual experience levels and skill levels will naturally vary. For people who are new and inexperienced, I would encourage them to step up the plate and think through issues as if they were experts. Think about the broad range of things that are needed for their role. Plan early and document your plan. Iterate quickly, so that you have space to work on any parts you didn’t forsee. Inexperience doesn’t change the mindset of ownership and mastery that are still applicable and highly valuable to a project.
If you are assembling a team, try to pick someone whom is demonstrably masterful at the most critical roles for the project. Assign them as role lead. As long as your most crucial roles are covered by experienced individuals, the project is virtually guaranteed to succeed. At the very least, be aware of the experience level of each of your role leads.
On one project I ran, I was reviewing code written by a contractor. Every single PR had major code flaws and didn’t follow documented project coding guidelines. It cost me far more time and money to review every deliverable than it would have to have written all of the code myself. Needless to say, after a few weeks of this, the contractor wasn’t on the team any longer. I’ve also worked on many teams where the deliverables are consistently excellent and even exceed expectations. There is a world of difference between these two types of team members.
2. Work Autonomously
Great team members are self-motivated. They inherently want to deliver on the project. They inherently want the rewards for a successful project. They intrinsically identify the best path forward for the project, and make it happen without oversight or direction.
These people are incredibly valuable. They don’t require any management. Simply give them a direction and goals, and they will move forward towards that vision. They know which things are within their domain, and which things to leave for others on the team.
A poor team member does as little as they can get away with. They don’t work unless it’s required of them. They do the minimum possible. Often they have to reminded about things they were previously assigned.
There is some value in people who are good at following direction. If they can absorb a vision and then move forward with it, that’s good. But a great team player goes beyond that. They actively contribute to the vision and refine it. They are always pleasantly surprising the team with new features, or prototypes, or details. Maybe it’s not just a cute cat… it’s a cute mutant cat. Maybe there is a nice logo animation where people were expecting just plain text.
The best team members are confident in their ability to make the project into something great and will always be taking steps to make that happen. You don’t have to tell them. They are the ones presenting ideas to the team, or asking the design lead about a new possibility they had. They open bug tickets for issues they find. They reach out to other role members if they have a new idea or want to ensure that an integration will go smoothly.
When you are assembling a team, it’s very hard to know in advance which people are autonomous and which ones will require managing. Usually, you can judge this by getting to know someone personally. Autonomy usually impacts every area of life, not just work.
3 Communicate Proactively
For any project with complexity, it can be very difficult to determine the status of the project in the midst of it. Product and project leads try to do what they can to predict and organize efforts to deliver project within resource constraints. This is what makes proactive communication extremely valuable.
The best team members are always communicating proactively. They communicate their status using tools and messages. They reach out to impacted members when there is a concern or a question. Their leaders know what they are working on and how far along it is. When you reach out to ask them detailed questions, you will often find that they have an information source that can already give you that information. “The ticket system shows which tasks we are working on next.” “Here is a document describing the design restrictions for our features.” “This guide shows you how to do this on your own computer.” “You can find that login information in Google Drive.” “I made a little widget with those statistics that you can enable by pressing ‘e’.”
This reduces the stress on everyone else on the team. You don’t have to ask them how things are going, since you already know. You don’t have to worry that they might get stuck for a long period of time without reaching out. You know that the feature isn’t done, since you know they will send a document when it is finished.
Poor team players have to be asked many things, have to be involved in meetings explaining things, and have to be regularly asked for status updates. This creates a burden on the team.
When you are assembling a team, set forth the communication expectations in advance. Encourage the kind of communication that the team most needs by setting an example of proactive communication yourself.
These are the three most important traits for being a great team player:
- Create Masterfully
- Work Autonomously
- Communicate Proactively
If you build your skills at each of these, you will be a welcome member on any team. You will always be able to offer great value. This will give you the latitude and leverage to choose which teams and projects you want to work on.
If you are still new to a team environment or don’t have these skills evolved, just focus on one of them at a time. First, ensure that you offer strong skills in your core role. Then focus on finding ways to work autonomously, even when the requirements aren’t defined or clearly communicated. Lastly, ensure that you are always communicating the things that your teammates and leaders need to know. Don’t wait for them to ask… give them the information in advance on a regular cadence.
You can be a great team player, if you just have these three traits!