March 10, 2014

Know Your Role: How to Build High Impact Teams

Know your role. Barry Alvarez, former head coach of the Wisconsin Badger football team, used this as a mantra. “Know your role,” he would tell the players and staff repeatedly throughout the season, “Know where you fit in, know how your contribution contributes to the greater whole. More importantly, know and appreciate the roles of those around you.” For Coach Alvarez, this principle had two components. First, what is my role, and how does that role fit in and contribute to the success of the team? Second, what is the role of everyone else involved in this organization, from the starters to the equipment managers, and how does their role contribute to the success of the team?

As individuals, it is critical that we know the difference between the role we want, and the role we have. At Wisconsin I wanted my role to be on the starting team, but the role I had was a backup. So while it was critical that I maintain the initiative, work ethic and attitude of a starter in my pursuit of earning that starting spot, it could never come at the expense of playing my supporting role. I remember that as a backup I once had to swallow my pride and tutor a younger, albeit more talented, player named Joe Thomas. Even though Joe was competing for the same job as I, since I had been on the team longer my coach asked me to mentor him on the playbook—which I did, because it was my role.

In business, no matter how high we rise in a company or organization, we’re going to be asked to play numerous roles, and we may not like them all. Some we might think are beneath us; others may simply distract us from pursuing the roles we want. Is your company doing some restructuring that requires you to cede leadership responsibilities to someone else and take over some administrative functions? Have you been asked to participate in a multi-functional team that requires you to support rather than direct? Having the humility to accept, and excel, in these situations will not only benefit the team, ultimately these sacrifices will get noticed and lead you to greater opportunities down the line.

The second component of Coach Alvarez’s wisdom is just as important. In order for teams to function effectively, each member must understand and appreciate the functions of other members —and how it affects them. This can be done through active communication, but it’s not enough to simply explain what each team member does, and why it is important; more often it requires deliberately exposing people to each other’s daily work situation.

I recently spoke at a school year kick off meeting to all the administrators in the Milwaukee Public School system. They had asked me to come in to discuss this very topic—building high impact teams. While discussing this portion of team building—knowing roles—I asked the audience, most of them school principals, who had ridden the school bus to work within the last year. Not a single person raised his or her hand. I then asked them if they felt that bullying and violence on the bus ride to and from school contributed to a child’s inability to concentrate in the classroom. A series of nodding heads confirmed my assumption. I then told them two things: One, if you have not communicated to your bus drivers the critical role they play in a child’s ability to have a peaceful learning environment, how would they know? And two, if you have not ridden the bus within the last year, how can you take informed steps to solve the issue?

By not effectively communicating to the bus drivers their critical role in a child’s education, the administrators were missing out on a tremendous opportunity to empower those teammates to be a part of the solution. And by not putting themselves forward and exposing themselves to the point of friction, the administrators were oblivious to the day to day challenges those drivers faced in preventing bullying and violence– and how to overcome them.

The act of defining and informing roles can be particularly challenging at Team Rubicon (FYI, Team Rubicon is responding to the floods in CO now, click here if you’d like to support), where we deploy mostly volunteers. Since, unlike typical employees, these first-responders are donating their time and effort without expectation of monetary reward, they often come with a pre-conceived idea of what role they would like to play in the response. Their thought process is, “I’m willing to give of my time, so I should be able to choose what role I fill on this team. If not, then I won’t go.” To combat this occasional mentality, our leaders must be supremely effective and empathetic communicators. They must pull aside the volunteer who has been selected to help with administrative duties at the operations base instead of being assigned the preferred role of helping out with search and rescue or home demolition, and convince that person that the role they’ll play in admin is far more impactful. Typically the sell isn’t what the volunteer will get out of it personally, but rather what the large team will reap as a result. You’ll likely hear our leaders say, “The team really needs you to play this role even if it’s not quite as fun, and if you’ll do it, we’ll be able to get those fifty volunteers standing over there out to the field faster and more effectively,” before you’ll hear, “You’re going to love it!” – but, because our members are so committed to sacrificing their own individual needs for the good of the collective mission, this generally does the trick.

When you have a team comprised of individuals that understand and accept their role you are more likely to have a cohesive unit willing to work together. Furthermore, when individuals know how their role contributes to the success of the larger mission, they will embrace it and take pride and ownership in their tasks. Just as importantly, if they have a strong understanding of the larger picture, and how the quality of work done by others impacts them, they’ll be more likely to police the work of others. What you’ll find is a team with high levels of accountability.

Know your role. It’s critical whether you’re leading or following, building a team or joining one. Know the responsibilities and challenges of those around you. It will increase accountability and help you understand the complete picture. There’s nothing earth-shattering about this principle, but it’s the foundation upon which high-impact teams are built.