Late in my corporate career I had a series of coaches who each, in their own way, helped me to become a stronger innovator and leader. One of these coaches once asked me, “Aaron, who is your team?” Laughing off the seemingly trivial question, I tried to change the subject, but she pressed me, “Really, who is your team?” 

Knowing she wouldn’t let it go, I quickly answered the question, “My team is my department: My direct reports, their direct reports, and all of their direct reports.” 

My coach paused, then asked me a question that would forever shift the way that I approached my work, “Instead of defining your team as those who are beneath you in the organisational chart, what would change if you defined your team as your peers, the other department heads who share a similar position in the organisation?” 

She’d nailed it. At some point in my career, my ego had become too large. My identity had become associated with the size and budget of the department I led, rather than the objectives of the team that I was part of. My coach understood that if I could shift my perspective to view my peers as my teammates, the business could accomplish so much more than if I spent my time directing the activities of others.

Dean Smith, the legendary coach of the University of North Carolina’s men’s basketball team once famously singled out future hall-of-famer Michael Jordan telling him, “Michael, if you can’t pass, you can’t play.” Smith understood that the objective of the team was not to excel as individuals, but to become something that was more than the sum of its parts, to accomplish something individuals could not accomplish on their own. My company was riddled with individuals like me, leading high-performing departments, but we did not work well together. On the path to leadership we had collectively forgotten what it takes to be a great Teammate.

Eight Traits of the Teammate Archetype

Through their well-developed sense of empathy, Teammates support others, provide guidance, and make offers to achieve team objectives. Let’s explore eight traits of the Teammate archetype to better understand where in innovation their participation is most critical:

  1. Teammates are fascinated by team dynamics and feel accountable to elevating team performance.
  2. The Teammate is action-oriented. She will make offers to fill gaps, even when her plate is full. 
  3. Teammates work closely with Agitators to inspire teams to high-performance. Whereas the Agitator generates creative tension within the team, the Teammate seeks harmony to advance the team towards its goals.
  4. Teammates work well with Connectors, providing coaching and guidance to develop creative, inspired solutions.
  5. Teammates will not shy away from difficult conversations when team members are not pulling their weight, even if it makes others uncomfortable.  
  6. Teammates must learn to calibrate important versus urgent to maintain balance. They may often find themselves over-extended, a potentially unhealthy state of being that sometimes feels normal to them
  7. Teammates will work with Observers to understand what problems or opportunities are important or emerging so they may prepare teams for the challenges they might face.
  8. Teammates understand what is required of their team, and take pride in their team’s ability to meet and exceed expectations.

Teammates understand what high-performing teams are capable of, and will shape and arm their teams to achieve greatness. They understand business processes, specifically the roles and responsibilities of team members, in order to identify and fill gaps that might slow progress toward the objective. Most importantly, Teammates take deliberate actions that benefit the team, even if it means sacrificing individual accolades.

A Portrait of a High-Performance Team

Even when not in a position of leadership, Teammates lead from where they sit, feeling accountable to making sure their teams are capable, agile, and responsive to the challenges they face. The muscle that Teammates develop can set them up as future leaders in an organisation, though some may struggle to understand how their team fits into a broader strategic context. It’s important they step back to answer the question of what is required of their team to achieve the organisation’s objectives. Only once they have that answer can they develop high-performing teams.

The high-performing team is empathetic and honest with itself. It is creative and collaborative. It’s fast when it can be, yet accurate when it needs to be. It’s lean enough to be sufficiently agile. The high-performing team knows how to learn what’s expected of it, and is courageously adaptable when it’s not delivering. It’s nimble when facing multiple obstacles, and resilient when it faces a mighty one. It anticipates the changes and pressures it may face, and can quickly respond when they present themselves. High-performing teams have both deep expertise and broad experience. Team members will feel empowered to take risks to perform at the level required to deliver.

The Teammate understands that teams don’t start out this way. The traits found within high-performing teams must be recruited for, developed, and nurtured. Even then, a team must follow a predictable path to move from the polite, formative stage to the generative, performing stage. It is the Teammate who attends to this development by staying in tune with all facets of the team and holding it accountable to its own development.

Moving Forward Together

Being a great teammate isn’t a label reserved for those who develop strong interpersonal connections; it can be as simple as developing resources such as innovation toolkits for others to reference, or taking a training course on a subject that will benefit the team as a whole. 

Further, the strongest Teammates are not simply cheerleaders, as this is seldom enough. As a coach, a Teammate must lift others up by meeting them where they are, empathizing with them, then sharing knowledge and expertise to inspire performance at their highest level.

Henry Ford once said, “If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself.” In this short quote is found the greatest challenge of the Teammate: How to keep everyone moving forward together. There are few recipes which guarantee that a team can achieve greatness, but there are countless recipes which will ensure failure.

We are taught from a young age how to be accountable to ourselves, how to celebrate our own success, and how to lift ourselves up when we get knocked down. A whole new set of traits is required when we favour team success over individual success. In innovation, in particular, this becomes absurdly apparent, for any outcome that could be produced by a sole individual would likely never be labelled as innovative. Innovation success occurs when creativity and productivity are unlocked in an environment which harnesses diverse perspectives and varied experience.

As the leader of an innovation department within a Fortune 200 organisation, I ultimately learned that innovation success would require a level of teamwork that I was demanding from others but wasn’t practicing, myself. When I was finally coaxed to look up from the organisational chart, and outward to my peers, I began to feel part of something that was bigger than me – bigger than the Innovation department. Our department had been moving forward alone. I learned that there were new business challenges to define and new opportunities to explore throughout the organisation. The Teammate in me was finally reawakened.

Aaron Proietti writes about innovation archetypes in his book, Today’s Innovator. He will profile each of his eight archetypes in a series of pieces prepared for The Future Shapers.