Leaders Know How to Work

Gerwig 2016-01-07

Some of you love to work in teams. Some of you like to work individually. So what is the right approach? You already know the answer – “it depends.” Yes, I recognize that may sound like a bit of a cop-out, but it’s true. Sometimes the best approach is to use a team, while other times it’s best to do the work individually.

My eyes were drawn to larger-than-life Christmas ornaments pictured above. They were initially drawn to the stacked balls on the right. Organized. Neat. Uniform. Aligned. But then they wandered to ball standing alone on the left. Independent. Strong. Unhindered. Flexible. What do you see?

As my eyes traveled back and forth between the stacked balls and the lone ball, I thought about work preferences. Some like to work alone. Others like to work independently. Clearly, there’s not a right or wrong approach. In fact, great leaders know to use both approaches based upon the situation. Great leaders know how to work. They know to work by themselves, independently. And they know how to work in a team, collaboratively.

Great leaders also know that life’s challenges, whether professional, athletic, academic, or personal, are best served by using a hybrid approach. They use BOTH team and individual efforts to maximize their efforts and obtain optimal results. Let’s look a few examples to illustrate:

  • A scientist invents a new polymer (by herself) and then uses a team to determine develop the commercialization plan.
  • An author writes a chapter (by himself) and then use a group of friends (team) to provide feedback so he can make edits.
  • A coach draws up a couple new plays (by herself) and then runs them at practice (team) before making final adjustments (by herself).

While these are somewhat simple examples, I hope they illustrate the point. Very little can be accomplished effectively at either extreme. The scientist is likely using research that was conducted by others as a starting point. It’s not a 100% independent effort. The team running newly drawn-up plays is made up of athletes (team) who, at some point, are involved in one-on-one situations (individual). In truth, most “work” is a combination or hybrid of independent work and team work.

If we try to keep it simple, there are types of work (situations) where it’s best to go into your office, close the door, and work independently for a while, whether for hours or months. And there are situations where it’s best to assemble the team and work collaboratively.

Great leaders know how to work in both spaces, as an individual contributor and as a team member. They may have a preference for one approach based on their type or wiring, but they can effectively and seamlessly slide back and forth between the two. They recognize there are advantages to each approach.

Some advantages to team work:

  1. Diversity (skills, experience, talents, etc.).
  2. Coverage (keeps the ball from dropping in case of sickness, vacation, etc.).
  3. Engagement (more people are included during design, redesign, implementation, etc.).

Some advantages to individual work:

  1. Faster (don’t have to get consensus).
  2. Accountability (there’s only one person so there’s no finger-pointing).
  3. Flexibility (there’s only one schedule/calendar to deal with).

The key is knowing how and when to use these two approaches. As a painter, you most likely paint alone. But when it comes time to sell your paintings, don’t you have a team of people that helps with selling, advertising, financial transactions and delivery? As a member of an athletic team, aren’t there times when you run sprints, do chin-ups or study the playbook by yourself?

In sum, great leaders know how to work. They can stand alone and work independently. And they can stand arm-in-arm with members of a team and work collectively.

How about you? Do you have a natural proclivity for one type of work over the other? Most people do. The better question is, do you take time to assess the situation, the need, the timing, the cost, etc. and use the most appropriate work approach (individual, team, or both) for the task at hand?

As always, the floor is open to your comments, suggestions, thoughts, and feedback.

Dr. is an agent of change and is able to balance the needs of the business and the needs of people. Dr. Gerwig believes and practices the values of performance and delivery of business metrics while simultaneously developing and growing people into leaders. You can contact him at RobertGerwig[at]LeadStrategic.com.


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