Separate But Together: How COVID-19 Taught Me to Set My Team Up for Success

Teamwork through COVIDLike G-force when a roller coaster takes off, the COVID-19 lockdown shoved me deep into my own seat. Forces greater than myself took away the freedoms I was used to. Possibilities were restricted. But work still had to happen. I had to find new ways to reach out of my space to work with others. I wanted to do anything I could to set my team up for success.  We were in this together, just separately. What could I do to improve this situation?

Changing Perspectives

Working from home, I had to learn new ways to connect with my team and with customers. I reached into my toolkit to find some tricks to grapple with the situation we found ourselves in. I found a book by Jocko Willink, a retired naval officer who led an elite team through military strikes in war zones. I wanted his perspective on team building in difficult circumstances. The book, “Extreme Ownership,” outlined his philosophy to take absolute responsibility for all parts of the action.

The only seat I can lead from is the seat that I am in. It is up to me to look for what I could do — however small — to help my team. The responsibility is entirely mine. This was a charge I had to lead; it was my move to make.

This took a change in mindset. I couldn’t stop doing my regular work, I had to keep producing at my usual rate. But was there anything I could improve on for others? Even if I could eliminate one click for the team, is it worth doing? I think yes.

I’ll admit I was frustrated with the perceived failings of the different departments. Why should I fix their problem? Couldn’t they just do their jobs? But after my flash of frustration, I felt ashamed. How could I judge them when I didn’t even know what struggles they had? Rather than cursing the darkness in my ignorance, I lit a candle in the unknown region of other departments. How do the systems they use work?

Leading With Change

Seth Godin talks about the linchpin employees who will do emotional labor to understand the needs of the team. Emotional labor is a soft skill that makes a difference in giving my team meaningful support. I have to understand the perspective of others. What does the guy in the warehouse need? How does billing interface with the forms I have to give them?

We individual contributors are not so individual. It takes a team to do what needs to be done and I know I can’t do it all. But my newly adopted philosophy of extreme ownership directs me to find out what those individual team members need. I will shape my communications to fit their needs.

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Investing some time to understand the flow of things helped me understand how to make the lives of my team members easier. It creates goodwill in the team. One delightful outcome was that the team responded by a reciprocal willingness to make my life easier. In fact, when I scheduled a meeting with one of the support team members to ask how their systems worked, I found some valuable shortcuts. I could check it myself rather than have to ask for help and wait for the reply. Both of us won when I was empowered to get what I needed independently.

I learned to appreciate the difficulty of some of my requests. I hadn’t realized that one common request was so time-consuming. I could adjust my expectations on the results of a query after I understood what was involved. When I set out to do anything I could to support my team’s success, it turned out I was making my own success as well.  It was worth it to get into the weeds of all the systems I interfaced with. The time investment returned a big reward.

Take The Good and The Bad

Some other efforts were not immediately rewarding, but the mental posture of taking ownership of anything I could to help my team was. It kept my spirit out of the frustrated resentment zone and in a space of generosity. If I looked for it, there was always something I could give.

Meeting notes with action items were always part of my work week. I always had the habit of attaching the notes in an email to all attendees, but that requires opening the attachment. I decided to paste the action items into the body of the email. The team would be reminded of their commitments right in the email. The action items were another source of ways I could help my team. Was there anything I could give them to support the work that they needed to accomplish?

To increase my value to the team, I had to look outside my own interests. When I keep in mind the goal of reducing work for my team, I improved my outlook. My teammates felt it. This allowed for team building even though we were no longer in the same room.

We are a team. When I invest in the success of anyone in the team, the whole team benefits. It’s a tired but true cliché that problems are opportunities. The restrictions made me have to get creative, and I got some valuable work habits and strengthened the team.