Two prized possessions are my vacation time and my discretionary income. I figure I work really hard, and time away from work offers me the opportunity to refresh and renew. I can’t imagine giving that up. Secondly, I like having a little extra cash for that occasional bottle of Champagne or maybe a nice weekend away with my wife.
That’s why it was all the more surprising when I finally grasped what my parents did for me when I competed as a kid in junior tennis. Over several years, they spent loads of dollars on lessons and their free time—including my dad’s vacation days—to drive me (and my brother, Marcus) all around Northern California to compete.
Paradoxically, I learned from one of the most individual sports imaginable, tennis, about the yes of teamwork. In this case it was their service, my advantage. But teamwork can also be our service, our advantage.
From my reading in business literature, I’ve discerned a trend in the last ten to twenty year: there’s a focus, not individual achievement, but success by a team of individuals. I figured I check out my hunch, and so I asked Tim, a Ph.D. in industrial-organizational psychology who now consults businesses, about the trend toward teams. “What’s it about?” Tim replied, “A lot of people talk about being a team, but most don’t really understand it.”
I realized Tim’s right, and the problem is right here: in order to be a good team, we need to put aside what personally benefits us. Bu, in our culture, the dominant slogan seems to be: “It’s all about me.” And thus I want the credit.
The key to a good team is when you’re ok with someone else getting the credit. And this makes sense. Not only because I believe what goes around, comes around—so if you help others, they are more likely to help you when you need it—but also because you and your organization will do better when teams work best.
The Bible is fairly repetitive about the importance of teamwork. Psalm 133 shouts it out loud: “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” The New Testament repeatedly emphasizes unity of purpose and heart—almost to the point of “Ya, I get it already.” (But I suppose we don’t. And the early Christians didn’t either. That’s why it’s there in the Scripture so often.) Consider what the early Christian leader, Paul, wrote to the first Christian church in Europe, the Philippians,
If you've gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care— then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don't push your way to the front; don't sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don't be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand. (Philippians 2:1-3, The Message).
Unity has to do with laying down what we think is most important—about my getting ahead—and seeing others succeed. Even taking joy in it.
That’s what Tom and Ruth Cootsona demonstrated for me. Although tennis is an individual sport, I needed a support team. After school, my mom would toss me tennis balls, hundreds of them (this was before ball machines) to perfect my stroke. My dad would take those precious vacation days, and they would drive me and my brother in our Ford Monterey to various spots in California, like Monterey, Clovis, and Carmichael. They both invested family funds to pay for lessons, dollars I know they could have spent on themselves. (And maybe even bought a little more Champagne.)
A business writer who makes incredible sense to me, Stephen M.R. Covey, has recently focused on the importance of trust for any organization and that particularly holds true for one of the smallest organizational units, the team. He talks about the “speed of trust.” In fact, that’s the name of the book. His subtitle is somewhat bombastic: “The One Thing That Changes Everything.”
Simply put, embedded in any good team is trust. We trust in two ways: we trust others' competence—they can get the work done well. We trust their character—they will follow through with their promises. Covey has taught me that the more we trust one another, the lower the friction and the greater the achievement. We can move fast when we trust each other in a team.
In my case, the trust level in my junior tennis days was so deep that I didn’t even think about it. I just knew that my parents were there to support me. Their sacrifice was absolutely invisible. But as I reflect now, I realize that the team support I took for granted was necessary and as a result I’ve had to bring that concept to the surface in the teams I direct.
I’m thankful I learned the lesson early in life: sometimes you’ve got to take one for the team. Because when I later in life started leading teams, it made my work a whole lot more enjoyable and effective. And there’s an added benefit: When the team succeeds, so do all the individuals.
That’s a whole bunch of yeses.
Incidentally, my brother, Marcus Cootsona, just wrote a great book about tennis, Occam's Racquet.