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Be Better: Investing in Your Team

10-16-17 Ben Callahan

Ben’s email newsletter shares a framework for investing in your team, leading to greater buy-in and more innovation.

Part of being better is investing in the people around you. I’ve been privileged to see first-hand how a culture that invests in each other leads to better lives in and out of work.

Investing in Your Team

Part of being better involves understanding how we can help the folks around us be better. As someone surrounded by very smart people, my concept of what it means to invest in those people has been challenged. In the early days of Sparkbox, I could teach the people on our team something technical. These days, my focus has shifted away from writing code, and toward understanding how to build an organization. While I may not be able to teach my team the latest programming techniques, I’ve learned that being better contributors means much more than being the best experience or software craftspeople. In turn, I’ve learned that I can invest in my team members by helping them be better in many other ways.

I want to share with you a framework for investing in the people around you that can apply to any of the folks in your life. If you’re an employer or a team leader, this will result in more innovative work. If you’re a service provider at a studio or agency, your clients’ teams can benefit from your investment in them. And if you find yourself in the trenches everyday, taking this approach with your peers will strengthen your relationships, thicken your skin, and build the kind of trust necessary to become a world-class team.

The best part about this is that once this idea takes root in your culture, it snowballs, gains momentum, and starts happening organically. Let’s get to it.

Three Rings of Investment

There are three rings to this concept, growing outward from investing in a specific skill to investing more holistically in a person, and, finally, to investing in that individual’s life and the lives of those around them. Let’s dive into each to consider how breaking things down this way is helpful.

There are three rings to this concept: Investing in a skill. Investing in a person. Investing in a life.

Investing in a Skill

The first and most common way we can invest in the people around us is to help them improve their skill in a specific area. The goal is to help our teammates become better at doing the thing they were hired to do, whether that thing is designing or developing, or even managing other people. This is the most focused and tangible of the three rings. Most of the time, we can look at job titles and have a good understanding of what kinds of things would help strengthen their skillsets. It’s also the easiest investment to justify to a manager or director, because we expect those people to care about developing employees’ skills in order to improve the quality or efficiency of their work.

There are plenty of ways to invest in education. Having individuals attend conferences or workshops, read books, participate in online training courses, contribute to focused side projects… I’m also a big believer in the idea that writing and speaking about a specific subject forces you to understand it more fully. Even just having intentional conversations around a subject raises questions and creates a curiosity that can only be silenced by digging deeper into a topic.

Investing in a skillset can also take the form of mentorship. I’m a big fan of this when it happens organically, but we’ve also found a more structured approach to work well via our apprenticeship program. The opportunity to have hungry minds asking difficult questions in our office every single day is one I can’t pass up. There is an obvious benefit to apprentices as they work through the Sparkbox apprenticeship curriculum, but Sparkboxers also grow through pairing and teaching these foundational techniques each year. As my business partner Rob says, in a world full of talent consumers, I want us to be talent creators—apprenticeships help us cultivate new learners and continue to expose our team to the joy and benefit of learning.

Investing in a Person

The second ring is “Investing in a Person.” At this level, we are focused on a more holistic approach to investing in the people around us. We’re still investing in them as individuals, but we’re considering aspects outside of their primary skill. Investing in a person is about finding ways to broaden our understanding of the work we do, but also of what it means to be human. Wellness benefits have become common in the workplace and are intended to help people live healthier lives. Anything that helps an individual deal with life in a healthy way will have the added benefit of helping that person deal with work in a healthy way. Think about it this way: If I haven’t slept well for the past few nights, I certainly won’t be able to do my job very well. This tier of investment recognizes that fact, and works to address it by helping people live healthier lives.

But wellness is just one example—diversity and inclusion programs are important to this growth and challenge people’s perspectives, often requiring our egos to be set aside. Finding the humility to recognize we may not be right about everything in life (surprise!) leads to more willingness to collaborate at work. We’ve seen great benefit in unique pairings. We ask folks with very different roles to solve a problem together. Watching someone who has a very different set of skills and experiences work through a problem demonstrates in a very tangible way that our way may not always be the best way. Giving people these opportunities is investing in them as a person, and it can be a powerful force for good on a team.

More broadly, this could also be demonstrated in any way that helps develop empathy for the other people on the team. At Sparkbox, we’ve been experimenting with a simple program called “Threshold of Empathy.” It’s a way for us to give one another the opportunity to see and participate in all the roles involved in keeping Sparkbox moving. We keep track of activities that aren’t common to most folks here (maybe reviewing a contract or helping write an estimate), then we invite individuals to participate every once in awhile. It’s not that we expect people to shift into owning these things, but only good can come from them understanding the context in which decisions are made. A teammate who recognizes the impact of their choices on the rest of the team is one you don’t want to lose.

Investing in a Life

The third and final ring is “Investing in a Life.” This is likely where most of us start to feel a little out of our element. This ring asks us to consider the people surrounding our team members: their significant others, kids, parents, sisters, brothers, friends. Everything we ask of the people on our teams impacts the people closest to them. We can’t ignore the fact that people take their work home with them. And the opposite is also true—we bring stress from home to work with us. It’s easy to justify helping our team members get better at their skillsets, and it makes sense that they need to be healthy and have higher levels of empathy in order to perform their jobs well. But as soon as we bring the people surrounding our co-workers into the picture, things can get a bit sticky.

A commitment to investing in someone’s life means we are willing to find ways to help them help their loved ones. Sometimes it’s as easy as a note written to someone’s significant other saying how much we appreciate having that person on our team. Sometimes it’s a dinner with a team member and a loved one. Sometimes it’s ordering pizza for their family while they are travelling for work. These tend to be simple actions but they mean so much to the people who receive them. Understanding that work is just a portion of someone’s life helps us to see the value in the relationships they have outside of the office. Being willing to invest in those relationships demonstrates our commitment to them as a human.

These kinds of investments are not common in the workplace. In fact, there’s a lot of research showing that many people in the U.S. are not friends with the people they work with. In this climate, can we really expect people to go even further, caring for their employees’ and coworkers’ close friends and families? It is a lot to ask. And, it may not work in every company culture. But what I’ve learned is that the value of the trust developed when you are willing to take care of one another makes for a team that can solve anything. When people don’t feel safe at work, the same chemicals are released that generate “fight or flight” responses. And the kind of safety we’re talking about here is not even restricted to physical threats—socially challenging environments also generate this response. Nobody can do their best work when this is happening internally. Knowing that your team has your back creates that trust—that safety—freeing you to fully participate.

The Ripple

My favorite thing about this concept is how it ripples.

Investing in a life is investing in that person. Investing in a person does make them better at their job.

You see, investing in a life is investing in that person. And, investing in a person does make them better at their job. The work part of a person is not separate from the life part of a person. We are who we are because of our skillsets, but also because of our experiences and the other people in our lives. We all know from personal experience how difficult it can be to do our jobs well when things are not going well in other parts of our lives. Recognizing this, instead of pretending it doesn’t happen, frees us to take preventative action—to help be part of the support system someone needs so that the challenges outside of work don’t overwhelm them.

And the ripple effect of this framework means that these things start to happen organically. People start creating sign-ups to take someone a meal when they are going through something difficult. People help each other transport new refrigerators and move to new homes. It’s unbelievable to see these things happen on your team without some top-down program. This is the power of fully investing in the people around you. It’s hard work, but it’s totally worth it.

How This Framework Applies to Internal Teams

I’m a firm believer that these ideas aren’t relegated to employer-employee relationships. In fact, we’re working to consider how we take this kind of approach into our relationships with our customers. I want organizations to see hiring Sparkbox as an investment in their team. If we can help make our own people better, then perhaps we can help the people on our customers’ teams be better too. This reciprocal dynamic is key in earning one another’s trust and continuing to work together.

If you run an internal team, I’d encourage you to make it part of your partner evaluation process to consider the potential vendor or partner’s culture around education, mentorship, training, writing. See if they’re doing their part to pour back into their community and employees. These are key signs that they are focused on the right things—that hiring them will be an investment back into your team as a natural effect of having invested employees.

And beyond your relationships with your vendors, think about your relationships with other groups inside your company. You can have this kind of impact on these other internal teams. This kind of in-house investment can be the most impactful because these are people you will work with for a long time. When they realize they’re getting better through their partnerships with you, much of the internal tension and politics will dissolve. What’s left will be humans who want to do their best, and the freedom in which to do it.

How this Framework Applies to Contributing Individuals

Certainly some of our readers find themselves on a team, perhaps with a feeling of helplessness as it relates to the programs and benefits offered by their company. While you may not be directly involved in hiring or benefits decisions, that doesn’t get you out of the job of investing in the people around you. Many of these kinds of changes can happen without initiation from leadership.

One of the women on our team recently bought a house. It had a lovely backyard deck that was in need of resurfacing. One day in Slack, a Google Spreadsheet showed up with all the Saturdays in the summer listed out. She had added her name and the deck-resurfacing project to one of the dates and invited others to add their home-related projects to the list. She also volunteered to help others on a few Saturdays and suggested that we could all help each other with these larger projects if we’d agree to chip in on some weekends too. This was not something I or my business partner orchestrated. This is what happens organically when people decide they want to be all in, to invest in one anothers’ lives.

And there’s another side to this coin: We tend to be too proud to allow others to help us. I know I’m guilty of this. But there is growth in helping others. Saying no to their offer to support you is also denying them the chance to be there for you. No doubt it’s difficult, but being willing to accept some support when you need it is just as important as being willing to offer it. All of this leads to healthier lives outside of work and better products inside work.

How this Framework Applies to Team Leaders

Investing in the people on your team is investing in their ability to innovate.

To those of you who lead teams, I implore you to remember how valuable the humans on your team truly are. And that value extends well beyond the specific skill for which they were hired. Remember the inseparability of that portion of who they are from the other parts of their lives. And remember the value those other parts bring: Our unique perspectives based on our past experiences (sometimes called our “acquired diversity”) cause us to approach problems in different ways which is the key to truly innovative ideas. This has been proven time and time again, including in this article from the Harvard Business Review on how diversity can drive innovation. The kind of investment we’re talking about builds trust that enables what’s called a “speak up” culture: “...employees in a ‘speak up’ culture are 3.5 times as likely to contribute their full innovative potential.” As a team leader, this is your primary job—to motivate your team to fully contribute!

I will even take this a step further. As someone in a position of authority, your actions set the tone for the rest of your team. With this power, comes (you guessed it) great responsibility. I believe taking that responsibility seriously should lead you beyond the obvious “treat people with respect” attitude toward these kinds of deeper investments. It’s your job to lead that effort. Know that it may be uncomfortable to support people with very different perspectives than your own. Know that it requires tremendous humility. Know that it requires you to honestly believe you have something to learn from each person on your team. But also trust that it will result in you being better at your job and in a team capable of much more innovative work.

Work is Life

Work-life-balance is a joke. Work is part of life. Life bleeds into work. Trying to keep these things separate only leads to more stress worrying about the overlap. Instead, I believe we need to see these things for what they are—all part of the experience of living in our communities. Becoming better humans will help us be better at our work. But becoming holistically better workers will also help us become better humans, better parents, spouses, sisters, brothers, friends. It’s all intertwined, and that’s okay.

Instead of compartmentalizing the different parts of our lives, we need to focus on growing as people. In this way, we can make a bigger impact in all the places where we have a role.

Here’s to never being satisfied with the status quo. Here’s to being better.

Interested in speaking further about this? Drop me a line.

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