I dispute the common notion that it is a virtue to be “a good team player.” In my close to twenty years in the marketing and design business, I have learned a lot about the industry, about clients and about business, but I have learned the most about myself. And one of the things I learned was that I am a poor, no, a lousy team player. A fact I’ve tried to hide, believing it would cost me business and, truth be told, I’m sure it has. But I believe that it has also won me business, served me well, and, all-in-all, been a net positive through my career.
Teamwork – the oxymoron
“Collaboration.” “Teamwork.” “The sum greater than its parts.” Yes, the team concept sounds good, seems good and sometimes, is good. But more often than not, teams act more like dreaded committees, with everyone adding their two cents and no one picking up the check. When I receive resumes from designers describing themselves as “good team players,” especially when it supersedes all else, I become cautiously pessimistic. I extend the benefit of the doubt, hoping that it is more pander than truth. Little do they know that, for me, “team player” is simply a euphemism for “undisciplined””unsure” and possibly, “lazy.”
The common pitfalls
The idea behind teamwork is to draw upon the perspectives, talents, and experience of its members to create a more complete and successful solution. Very good intentions, indeed. But I have found that the practical application of “teams” applies unintended pressures and serves up easy excuses. Each team member feels pressure to play a role and be heard, regardless of whether they have anything productive to add. Often any contradictory or top-of-the-head opinion will do. This isn’t to say that “brainstorming” shouldn’t be encouraged. Members should feel free to throw out ideas without fear of ridicule or reprimand, but unfortunately egos seem to take over, and a random idea quickly becomes a favorite child.
At the same time, the team concept also encourages appeasement, a settled and compromised solution. Sounds good, right? Unfortunately not. In marketing, it is especially important to be focused, clear, forceful and dramatic in order to cut through the clutter and connect with audiences that are pressed for time and have limited attention spans. Compromises in strategy, message and design often serve to water-down the final product so that it ultimately speaks to no one in particular and says nothing distinctive or memorable.
Finally, the team concept serves as the perfect excuse. We know that “Success has many authors, while failure is an orphan.” In a compromised solution it is all too easy to point the finger and shift blame. That is if the shortcomings of the solution are even ever sought after or acknowledged. Groups are much less inclined to even look for or see any failures of the solution since they are all invested in its creation. Any criticism at all is likely to reflect badly on them.
Control-freak? Perfectionist? Stubborn mule?
I’ve been called worse. In truth, I was not always like I am now. I recall leaving college to join the workforce excited about learning and growing with those whom shared my passions and from those whom had been there and done that. Maybe it was due to the technology revolution, innovations in computers, software and then the Internet, that served to level the playing field, but I quickly grew less and less impressed with those whom I worked and worked for. It was then that I started my migration to such phrases as “If you want something done right…”, “take ownership,” and “bull by the horns.”
The fact is that while I can be more insistent than most, I am no tyrant. Teams can be good, very good, and certainly accomplish much, much more than any one person alone. But it requires all parties to truly respect each other. Respect, not as some preordained corporate mantra learned in some mandatory positive-attitude seminar, but real mutual respect for the talents, ideas and work-ethic that everyone brings to the table. I work with great marketers, great designers and great programmers, but I think what makes each of them great is their ability to do each of their jobs well and thoroughly, whether they are part of a team or not. I trust each of them to be smart, not just within their assigned role, but smart about the overall problem and solution at hand.
Not a good fit
I am the first to admit that I am not a good fit for every company. I shy away from the larger corporations already drunk on the committee culture, where whims and passing suggestions are given as much time and weight as clear, sound strategies, where color and shades of colors are discussed more than objectives and ROI, and often where teams are comprised of those most available rather than those most qualified.
I openly acknowledge my failures as a team player, and I think my clients the better for it. I can be tough, but clients know that I am toughest on myself, making sure I collect all the necessary facts, thinking through all my client’s challenges and opportunities, and only conceiving a plan and a solution that I would be willing to invest in myself. My ability and willingness to grab the reigns, take ownership and full responsibility for the project ultimately serves to put my clients at ease. What may come off as arrogance at the outset, comes to be appreciated because it is rare that vendors have the confidence to put it all on their own shoulders.
Of course, no one can or should work in a vacuum, and I certainly rely on the direction and input of my clients as well as my own team of talent and resources. The point I want to make is that, team or no team, any project needs a clear leader. A leader with the knowledge, skills and discipline to plot the correct course, make good decisions along the way, avoid distractions, and make sure everything is seen through. This is the path that has served me and my clients well, and I will not apologize.