Can your team pass the chemistry test?



The Giants’ new head coach, Pat Shurmur, center, is making every effort to build chemistry on his team.CreditBill Kostroun/Associated Press

As any reader of this blog knows, I’m a football fan in addition to being a  fan of company founders.

That brings me to the article from The Times, The Giants Try to Pass Chemistry. It covers the many ways new coach Pat Shurmur has been attempting to build team chemistry, from altering the locker room formation to making up nicknames for players to sitting in the cafeteria and having lunch with as many players as possible in the hope that they buy into the team mission and do things like, well, forming a photography club.

As the author Zach Schonbrun writes:

Put simply, the Giants failed chemistry a year ago under Ben McAdoo, who was fired after 12 games. Resentment about the hard practices on Saturdays; the suspensions of three defensive backs; a player calling a teammate a “cancer”; and the benching of the team’s franchise quarterback, Eli Manning, for Geno Smith produced enough inner turmoil that even an owner, John Mara, deemed things had been “spiraling out of control.”

Team chemistry is another term for corporate culture. And corporate culture is one the areas of entrepreneurship I emphasize in mentoring founders. In fact this blog has an entire section on corporate culture.

Paul Tesluk, dean of the University at Buffalo’s School of Management, researches organizational psychology and leadership development. He has studied sports teams such as the Buffalo Sabres of the N.H.L. to understand the role that chemistry plays in on-field success — or, in the Giants’ case, failure. According to Professor Tesluk:

While not all winning teams have great chemistry, losing teams never do. Without the right structures in place, the Giants were effectively doomed from the start, “Our natural instinct is to look at the raw talent of the individuals,” Tesluk said. “If you don’t have things like stability and leadership, or you don’t take into account how you build a team culture, you can only go so far on raw talent. That’s a really valuable lesson for the workplace as well.”

One of the aspects of corporate culture I focus on is communications. In fact one of my maxims I’ve used for years is that 90% of all problems can be traced back to poor communications. And today with the social media the dominant form of communications that fictional percentage certainly hasn’t gone down.

A study by Harvard Business Review in 2012 looked at the role of various aspects of communication — specifically energy, engagement and exploration — in building successful chemistry at workplaces such as post-operating wards, call centers and banks. They deemed good communication to be as instrumental to success as skill, personality and intelligence combined.

Most people think a head pro football coach has to worry about his 53 players, but his responsibilities go far beyond that. In a recent article about Mike Vrabel, coach of the Tennessee Titans, mentioned that including his coaches and staff, he’s responsible for over 90 men. (And they are all men – no women in pro football, yet.) The Giants and all pro football teams have complex organizations. As Tesluk says, “You’ve got this flexible, shared, distributed leadership, and it’s not just residing in one or two superstars, It’s respect for the scrappy player who might help set up the superstar for making the great shot. That mutual respect and keeping egos in check, that’s a tough thing to do in professional sports. But it has to start there.”

Star engineers, designers, marketers and sales people all tend to have large egos as well. What keeps those egos in check is a strong corporate culture that embodies the unsaid values and norms of the organization. I call culture the invisible hand of management. The stronger your corporate culture the more the organization becomes self managing.

I tell founders that they will know they’ve built a strong corporate culture when they feel it’s safe to finally take a vacation. And more importantly, that the company runs well without them for a week or two.

Frankly I rarely hear the term “team chemistry” used by mentors, but it should be, as it’s a more down to earth term than “corporate culture” and one that founders may find easier to latch on to. And founders, as you build your teams, which may well far exceed the 90+ a head football coach has to worry about, make sure you are building team chemistry in addition to building your product or service.

One good way to do that is to bring in a successful founder to speak to your team. Or show a video, as the New York Yankees recently did when they held the 20th reunion for their 1998 World Series team. The video message delivered by superstar Yankee Derek Jeter was that nobody on that team cared who the hero was or who got the headlines. They only cared about winning. That’s a message that applies equally well to venture teams as it does to sports teams.



Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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