Impacting Your Team as an Individual Contributor

When we first agreed on “Building A Team” as the topic for the October blog posts, I wasn’t sure what my contribution would look like, seeing as I’ve never formally “built a team”. I’ve spent the majority of my career as an individual contributor and although I’ve considered management opportunities in the past, I’ve never been tasked with building a team from the ground up.

So how can I contribute?

The answer is in the question.

A team is an alignment of individual people, with different skill sets and personalities, working together toward a common goal. As an individual contributor, our primary success is determined by the quality of our contributions and the impact they have on the organization. Outside of that, our success also hinges on the success of those around us. Ensuring that we, as members of a team, surround ourselves with the right people is just as important to your own success as it is to the success of the team as a whole. With that in mind, I want to think through a couple different ways that we as individual contributors can build an exceptional team, even if we don’t have “hiring manager” noted on our list of responsibilities.

Interviews

When an organization is looking to make a hire, that prospective employee is often interviewed by current members of the team or cross-departmental counterparts to ensure that there is alignment in regards to experience, appropriate skillset, and company culture. I’ve interviewed many candidates for many different positions but I always try to tease out a few important answers that are indicative of what I look for in a teammate. With that in mind, here are a few of the questions or qualities I look for when interviewing a candidate:

Do they know what your company does?

I almost feel silly listing this as a question but you’d be surprised how commonly a candidate loses an interview by not being to articulate what our company does. I often ask this question, very directly, and expect a high-level, general understanding of the business value in response. I want a teammate that isn’t afraid to roll up their sleeves and learn something.  If a candidate cannot do even a minimal amount of research to prep for my interview, they can interview somewhere else!

Is your past experience relevant? If so, how does it prepare you for this role and why?

Before going into the meeting, I like to find one major highlight on their resume that I can reference in regards to the job they are applying for. This could be anything from past experience at a particularly interesting company, a project they’ve worked on, an accolade they’ve received – whatever catches my eye. I ask them to explain their experience with (or leading up to) X and how that experience translates to {insert job} at {insert company}.

The point of this question is less about their background and more about applicability. How does your unique perspective help us creatively solve the problems we face today? A good answer parses out their thought process, problem-solving skills, ability to think on the fly, and their ability to communicate. Every story, approach, or explanation will be different and that is precisely the point. Can we parse out a unique, creative, problem solver who can offer a differing perspective from not only other candidates you’ve interviewed but current members of your team today?

Are you a good culture fit?

In recent years, the term “company culture” has become synonymous with free snacks, ping pong tables, and weekly happy hours. Companies have positioned themselves as “fun” so as to entice younger talent to come work at a “cool place”. Before you label me a cranky old man, let me say I think these things are great. Though my ping pong time (and skill level) has decreased over the years, I think it’s great to be a part of a culture who recognizes that a few minutes to unwind throughout the day is an incredibly powerful way to maintain morale. I’d actually be concerned by a candidate who wouldn’t want to work in a culture like that but that isn’t the purpose of this exercise. The goal is to understand, in 30 minutes or less, if this is somebody you could see yourself working with. Will they fit in with the existing members of the team? Is this someone you can teach and someone who will be teachable?

You know the dynamic of your team better than any outsider and are looking for someone who can seamlessly join the collective. So how do I tease out culture fit? My list of questions tend to vary slightly based on the trajectory or quality of the conversation, but these are typically a few of the questions I lead with:

Question: What do you like to do outside of work?
Goal: Cliche question? Yes. That’s OK. It’s still a valuable one. Our goal is to not jam a square peg in a round hole. We want this person to let their guard down and talk about a bit about their personal life. We are not here to judge their hobbies or interests, nor are we here to prod into their most intimate stories. We are here to experience their true personality and assess how it will mesh with the rest of the group.

Question: What do you value in a teammate?

Goal: If I am looking to join or expand an existing team, my primary focus is on growth – which I will touch on more in a minute. I value a teammate that is willing to learn, teach, and push the envelope. Narrow in on the culture you are looking to build within your team and look for those characteristics in their answer. If their values do not align with those of the greater purpose, they will not be a long-term fit.

Question: You’re stranded on an island and you need food, fire, and shelter to survive. Which one do you pursue first and why?

Goal: I poached this directly from our fearless leader, Joe Huber, because I think it exemplifies how people approach problem-solving through logic. There technically is no “correct” answer to the question, though Joe may argue otherwise (Editor’s note: he does, in fact, argue otherwise). This question is incredibly valuable because a good answer takes you on a journey through their thought process, puts creativity on display and quickly tells you whether or not they can hit a curveball. Some of the best answers I’ve heard are completely off the rails but result in a fun, creative answer that can really differentiate a candidate from others. I am certainly not going to weight this question higher than any others but if a candidate can show that their approach to problem-solving can provide a fresh alternative to the status quo, I consider that a huge plus.

Team building and growth

Even the most successful teams have room for improvement and can benefit from a “shakeup” every now and then. A “shake up” doesn’t always mean a change in headcount or personnel, though sometimes that may be necessary. In a data-driven world, success is often determined by metrics or KPI’s that can be quantified and reported upon. Tangible data is the easiest way to set a benchmark, creating a clearly defined goal and thus a target to aim for. Though quantifiable data may determine your fate, growth is often quite the opposite. Growth, when referring to “people”, is more qualitative and cannot be formally measured. Whether it’s a career-focused training course aimed at learning a new skill or an after-work happy hour with your co-workers, perceived value is subjective and varies from person to person.

At DialogTech, we have a $1000 yearly stipend toward continuing ed and personal development. Earlier this year, we took a Sales Engineer training course (as a team) and next week I am taking a communications course that will hopefully arm with me a new skill I can bring back to my teammates. Even if your company does not offer reimbursement for continuing education, there are plenty of free courses on a plethora of topics that can bring value to the team. On the other end of the spectrum, a few cocktails and some good conversation with fellow co-workers have done me more good than any million-dollar course ever could. It’s easy to get caught up in the day to day and forget that the person you sit next to is more than just an employee at Company XYZ. A simple gesture like inviting someone to join you for lunch can go a long way toward humanizing the work dynamic, allowing you to connect on a personal level which will result in a more cohesive work environment.

It is of utmost importance to occasionally sit back and take the temperature of the current state of affairs. If things are firing on all cylinders, try to understand why and note that for the future. If the engine is leaking oil, understand why and think creatively around how you go about fixing it.

Not every oil leak is created equal.

‘Team building’ is not a responsibility that applies solely to those who sit atop a departmental hierarchy. Team building is a challenge to each and every individual employee to better themselves and those around them. There will always be things that we cannot control but your personal development should never one of them. If you strive to get better as individual it will ultimately have a positive impact on the rest of your team. Every day is an opportunity to make an impact, big or small, that falls under the purview of team building.

Build them up. Build them out. Grow as an individual and as a group. Identify what works and try to make it better. Identify what doesn’t and try to change it. Ask pointed questions to prospective candidates that tease out the characteristics and values that are important to your team to ensure that they can make a positive impact right away. Challenge yourself to find ways to improve and inspire others to do the same.

Treat your team like you would your family. Not every day will be sunshine and rainbows but through commitment, respect, and outside the box thinking, you can build a team that is pretty spectacular.

Ryan Moline is one of the co-founders of the Chicago Customer Success Podcast. He is currently a Solutions Consultant with DialogTech.

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