A Winning Formula for Building Successful Teams

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You need great teams in order to build great products. The way senior software engineer Rich Paret creates such teams at the Twitter-acquired Crashlytics — which provides mobile crash reporting — is to “hire for the culture you have, and the culture you want to have.”

The company culture at Crashlytics isn’t a collection of perks or a bunch of abstract values. It’s how people get stuff done together. When we visited Rich at Twitter Boston this past May, he emphasized how it’s the quality of a team’s communication that determines its outcomes.

How does a project become late?” he asked. As our minds ran through various scenarios and the complexities of managing a team, he broke our pondering pause with his simple answer — “Day by day.” Just as you can build meaningful progress day by day, you can also increasingly get off track to the point of failure. Communication losses accumulate, a slow but steady snowball, as the days roll by, when you’re not careful.

Consider the distribution and flow of information within a company. Too often knowledge is guarded amongst the people at the top, or cooped up in people’s heads, or trapped in silos. What happens then? As Rich puts it, islands of information” emerge. When different people know different pieces of information, it becomes progressively harder to reach across the waters just to know where the puzzle pieces are, let alone put the puzzle together.

One approach to avoiding islands and fostering a bridging, communicative culture is to hire smart and work smart. When you align people and process, you ultimately create strong values, culture, and behaviors.  Here’s a look at Rich’s formula for building awesome teams and in doing so, awesome company culture:

1. Balance collaboration and self-direction.

First, find people who can both work autonomously and with other people — which goes against the conventional hiring wisdom of giving immediate precedence to skills. Rich explains, “I want to work with people who are collaborative. That has not a lot to do with their skills. It has much more to do with their behaviors.

“There’s plenty of people who are self-directed but can’t work with other people. Self-direction is good, and being able to work with other people is good. You need them in balance.”

2. Attitude, aptitude, and then skillset.

Look at attitude, aptitude, and skill set — and in that order. Rich reasons, “Attitude and aptitude are fundamental to your approach to work. Generally speaking these don’t change that much over time, whereas your skill set, especially considering engineers, is always changing. If we were just hiring based on the hottest skills, you might get the right person for your company but it’s really more of a gamble.”

If you find the right match in all respects except skills, chances are you can create the perfect fit. “If you prize people that are adaptable, you can train them up in a very short period. Then you have somebody that’s a great culture fit that understands the mission, works really hard, is easy to get along with, and you enjoy working with them — and they have the skills.”

3. Provide the right tools that move the needle.

As a manager, you oil the wheels of communication by providing the right tools to set your team into motion — instead of having to stop and spend time dictating rules and specific tasks at every turn. Rich puts the same thoughtfulness into choosing the right tools as he does his people, guided by the question of: is this tool moving the needle?

Needle-moving tools are what help launch you to the next level. As Rich points out, “You can go a long way with top-down direction, but eventually you’re going to hit the scalability wall. If you have an organization with even a couple hundred people, it becomes really hard as a manager to be in touch and make sure that everyone’s on the same page.

“If your goal is to build something big, you have to build in the tools for people to be able to self-orient inside the company relative to what they’re working on, what their peers are working on, what their customers are saying, what the marketplace is doing. The earlier you can build those tools, the further you can scale.”

4. Check in to see if something needs a tune-up.

The constant quest to do better means you have to check in to see how things are going. Just as management consultant Anne Libby advises people learning how to manage to ask, “What could I have done differently?” when things don’t turn out well, Rich recommends some reflective analysis to make sure you’re getting company culture right.

When you’ve selected for those strong attributes of attitude, aptitude, and skillset and set the right parameters and tools to operate, “the behavior you want to see will be emergent. And if they’re not emergent, then you have to go look and say, ‘Did we hire the right people? Do we have the right tools? Did we set the right expectations?’”

How do you build strong teams? Share with us in the comments.

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image: Mark Lehigh/Flickr