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How Spartan Is Your Team?

“This is my shield. I bear it before me into battle, but it is not mine alone. It protects my brother on my left. It protects my city. I will never let my brother out of its shadow, nor my city out of its shelter. I will die with my shield before me facing the enemy.” ~Spartan Creed

Few militaries in history are more revered than the mighty Spartan army.

Spartans made an art form of the Greek phalanx, a rectangular fighting formation that relied heavily on teamwork. Warriors packed in tightly and linked shields. A Spartan’s priority was protecting the man to his left with his shield. He attacked after the man to his left was secure.

Commanders arranged formations with family and friends adjacent to each other. This pairing of small, familiar teams assured that soldiers would prioritize the unit’s security over personal welfare.

And the aspis, a bronze circular shield, was revered by Spartan culture. The shield was more than a piece of military equipment; it was a deeply symbolic part of a Spartan’s identity. Spartans expected their warriors to “return with their shield or on it.” Those who lost their shield in battle were not welcomed back.

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An attacking Spartan fought with the utmost confidence, knowing his comrade’s shield would protect him. That conviction is why many consider the Spartans among the fiercest fighting militaries in recorded history.

How Spartan is your team?

The Spartan fighting style relied on trust. If even one soldier believed the man to his side was selfish, the phalanx broke down.

Each man believed that his teammate would block every sword stroke, spear thrust, or arrow. So they learned each other’s fighting styles and adapted their approach to synch with their comrades.

Many of these principles of trust apply to modern business teams.

As a rookie sales rep at a Fortune 500 company, I was paired with a field engineer who was not popular with my sales peers. He could be abrasive and rubbed some customers the wrong way.

But I was far from an ideal teammate myself. I was inexperienced and often underestimated the scope of my jobs. This put pressure on our engineers to rush through assignments.

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On several occasions, my partner offended customers with his blunt communication style. Each time I covered for him and smoothed over the relationship. Over time, he learned to let me do most of the talking, even asking me to reply directly to customer email requests.

In return, he covered up my estimating mistakes. Rather than show me up and complain to his manager, he found ways to make marginal deals work. I learned to involve him more in the quote process rather than shooting first and aiming later.

We were flawed as individuals, but we made a solid team. He knew my strengths and weaknesses, and I knew his. We knew how the other was measured and regularly put aside our individual needs to make the other look good.

A group that trusts each other and works for a common goal will beat a more talented but selfish team any day. So let’s look at three steps any manager can take to build a Spartan squad.

1. Focus on connections when you onboard a new employee

There might be 3-5 key people to the success of every individual in a company.

For example, a salesperson might rely on a project manager, sales assistant, costing manager, warehouse supervisor, and lender. Therefore, the relationships with these five individuals heavily influence the success of this salesperson.

So why not make it as simple as possible to connect with those folks from the start? On your new hire’s first day, list the names of the key people in their internal network.

Ask them to meet one-on-one with these teammates within two weeks of starting, and help them with a list of questions to ask in that conversation.

  • “How can I make you more successful in your role?”
  • “What are the attributes of the best people in my role?”
  • “What do people in my role do that frustrate you?”
  • “What goals do we have that overlap?”
  • “What individual metrics might put us at odds?”

Managers should follow-up to see what this new hire learned and share their personal experiences.

2. Make your team walk in each other’s shoes

Are your departments at odds with each other?

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Friction is not uncommon between departments. Engineers might be frustrated with the purchasing department. Operations could think the sales team is setting them up for failure. Maybe your whole company hates the IT Department.

The more defined your company’s roles, the more likely the disputes. But what is at the heart of this chafing? In most cases, departments have a fundamental misunderstanding of their peers’ challenges.

Most units underestimate the difficulty of their teammates’ roles. And few departments think they have it easier than any other. More empathy might benefit all departments. Ask each team member to spend a few days in the field with their counterparts.

Do you have a project manager always complaining about the sales team? Make him go on some sales calls and interact directly with customers. Or make that rogue salesperson manage one of his projects. How different would our opinion be if we had to take calls at the IT desk for a day?

3. Consider joint goals

For a Spartan hoplite, keeping his teammate alive was a selfish goal. Should the man next to him fall, his life was in jeopardy. The stakes might not be the same in business, but the concept of shared metrics applies.

If you have a marketing team overly focused on generating weak leads, tie them to their sales team by adding direct sales metrics. Or, if your sales team is setting up your operations team for margin erosion, you can tie some bonus to profit.

Whether your shared metrics are monetary or key result areas for ranking, you signal that teamwork is essential to your organization.

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A Team United

The key ingredient in successful companies is a group of people working together on a joint mission. Divided teams lose to less talented but cohesive ones.

But this doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Building a close-knit team requires a conscious leadership approach and is especially important in growing organizations.

Just as the shield symbolized Spartan culture, make teamwork the driving behavior you expect from every employee.

“I fear neither battle nor death, but I fear the day you are not by my side.”

~ Lycurgus of Sparta


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