One of Ockam's core values is that we are a High Performance Team. Just like open source software builds on top of the shoulders of giants, so do our ideas around team building. Specifically about building a High Performance Team.
I grew up outside of Detroit when Bo Schembechler was head football coach of the University of Michigan Wolverines - what would eventually become my alma matter. Coach Bo retired in 1989 with over 200 wins and 13 Big Ten championships. He was a builder of high performance teams.
There’s a Bo Schembechler speech that inspired our approach to high performance teams:
“We’re going to win this as a team. They can throw out their great backs and great quarterbacks and great defensive players. There’s going to be one team that plays solely as a team. No man is more important than The Team. No coach is more important than The Team.
The team, The Team, The Team.
And if we think that way, all of us, everything that you do, you take into consideration ‘what effect does it have on my team?’
You can go into professional football, you can go anywhere you want to play after you play here. You will never play for a team again. You’ll play for a contract. You’ll play for this, you’ll play for that. You’ll play for everything except The Team.
Think what a great thing it is. You’ll be a part of something that is a team. We’re doing to win it. We’re going to win the championship again. And we’re going to play as a team. Better than anybody else in this conference, we’re going to play together as a team. We’re going to believe in each other, we aren’t going to criticize each other, we aren’t going to talk about each other. We’re going to encourage each other.
When we play as a team and the old season is over, you and I both know, it’s going to be Michigan again. Michigan.” Bo Schembechler, 1983
His mantra about “The Team, The Team, The Team” informed my earliest ideas of group performance. Over the years, I’ve noticed there are more similarities than differences between the best sports teams and the best companies. To achieve high performance, at any level, requires operating as a team.
In the rest of this talk, I’ll share the elements of a high performance team and the group mindset required to make one.
Winning is a destination. I also like to call winning 'a dream with a deadline.'
Winning needs to be defined. Everyone on The Team needs to know what winning means for The Team.
For example. When we published the Zero to IPO framework on this blog, a lot of people said, “whoa, whoa, whoa!” They thought we were way too early to talk about where the company is going. I disagree.
Our entire team wants Ockam to become a publicly traded company. We look to companies like Okta, Cloudflare, Snowflake who have come before us. These companies democratize complex internet infrastructure - at massive scale- just as The Ockam Team intends to do.
Whether you are dealing with a sports team or a company team, there are a stack of skills that define the focus. Within those, there’s a normal distribution. Many teams and companies can do quite well just by showing up. I'd argue that if you have a functional team that can 'show up' you probably can be an average team. If you add some self management you can probably get outside of one standard deviation from the mean. You probably get out to two standard deviations with great leadership traits across The Team.
We don’t want to be average, somewhat-better than average, or even much-better than average. We are in the game to be the absolute best. Maybe the best - ever.
It’s not enough to declare “we’re a high performance team.” In fact, it’s a rare thing to experience. Coach Schembechler knew this when he told his players 'they may never, really, play for a team again'. A high performance team is an aspiration, a process and something that doesn't happen by accident.
Let's break this down further:
At the basic level, a team must show up. Individuals show up. Everybody delivers on time. There's an abundance of opinions and fixed mindsets. Congratulations. You and your team are average - you showed up.
Let's now layer in some management. If you add organizational rigor, some well tested MBA-style process, and even forecast and measure your key performance indicators - you can break away from the mean. This is actually a pretty difficult step. Just look at all of the time and energy organizations put into mastering this step.
To be the best, we need to do more.
Leadership is where we start to see empowerment across the organization. When The Team has a common vision, and the mission of The Team inspires everyones actions - all the time - then you have great leadership.
Real leadership is about everyone - not just the CEO, and executive, or a manager.
Think of a baseball team.
There is no organizational structure to the players spread out across the field. There are nine world-class people that specialize in nine specific roles. When there’s a fly ball to left field, one person is responsible for the outcome: the left fielder. When the pitcher holds the ball on the mound, he’s in charge of what happens next. A center fielder might specialize in producing hits or even home runs.
Each player on The Ockam Team plays a critical role - not one is more important than the other on a High Performance Team. For The Team to win The Team needs everyone to both lead and to be excellent at their role.
Leaders put The Team First
Netflix has a coaching documentary, The Playbook, that brought this lesson into clarity for me. The first episode kicks off with a quote from championship coach Doc Rivers. I’m in violent agreement with it. Like the quote from Bo Schembechler, it makes clear the priority you must set to become a high performance team:
“Every time I walk in the locker room for the first time I tell my players, every year and I’ve told them for 21 years: ‘I’m Doc Rivers, and I’m human, and I’m going to make mistakes. Having said that, every decision I make will be about what’s good for The Team. And that may not be what’s good for you. Or me. But if it’s good for The Team, it’s good.’” Doc Rivers
In my role as the CEO at Ockam, my job is to make decisions that are good for The Team. Full stop. That's it. That's what I do here.
The Team, The Team, The Team.
There is a common state of Trust across a High Performance Team. They believe in each other, to be responsible and accountable for their area of expertise. Being on a team like this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. This is the rarified air; When everyone is focused on winning - as a team - you have Ubuntu.
One element that we’ve brought into our high performance team is “Ubuntu.” Those of us that build with open source software, might immediately think of the open source Linux operating system distribution when we hear "Ubuntu". However the origin of the word comes from South Africa
It’s hard to express in English, but here’s how Archbishop Desmond Tutu explains it:
“Ubuntu is the essence of being human. It says a solitary human being is a contraction in terms. I have to learn from other human beings how to be human.”
It turns out it also played an important role for Doc Rivers. He realized;
I can’t be all I can be unless you are all you can be. I can never be threatened by you because you’re good. Because the better you are, the better I am.” ~ Doc Rivers
The season that Doc Rivers introduced Ubuntu at the Celtics, they went onto win the NBA championship - as a High Performance Team.
To me, Ubuntu transcends culture, politics, and sports. It's a philosophy for high performance. I’d venture that every winning team lives Ubuntu, even if they didn’t have the word specifically.
Compare that to the classic company approach where you’re given a new role and then someone says, “we’ll see how you do.” That’s not empowering! Empowerment is a prerequisite for a high performance team. The better you are, the better I am, and vice-versa.
High performance team members each bring their best to every day, every single meeting, every single pull request. As The Team grows and scales out, everyone is a leader, the captain of their role. The only way to grow excellent team members is to be an excellent team member. Even our youngest, newest members have responsibilities that place them at the top of the org chart. This is because the high performance team org chart actually has a graph relationships - with everyone at the top of the org chart from the perspective of their role on the team.
At Ockam we aim to empower everyone to be excellent in their role. Everyone puts the needs of The Team ahead of themselves. Everyone knows what winning looks like. And everyone helps one another to be the best that they can be. In fact, the most high performance people on The Team figure out how to enable others to be better than they could imagine for themselves.
You may only experience it once in your career, but you owe it to yourself, and those who work alongside you, to reach for the ideals of a high performance team.