• Ashley Ward

Individual Strengths...One Team

When was the last time you thought, really thought, about the word teamwork and what it means to you? The first image that comes to my mind is a crew team. I connect to this image in a personal way because rowing largely defined my high school life. I loved the camaraderie, the hard work, the unity I felt with my boat, and the whole team, and I was drawn to the culture of being a rower.

Looking back, we felt like we were a different type of athlete because we boarded a bus each afternoon, starting in early spring, for the trek down to the Potomac River in Washington, DC. Then we endured three hours of grueling practice which included an hour of actual rowing on the water and an hour of stretching, weight training and cardio (running along the National Mall or climbing the “Exorcist” stairs in Georgetown – yes, the ones in the actual movie). The most dreaded days were when we had erg tests to determine which boat you rowed in. An erg is a rowing machine you see in many gyms but to a rower it’s a monster that will test your will, eat you alive, spit you up and crush your spirit, if you let it. We also spent time taking care of the equipment, watching our teammates practice, cheering on the erg testers, studying and hanging out in tight circles to keep each other warm on cold spring days. We were a tribe and all rowers belonged.

We also had our fair share of fun, mostly reserved for Fridays when we would start our run and head straight to Georgetown Bagel for “fuel.” I can still taste the fresh cinnamon raisin bagels – yum! On warmer days we would dare each other to jump in the Potomac River or push in unsuspecting teammates, when our coaches weren’t looking of course. A favorite ritual were team dinners on Friday nights before Saturday regattas. We would gather at someone’s house, whose parents had lovingly prepared vats of pasta, and we would joke, laugh and tease one another because we were teammates and that’s what you do. We would also talk seriously about our goals for the race, we would visualize winning and what it would feel like, long before “visualizing” was a thing!

I sincerely loved every part of it…the routine, the rituals, the exhausting workouts, the fear, the adrenaline rush and most of all, the sense of belonging. You were especially tight with your boat and there was a sense of unity among the entire team because we felt connected to one another in ways that extended beyond cliques and clubs within the walls of our high school. We knew we were a part of something special since, like all teenagers, we were struggling to figure out where we fit in. On the crew team, everyone belonged and we were unified by our love of the sport.

Ideally, this is what you want for your team at work, right? As a leader, one of your main responsibilities is to inspire and motivate your people to rally around the mission of the organization and their colleagues. You seek out people who are passionate about the work your organization does and are clear and uncompromising about your “why.” You lead team meetings to brainstorm, share ideas and generate new projects that enhance the mission. You want the group to work collaboratively and to complement one another. No small task…

When a group of people who work together share a commitment to a mission and feel part of the team…magic happens. It’s what you hope for and work towards when hiring and selecting people for promotions. You want your team members to know their own “why” and what motivates them to action. You develop a group of people who have diverse skill sets and perspectives so you have an assortment of strengths to draw upon, making the team nimble and versatile.

Physical strength and technique are required to row a boat in a straight line. Then there is the coxswain, the boss of the boat. She has an entirely different set of skills. She has to maintain a strict weight to remain eligible for the seat. Instead of using physical strength, she has to use mental strength. She has to be strategic in how she steers the boat, how she responds to each pull of the oar by her rowers all while using her voice and passion to motivate each person.

A deft application of skill and style promotes teamwork and it does not happen by accident. It takes hours and hours of practice, careful planning, hard work, trial and failure, heartfelt conversations about what is working and what is not. It takes courage to be honest with your teammates. It takes vulnerability to admit when you didn’t give it your all or maybe your all was pointed in the wrong direction. Strong and effective teams realize how much time, effort, energy, transparency and consistency it takes to maximize efforts. And, you have to account for the unexpected that will come along, the choppy waters that await. Teams prepare for bad weather and have contingency plans. This is why it’s essential for teams to set goals and have ongoing discussions around how they will work together. A team’s engagement and motivation depend on it and it’s time well spent because the stronger and more in tune the team is with one another, the more efficiently they will operate – independently and collectively.

I invite you to reflect on your view of teamwork and to ponder the following questions:

  • What is your definition of teamwork?

  • What is one of your fondest memories of being on a team and what did that teach you about teamwork?What qualities are essential to having an effective team?

  • How strong is your team?

  • How much stronger could it be?

  • What is your role on your team?

  • When was the last time your team discussed the strengths of all team members?

  • What can you do to further leverage the diverse skills of the team?

  • What is your team’s capacity to be vulnerable with one another?

  • Where would you like to see your team grow?

  • Where do you want to grow to help your team be more effective?