I am not an Individual Contributor

Sorry its been so long since I’ve posted. The last year has been a wild ride and I either get distracted by other things that need doing, or I have time and can’t think of what to say. Today, I wrote something and posted it to a private Microsoft Teams channel and realized I wanted to make sure I had a copy elsewhere I could point folks at. So here you go…

I’ve been at Microsoft for nearly 7 years. During that time, I’ve largely been doing the same job… helping ISVs adopt Azure. I can remember talking with companies that would barely take a call or meeting with Microsoft who are now spending millions on Azure. But during that time there has always been one constant. I’ve never been alone.

At Microsoft I’m labelled an “Individual Contributor” or IC. I understand why, its simply a recognition of the fact that I don’t have others that I directly manage. But I’d like to make it clear, I’m not an individual, and any contributions I’m involved with are the product of a rich, and diverse group of people. People without whom this job would be impossible. I’m a Team Contributor. And its about teams that I would really like to talk to you today.

In my 25+ years career in IT, I’ve worked on teams. I’ve done stints as an independent freelance, but I always returned to the team environment. Its not because I’m highly social… I consider myself an introvert who would much rather be sitting at home playing video games, watching movies, or working on my car, then going out to social events. But I recognize that when it comes to my job, I enjoy it much more when I’m working with others.

A team, when its “firing on all cylinders”, is greater then simply the individuals that are a part of it. This is because as individuals, we’re only as strong as our weaknesses. And being a part of a team helps us collectively counter those weaknesses. But firing on all cylinders does require each member to be mindful of not only themselves, but those around them. As the great NBA coach Phil Jackson often says (I’m paraphrasing here), its about divorcing one’s self from ego, and putting the team above the individual.

As an introvert, I’ve learned to be mindful. I’m not always successful, there’s a rather dark period of my history here at Microsoft where I forgot this. A period I keep in my mind at all times so i can hopefully not forget to be mindful again. But I try, every day, to make sure I’m being mindful of not just my role, but the team members that surround me. I try to be mindful of who they are as human beings, to understand their situations. To understand what motivates and excites them. But most importantly, I’m mindful to make sure they remember they are a valuable part of a team.

This brings me to the real reason for this… how do we create a mindful team…

As this organization has grown and evolved over the years, I’ve seen small, tightly knit teams grow only to get broken up into smaller and more widely distributed groups. I’ve seen relationships… friendships formed between people… and seen work and life move them apart. But of the teams I’ve enjoyed being a part of the most, there’s has been a similar theme, a sense of belonging. This sense of belonging has extended to the various online communities I’ve been a part of over the past 20yrs. Its not dissimilar from the belonging we may feel for our favorite sports team. Or a fan community around books/movies. Its a banner we collectively rally around that brings us together and helps bond us for a singular purpose.

Unfortunately, being part of a team also has a downside. It means that you’re either “my team” or “not my team”. When this happens, we often view the people outside of our team as people to be avoided. We avoid interacting with them and in some cases actively work against them because we feel we need to compete or be better then them. This unfortunately is the ego trying to insert its influence and we again need to be mindful. The way to avoid the ego is actually pretty simple, its called understanding.

Understanding someone allows us to form relationships. We understand what that individual’s motives and background are. What perspective they bring. This helps us understand their value to the team. It helps us form a relationship with that individual and see how their success can lead to our own. Which of course leads to that person who is “not my team” becoming “my team”.

For some, this “just happens”. Which is great. But for others, they need some help. And this is where leaders come in. The greatest leaders in history… be they political, military, athletes, teaches (yes, they are leaders too), or the dreaded “people managers” have all shared one great trait. They have been able to help us rally around the banner, to come together for a common goal. To help us divorce ourselves from our own egos. If you look back over your own life, I’m sure you’ll find that some of the teams you enjoyed being a part of the most were the teams where you felt valued. A good leader will see the value in each individual but also helps the other members of the team see that value.

Now I was challenged a bit about these thoughts. It was pointed out that having a great team didn’t automatically mean that the team was successful. A team of turtles won’t win a marathon. So there is a need for talent. This is correct. But having a great team, one where everyone is happy and feeling valued makes it much easier to attract and retain this talent. A rabbit might join our team of turtles when he realizes that their strong shells would help protect him when hail falls. But unless he can see their value, and feel like he belongs, he might not stay around. So building that strong team relationship also helps the team grow more diverse and become even better.

Since we’ve been talking about turtles and rabbits (tortoises and hares), this should likely be ended with a moral of some kind. I guess the moral would be this…

As we all work away at our individual desks. perhaps in our home offices separated from our colleagues who are hundreds or perhaps thousands of miles away, keep in mind that we are all a part of the same team. If we each take steps to understand each other, to recognize that our diversity brings a multitude of different strengths to the team… we will create an inclusive culture at the core of our team. One where we all feel like we belong. And have a sense of pride in being part of the team. it will help our team grow, become even larger. And thus help us achieve even greater things in the future.

Thank you.

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