Team vs. family

Oct 30, 2017

The concept of a work family is nice. The problem is, you’re stuck with family, good or bad. With a team, you can pick and choose.

On many occasions, we’ve heard office culture described as a family. This sounds like a great concept to embrace. But is it really the best thing for our companies?

In most places, a family represents a unit where there is unconditional love, unconditional understanding, and no sin so great that one would be excommunicated. Even if our family member is in jail for a heinous crime, they’re still our blood relatives. They’re still family.

In contrast, a team is built to achieve a desired outcome, and with that outcome, we have expectations that must be filled in order to remain a member of the team. Teams must always be looking to find key additions, make timely subtractions, and know when to make substitutions in order to increase performance. Families don’t work that way.

Do you remember the name of the player that Kevin Durant replaced when he joined the Golden State Warriors? Who cares? That wasn’t the point of the hire. The point was to make the Golden State Warriors better. Do you think the rest of the Warriors sat around bemoaning the loss of a mediocre power forward, or did they perk up with the prospect of a selfless league MVP joining their starting lineup?

Just because you’re on the team today, does not guarantee you’ll be a team member tomorrow. Like athletes, we live in a “what have you done lately” world. A-plus effort with B-minus results is not commendable. It’s not how we build a business. A-plus effort is nice, but you must get A-level results to build. Nobody gets credit for time in the seat or the effort generated; they get credit for results.

When we have managers start thinking that every new hire or every team member is part of an idealized family, they are loathe to upgrade the parts of their team that must be upgraded in order to generate A-level results. They will make additions, sure. But they’ll never make subtractions or substitutions on their teams without a knock-down, drag-out fight. This will surely lead to atrophy on the team. Or, as is common in our industry, it will lead to the principals and PMs having to do even more heavy lifting than they already do to get the necessary results. Stagnation will result.

What else will happen to this team? The stars won’t work as hard and will generate fewer positive results because they’ll play to the lowest common denominator. Eventually the stars will leave for a competitor or to start their own firm. Then what’s left? Maybe you’d have a burnt-out principal and team members nobody else would hire. Then you’d see a degree of negativity start to creep out past the borders of the immediate team and into the office, or even the firm. Then, over time, you’ll find the entire organization is mired in mediocrity.

Netflix has a great litmus test that may seem very aggressive for a conservative industry like architecture and engineering. Managers at Netflix must answer the question, “If this person tried to resign, how hard would I fight to keep them?” If the answer to that question for any given team member is that you would not fight that hard, or not fight at all, then you have some room to improve that team.

As leaders, we are obligated to the firm, not to the employment of any one individual. That sentiment goes straight to the top of the organization chart. If the CEO is falling asleep on the job, then the board needs to act swiftly to find a new general, because the troops will notice. They will lose faith in their leadership, and they will go to work for a competitor.

It’s tough managing a team of A-players. They need to be fed; they are demanding. Do you think Kevin Durant is not demanding of his coaches and teammates? Hell yes he is! We need to feed these stars with more responsibility, more training opportunities, and more chances to demonstrate and exhibit their leadership. Ultimately we need to feed them with the chance to be part of our ownership ranks. And we need to feed them by surrounding them with other A-players.

We cannot expect the stars that we’re fortunate enough to have to continue to perform at that level if we surround them with B- and C-players. The task is a huge one, no doubt. We’re in an industry with a shortage of prospective talent to begin with, and then we must apply a filter to find A-players. Yes. We. Do.

Will Schnier is CEO of BIG RED DOG Engineering & Consulting. He can be reached at

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Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.