Thursday, April 13, 2017

Team Player or Individual Contributor?

When those of us in the nonprofit world go to hire folks, one of the tired and true interview questions is always, "Are you a team player?". I'm not convinced this is the BEST attribute we should be looking for in a future employee. Yes, it's important to play well with others, but in this surge for everyone to do collaborative work, I believe that we may have lost sight of the value of a strong individual contributor. These high performing employees can take a project from strategy through execution and do it well. I think we devalue this skill set. I may be speaking from a point of personal bias here as I firmly believe I am a strong individual contributor and even though I know how to lead a team of performers, sometimes I prefer to do the work myself.

Have you ever found yourself in a meeting discussing implementation and thought, "by the time this meeting is over I could have completed what we've been discussing for an hour now". There's a great meme that has a photo of a ribbon that says "I survived another meeting that should have been an email." I chuckle every time I see it. The hollow truth is that while we value consensus and everyone having a voice, at a certain point, the work has to get done. I'm a get it done kind of girl, I know there are others out there too. I'm the one who doesn't have an MBA for one specific reason (read group work). :)

They say in fundraising there's an 80/20 rule, that 80% of the money comes from 20% of the donors. I have my own 80/20 rule for working and implementation and its one that may strike home for you too. 80 percent of the work gets done by 20 percent of the employees. Some of you might be miffed by this, but I find it wherever I go. If you find yourself toiling as someone gleefully walks out the door to happy hour, ask yourself what's wrong with this picture? This happened to me a few jobs ago when I was building board books for Trustees. A "teammate" walked by and said "better you than me" then she cackled (the cackle may be a bit of a miffed exaggeration but you get the gist). I never looked at her the same way again.

If you're an individual contributor, meetings are the bane of your existence. You see right through the renaming of committees into "task forces". When you receive a meeting request, you wonder immediately what the outcomes will be. After the meeting you're looking for the next steps and action items. The question remains, can you be a bit of both? Of course you can, the choice is not one or the other, it's not that easy. It's about what you prefer. If this is obvious for you- then what is the solution? We must value both team players and also individual contributors. We need to encourage second level proactive thought and problem solving. It's ok to have independent ideas and be able to implement and execute without getting consensus. We have to value each contributor both of parts and the whole in order to recognize success. Also we need to hire both types of professionals, those who love group work and those who thrive flying solo.

Do you see this manifest itself in your shop? If so how? Which one do you identify as? I would love to hear your commentary below!



  1. Lynne -- Maybe the team player question should be supplanted by the following, "are you capable of working both with a team and independently?" To which the interviewee will no doubt answer "yes." And then the follow-up would be "can you define under which circumstances you find being a team player to be most valuable to the organization and when being an independent player is most valuable? And give some examples of when you’ve been either or both.” The answers to this should help the hiring manager determine what type of worker they are interviewing.
    To my mind, the best employee is a combo platter to some degree. They’re present when you need their help for the all-hands-on-deck projects and they’re willing to step up to take on the initiatives that require solo attention (freeing the rest of the team to do other things). Because in the end there are those team player moments, no matter what your title, that happen outside of meetings – when we’re all stuffing invitation envelopes, or staffing a gala, or brainstorming ideas for the next alumni magazine – and as managers we want to find people who will be there for those moments to support the rest of the staff. And we want the individual contributors, too, who reliably can take on something, start to finish, and make it a success. Is everyone a combo platter? No. And that’s okay. Both types of employees are integral to the success of an organization. Finding the ones who are flexible enough to dance – to be the team player when needed and then to step up when needed – that’s gold.

  2. Get out of my brain Lynne! You made me laugh, as you always do, and reflect on how I often have similar feelings. I do value the collaborative process and engaging team members, but it does take at least one (hopefully more) team member to help with accountability and ensure that process does not overtake progress. I think that it is difficult to "teach or coach" someone to work independently, but I have found you can "coach" someone to work defectively in teams.

  3. Love the combo platter Roberta!! Thank you so much for this valuable commentary!! And for the record I'm an envelope stuffing queen! Lmao

  4. I think most of the gold here has risen to the top! Visionaries must be both types of people. Great at getting the work done solo and also stimulating the team to excel in their efforts and labor of love. PS: I work with a 100% volunteer team of great people. If we have slackers they just aren't able to keep up with the rest of this amazing team of volunteers. Adding "value" and "recognition" to the team work does incredible positive influence; bringing the GOLD to each event where team means "DREAM.....with us." Thank you Roberta; I stole your word "gold". I love it!! Great thinking in this post!

  5. Lynne,

    You post today reminds me of an article "Meeting Malpractice" I read several years ago and in which I find solace upon experiencing yet another unproductive meeting - it gives me comfort to know I'm not alone!

  6. I recently found myself in 9 months worth of meetings only to have the decision made that we will proceed in the manner I told them we should 9 months ago! I know exactly what you mean. I agree its important to be both. In my example, I could have implemented the plan and saved tons of time had I been able to proceed on my own, but I like to be a team player as well. I have been the one strolling out the door too, but instead of cackling I always make sure to check in with my colleague before walking out the door. There is nothing more frustrating than working until 7pm knowing everyone else has gone home. Everyone can use a little help now and then. Thanks for this post!