Last Word: The “I” in Team, Redux
Original title: Taking one for the team, Lexpert, February 2009
By Marzena Czarnecka
I am not a team player.
I realize I’ve blighted my future employment chances. Should I ever come to you, crisp resume in hand, bank account in the red and head bowed in contrition, begging—um, applying—for a job, you won’t even deign to read the incredibly creative and downright hilarious cover letter. No, you will remember this moment—“Not a team player!”—and toss my app in the recycling bin.
Now, this is not a new epiphany for me—I knew perfectly well that I wasn’t a team player the first time I was forced to work on a group project in grade school and was faced with the choice of carrying the load for my incompetent—um, intellectually challenged? or just plain lazy?—classmates or getting a crappy grade. To a grade-focused over-achiever there really wasn’t a choice. So we all got an A+—the only one Todd and Mike ever got, I bet—and I got a note on my report card to the effect that I played well with others. It’s a lie. (But one that’s followed me most of my academic and professional life… until now.)
Team players are on my mind today because oil’s just dropped again, Canadian and US job loss stats are icky, and people are increasingly using the “R” word. In the context of the “R” word and the spectre of lower-than-expected firm profitability and thus a substantial impact on the piece of the profit pie partners across Canada will be splitting in 2009, I’ve just had a chat with a superstar who was throwing team talk at me. All lies, of course—I know her like she knows me, and she may pepper her conversation with words like “team,” “pulling together,” “sharing the pain” etc. but she’s really full of naked ambition, overflowing with competence and will make no sacrifices for the sake of some bumbling “team” member … unless, in the final analysis, she sees it serving some higher purpose (i.e. furthering her own career, goals, and overall well-being). (“The firm just couldn’t afford me. It was better for the team that I go elsewhere.” Yeah.)
This gal—you probably know one just like her—is quite frequently mistaken for a team player. The best of the superstars often are, because they’re quick to realize, one, that they need to pull the rest of the team along in order to get to their own goals, and two, that the team lingo sells well and is positively correlated with their performance reviews and associated financial and other rewards. In many cases, they’ve been doing both of these things for so long, they’ve completely internalized them. They haven’t just fooled their superiors and colleagues into thinking they’re team players, they’ve come to believe it themselves. (The indoctrination starts early. My three-year-old wanders around the house singing, “What’s going to work? Team work!” courtesy of some children’s tv show. I let her. She’s got my genes; her own unwelcome epiphany will come soon enough.)
I feel you wriggling uncomfortably. Odds are, your law firm or corporation is all about team work. You might even have team leaders instead of department heads. You may have even told me, on more than one occasion, that “our firm really strives to work as an inter-office, inter-department team.”
You’ve probably also added, “I know all firms say that, but we really do,” and you may have even believed it. After all, have not all the savviest analysts been talking about hive—er, I mean team—“mind” as one of the key differentiating factors between top tier, institutional firms and the ones that are really just a collection of self-centred individuals who happen to pool together on office space? Isn’t one of the defining features of the firms that have risen to the top in recent years an emphasis on team work, firm-first behaviour, and otherwise harnessing the power of the individual and the superstar to work cooperatively, uniformly for the greater good of the firm and its collective members? And isn’t it this sense of team, firm cohesiveness, and brotherly and sisterly love precisely the thing that’s going to help us all weather the “R” word? (Fattened on the lengthy upswing, I have a hard time writing it in full. Rece… no, I can’t do it. It seems so darn vulgar.)
Do you believe in brotherly love seeing your firm through the lean times? Yeah, didn’t think so. The way most law firms practice and understand team work works just fine when clients are throwing buckets of money at you, there be plenty of work, and, come split time, the cold, shiny stuff, to satisfy the top performers, the middle of the bell curve, and carry the deadwood. Come a slow down, a down turn or the “R” thing, the model will fall apart. The cracks are already apparent in some formerly team-speaking firms, and there will be in-fighting, ship jumping, and all manner of unsportmanlike behaviour.
Marzena Czarnecka lives and writes in Calgary, where she occasionally plays well with others, but only when it fits in with her own nefarious schemes.