Jan 4 2024

Family vs. Team?

I used to describe our culture and our employees and our leaders at Return Path as a family.

That was a mistake. It was just plain wrong. It served us well in some respects, but it bit us in the ass on others.

Great groupings of people at work are teams, not families. You can have a highly functional family. But you don’t have high performing families. Work teams need to be high performing.

Here’s what I mean.

The family metaphor worked well at Return Path around the principles of caring for people and lifting each other up. Those elements of a culture are absolutely critical. I don’t regret them for a minute.

But the downside of that metaphor is that families by definition stay families. Sure, spouses can get divorced, but usually not after years of trying to make it work. And kids and parents can’t stop being relatives. Families also don’t typically have metrics and have a structural impetus to improve how they relate to each other, or to some kind of tangible output.

The practical problem with the family metaphor comes down to holding on to people too long when those people aren’t performing well. While I am a big believer that past high performance is both an indicator of future high performance and earns you as an employee a little extra grace when something goes wrong, those things can’t be absolute in business, and they have a clock on them. High performing businesses go the extra mile for their people when their people are going through a rough patch in their lives, and they should be willing to invest in coaching and development when their people need a boost or some kind of corrective action. But not indefinitely.

So even with all the caring and lifting each other up…the family is just the wrong metaphor for a business.

Here’s why the team is the right one, and I’ll use the language of sports teams here a bit more than I normally do.

Teams train together. They have a common goal, which is winning. They know that they are only as good as their weakest link. They have leaders like coaches, managers, GMs, and captains, who they look to for guidance and direction. They are disappointed when they fall short of their goals.

But — and this is the critical learning — the best teams, the highest performing teams in the world, don’t only focus on performance, metrics, and improvement. They care about their people and lift them up. Sure, there are winning teams with tyrannical bosses like the 1970s Yankees. But would you have rather been on one of the George Steinbrenner/Billy Martin teams, or worked for Joe Torre or even Joe Girardi?

The best groupings of people at work are high performing teams…AND they care about each other as people. They just don’t care about each other as people to the detriment of the team, at least not longer than a very brief cure period would allow when something goes sideways.

You can lead your organization to have the orientation of a team, with some of the best elements of families. But not the other way around.