Building a Championship Team

I take team-building very seriously: in the recreational sports world, poor teams lose and members go home without championships; in the business world, poor teams are weak links that can bring down organizations and cost people their livelihood – there’s a lot riding on doing it right.

Some months ago I read a post on LinkedIn called 8 Tips to Building a Championship Team, written by Rajat Taneja.  When I read a post like this, I usually do so with a couple of questions in mind:

  • Do the author’s experiences mirror my own?
  • Is there something that I haven’t considered before?
  • Where do I agree or disagree?

For the benefit of readers who don’t know me personally, here is the context from which I approach the subject of building a team.  My first significant experience doing so began in the fall of 2006 when I created a futsal team to enter in a local league.  At that point, my primary concerns were getting enough people to field a squad, and having a balanced roster (in that order).  The season went well: we dominated the First Division and earned promotion to Premier.

Fresh off this confidence-boosting inaugural go-around, I set the club’s sights on an outdoor league and officially registered the club with the Ontario Soccer Association.  The challenges I faced in building the soccer team were basically the same as in building the futsal team, with two small differences: first, we had a group of guys already from futsal, so this was an extension/expansion operation; second, the scale was larger (bigger roster, more expenses, etc.).  If I’m remembering correctly, we had no wins and three draws that season and finished tied for last in the league; however, we experienced the highlight of knocking off the league champions during the subsequent League Cup.  So a mixed bag.

Between 2006 and 2012 (when, needing a break, I stepped down as club President and General Manager) the club expanded into multiple teams in multiple leagues, and took home ten separate championships.  At present, there are two outdoor (summer) soccer teams and two indoor (winter) futsal teams that are descendants/incarnations of that first futsal squad, with all four competing in their respective leagues’ highest divisions.

By the time I was promoted into a position of formal authority in my professional (non-soccer) career, I’d accumulated four years of experience managing a successful soccer club that at its peak (in terms of membership) contained six teams and 50-60 members.

In a professional capacity, for the last two years I’ve managed a team of between five and seven people.  While the environment is different, I’m able to apply the lessons learned (many of them learned the hard way) by building and running Fusion FC.

I take team-building very seriously: in the recreational sports world, poor teams lose and members go home without championships; in the business world, poor teams are weak links that can bring down organizations and cost people their livelihood – there’s a lot riding on doing it right.

For me, building a championship team comes down to getting a number of things right:

  • Vision
  • Recruitment
  • Diversity
  • Redundancy
  • Retention
  • Goals and Metrics
  • Succession Planning

Some of those overlap a little bit, as we’ll see below.

Vision

I believe that an effective team begins with a vision: What does your team look like?  What parts does it have?  How do those parts fit together?  What do you stand for?  Perhaps most importantly, why does your team exist?  In the case of Fusion FC, I started the club so that my friends and I could play a high level of soccer together while competing for championships.

Critically, a vision need not be static, so don’t be afraid to examine it every now and again.

A vision could also closely relate to a goal: where do you see the team in a few years?  When I started Fusion FC, I set a five-year goal to win the Interleague Cup (basically a local version of a Champions League).  It was ambitious, yet achievable.  Reaching it required a few steps: gain promotion to the Premier Division, qualify for the tournament by finishing in the top half of the table, then win the thing.  This vision for the future helped to direct the club’s evolution and reminded everyone that we were striving towards something, together.

Recruitment

Building a high-quality team takes dedication and thought, and ensuring that the quality is maintained or grows requires an ongoing commitment.  You must always expend conscious effort to seek out and familiarize yourself with potential recruits.  For me, the serious focus on forming a roster took place 3-4 months before a season kicked off, because good players and people have options.  Squads who only actively recruit in the immediate lead-up to a season ended up fielding short, imbalanced rosters.  During the outdoor season, I’d be thinking forward to the indoor roster and keeping eyes and ears open, and during the indoor season I’d be thinking about the outdoor roster.

To recruit effectively, you need to know your team’s identity, as that lets you determine who you want.  The team dynamic is critical.  We had a very conscious “no jerks” policy at Fusion FC, and on those rare occasions where we took on a skilled player with attitude issues our team dynamic (and on-pitch results) paid the price.  “On paper” you’re better, but on the field you’re squabbling.

You also need to have a good pitch; again, top talent has options, so why should they join your squad?

I also believe that recruitment is everyone’s job.  The team should take ownership of the team (again, a clear identity is important).  From the article linked above, “By creating an organization of world class talent, you’re creating a self-sustaining cycle because A-players hire and attract other like them.”

Finally, although this one might have limited applications, I was always mindful of the larger environment.  Over the years I’ve taken considerable pride in watching the collective quality of the local soccer leagues improve, and I firmly believe that the community nature of the leagues is important.  I’ve played with and against many of the same guys for a decade, and it’s been wonderful.  On Tuesday, we might be lining up against each other, and then on Thursday we’re on the same side.  It was important to me to behave in a manner that balanced the needs of my teams with the community aspect of the leagues.  In practice, this meant that I never poached players from other teams, but at the same time I accepted players who approached me about joining the squad.

Building a high-quality team takes dedication and thought, and ensuring that the quality is maintained or grows requires an ongoing commitment.

Within a business, I think this still applies, and I’m grateful that Sandvine is an environment in which people don’t face institutional obstacles if they want to move to a new team.  We all collectively benefit from having happy, actualized people.  Too many organizations fall victim to internal power struggles between managers squabbling over talent.

Even within a community, the same is true.  I love that our region has the Communitech organization, and I believe that all the local companies benefit from development and movement of people.  A rising tide lifts all ships.

Diversity

In my experience, the more diverse the members of a team, the stronger and more resilient the team is.  Diversity gives you more experience, varied ideas, different perspectives, and a wider range of options.  Homogeneity forces your hand, whereas heterogeneity leaves the door open to plans B, C, and D.

On the field, this means you can make tactical adjustments: change the formation, adopt a new strategy, accommodate someone’s absence, etc.  The workplace parallels are being able to consider and decide between multiple options and coming to better decisions.

Homogeneity is comfortable – the boat seldom rocks – but that comfort comes at a great cost.  Diversity is more exciting, encourages growth, and leads to better results.

Redundancy

When planning and recruiting your team, be sure to give some consideration to building in some redundancy.  This one might strike you as odd, but it is extremely important.  As much as diversity increases your options, redundancy preserves them.  Having some overlapping skills means that individuals aren’t overwhelmed and allows the team to withstand an absence or departure.  There’s a reason why NFL teams carry three quarterbacks and my soccer teams had multiple back-up goalkeepers!

As much as diversity increases your options, redundancy preserves them.

Retention

You’ve worked hard (and on an ongoing basis) to recruit the right people, so it’s important to keep them.  Doing so isn’t complicated or difficult; it really comes down to preserving the environment and characteristics that attracted them in the first place: maintain a high standard, provide opportunities for growth, give praise where it’s due, reward accomplishments, check in to make sure people are happy with their ongoing development, foster a great team dynamic, update the vision, etc.  If you’re an effective leader, then maximizing retention is natural byproduct of that leadership and shouldn’t require any additional effort.

If you’re an effective leader, then maximizing retention is natural byproduct of that leadership and shouldn’t require any additional effort.

Goals and Metrics

Goals and metrics let you measure success and are foundations of a feedback mechanism; a feedback mechanism, in turn, is an invaluable tool the enables you to make adjustments on-the-fly.  In practice, you can adjust most anything depending on what it is you are trying to maximize (e.g., retention, motivation, execution, etc.), but you need to know what needs adjusting.

Professional sports provide a wonderfully (and mostly) objective measure of success: wins and losses.  With recreational sports, you’re more inclined to balance “having fun” with wins and losses.  Being part of a winning team that has a terrible dynamic isn’t fun, but losing every week is also pretty unpleasant.  With Fusion, we wanted to create a team that could compete year in and year out for titles, but not at the expense of camaraderie and enjoyment.  You want to look forward to working together, after all.  Pro sports don’t have this luxury: don’t like your teammate?  Too bad, go do your job!

It’s important that your goals and metrics be examined from time to time, because sometimes they will need to change in response to the external environment (e.g., new competition, changing corporate strategy, etc.) or your own team’s evolution.

Succession Planning

The legacy of a truly great leader is that the team can carry on and succeed in his or her absence.

The legacy of a truly great leader is that the team can carry on and succeed in his or her absence.  Does this seem counter-intuitive?  I believe that any true leader should be mortified at the prospect of something they’ve helped to build collapsing upon their departure, and should ensure that this doesn’t happen.  It’s a frail and shallow ego indeed that would take pleasure in watching the organization crumble just to feel important.

I invested myself wholly into Fusion FC: in fact, it became so all-consuming that I recognized the need to step down before it came to completely dominate my life.  Not wanting the team to crumble, for two years I consciously delegated certain tasks, exposed people to the inner logistics, and sought out individuals who would take on the leadership mantle.  It was important to me that the club continue.  The same folks who laughed when they saw my role at Fusion listed on my résumé soon came to appreciate the volume of work and thought that goes into running a successful and sustainable squad.

One of my proudest moments relating to Fusion FC was when the Fusion outdoor team went on to win the club’s first Premier Division title in their first outdoor season without me.  Not only had the club absorbed my loss, but they had gone onto new heights.

…and now back to the article

How did we get started on this topic?  Oh yeah…Let’s look at the questions I asked myself while reading 8 Tips to Building a Championship Team.  For convenience, here are the 8 tips:

  1. Never stop looking
  2. Invest in the interview process
  3. Hire for UNCOMMON strength
  4. Don’t throw new employees into the deep end
  5. S.M.A.R.T. goals
  6. Empower
  7. Respect
  8. Make the hard call

Do the author’s experiences mirror my own?

Certainly there’s significant overlap between what Taneja’s listed and my own thoughts: #1 and #2 align with my “Recruitment”; #3 closes matches my “Diversity”, and #5 is my “Goals and Metrics”.

Is there something that I haven’t considered before?

It’s interesting that I didn’t list anything relating to Taneja’s #8, “Make the hard call”.  Perhaps idealistically, I’ve hoped that recruitment would be perfect, even though in practice I’ve experienced this not to be the case.  With Fusion FC, I’ve made some mistakes: I’ve had people who didn’t pay their fees and taken a personal loss as a result, I’ve signed players who only made it to a handful of games, I’ve been blinded by skill and overlooked character issues and paid the price.  In some of the cases, the club and player parted naturally (the player didn’t expect or want to come back), but in others we’ve been forced to address the issue.  I’m sorry to admit that in some of these cases, I took too long to act and the team dynamic and performance suffered – these are lessons learned the hard way, and I am mindful not to make these same mistakes again.

Where do I agree or disagree?

I don’t particularly disagree with any of Taneja’s tips, although I have some objection on semantic grounds.  I consider points #4, #6, and #7 to be aspects of leadership (one could easily argue that most of these are aspects of leadership, though, so it’s very subjective) rather than team-building.

What do you think?

Obviously, my own experiences have significantly framed my thoughts on the subject of building a championship team, and the same is true for you; so, what do you think?

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Posted in Everything, Leadership, Management, Soccer, Sports
One comment on “Building a Championship Team
  1. […] years or so, my teams (which for eight years I led) have won more than a dozen championships while playing with character and developing a positive reputation. During that same period, I’ve suffered numerous fairly serious injuries: a horrible […]

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