June 26, 2018

Walking the Talk on Teamwork: No One Conditions Alone

A few years ago, I served as the Strength & Conditioning coach for a youth travel hockey team. To prepare, I reached out to some experts to get some guidance on working with a group of teenaged boys who did not have much experience "in the gym." 

I was fortunate enough to get to spend time with Mike Potenza, the Strength & Conditioning coach for the NHL's San Jose Sharks. Mike is an extraordinarily knowledgeable and experienced Strength coach and the consistent post season appearances of the Sharks over the last decade in part reflects his skills and capabilities.

I learned a lot from Mike, but probably nothing has stuck with me more than an aphorism he used with the Sharks: "No one conditions alone."

Anyone who has ever tried to, not just get in shape, but get in shape to compete or perform a sport at the highest level they were capable of knows how painful physical conditioning can be. Whether it is basketball "suicides" or 2000 meter rows for time or tabatas or bike intervals, hard conditioning sucks out loud. 

NHL players always have different conditioning needs. Those playing regularly don't need much extra conditioning. But "healthy scratches" or or 4th line guys who didn't get as much ice time during the game or guys recovering from injury might need extra time in the gym to maintain their volume of conditioning work.

Mike's belief is that one of the ways you build a team is to never let someone do that conditioning work by themselves. He would always find other players to join them. If need be, and this is important, he would even get on the bike or the rowing machine himself and do the workout he had prescribed right along side them.

The message is clear: the physical conditioning you are doing, yes, it is to help you. But it is also for the benefit of the team and the team is not going to make you shoulder something so difficult by yourself.

All the talk aside, this is what a real team culture looks like.

Current and former Sharks players talk about how much they love playing in San Jose. I am sure there are a lot of reasons for that, like the weather in San Jose in January compared to say, Alberta or Winnipeg! But I can't help wondering if the team first, no one conditions alone culture they have established isn't a part of why they like to play there so much.

You don't need to be a professional athlete to foster a culture like this on your team or between the teams executing projects in your organization. 

A VP of Quality Assurance for a high tech company I was working with wanted to improve the relationship between his QA organization and the Product Development team. I shared Mike's philosophy with my client and asked where there might be opportunities to apply it.

There is a particularly nasty part of the dev cycle after each release where bug fixes need to be sorted out. Rework is never any fun. Moreover, the diagnostics could be extremely tedious and the work was often done at night after the coding work for the next release had been done. 

Even though QA had a lesser role in the bug fixing process, my client had members of his QA team start to stay late every time the Dev team had to stay late until the bug fixing work was done. He later told me the effect on the working relationship between QA and Dev as a result of this change alone was palpable.

If need be, and this is important, he would even get on the bike or the rowing machine himself and do the workout he had prescribed right along side them.

Leaders love to talk about how important teamwork and interdepartmental cooperation is to success. "There is no I in team," they like to exhort. But the actions and differential treatment often suggest the actual attitude is closer to"Your end of the boat is sinking so you might want to look into that."

When leaders see a team member or a peer team engaged in a particularly noisome task and make extra hands or support available, it undergirds their words with tangible actions and creates an environment where selfless behaviors are likely to be seen more often. When it is the leaders themselves who are staying late or pitching in, the message is even more powerful.

Building a strong sense of team is hard work and I don't mean to minimize how challenging it is and the sustained effort that is required. But there is an underlying mindset and this is a big component of what it looks like.

Make sure "no one conditions alone" and see for yourself.

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