There are two types of great teams: teams with great players (think Lebron James) who raise the level of the entire organization through their ability; and second, teams comprised of average players whose success lies in the ability of the team to function as a whole (think the Las Vegas Golden Knights). Not every team, or workplace, can have Lebron – but it is feasible, if not common, that most groups are comprised of mediocre-to-good people.
As a result of the rarity of the former, let’s focus on the latter and apply it to those of us who aren’t professional athletes.
How Do You Make a Great Team From Good Players?
The Las Vegas Golden Knights (a 2017/2018 NHL expansion team and a statistically mediocre-to-good team at its inception) started the season with 500-to-1 odds of winning the Stanley Cup. These were the largest negative odds in the history of the NHL, yet they advanced to the Stanley Cup finals. How did this happen?
A Note On NHL Expansion Teams and Statistically Mediocre-To-Good Players
NHL expansion teams are created as a new team in the National Hockey League (NHL). To build from literally nothing, the organization must select coaches, players, and staff. Coaches and staff can come from anywhere, however, players – by and large – are usually selected vis-à-vis the expansion draft. This draft allows the expansion team to select players that are not protected from existing teams. This non-protected or “exposed” status is predetermined by a set of rules allowing existing teams to protect roughly 9 to 10 players of the 18 or so that could be on a game bench during the season.
In other words, NHL teams can protect the upper fortieth-to-fiftieth percentile of their players from being “exposed,” statistically allowing only their mediocre-to-good players to be drafted by the expansion team. The Las Vegas Golden Knights – at best – started the season with average-to-good NHL players but ended finishing second in the entire league.
How did the Golden Knights accomplish this, and how can we do the same within our organizations?
Leadership and Trust
During one game, a Golden Knights player caused a penalty and during that power play penalty (in which the other team had the advantage of one more player), the other team scored. After leaving the penalty box, the skate back to the bench was a long one for this player…
Nonetheless, the coach sent the player back out on the ice to make up for his mistake. As a result, the same Golden Knights skater that caused the penalty (almost) immediately scored. The lesson to be learned here is one of leadership and trust. The coached trusted his player to do the right thing, and, in turn, the player rose to the occasion.
In any organization, bad leadership is nothing more than a plague with growing tentacles. We can try to avoid it, but it will eventually reach out and “touch” whatever it is we are doing. The best way to combat this cancer is to trust in the people you have chosen to do the job. If you’ve selected motivated people – show that you lead by trust, give them space, and they will meet and exceed your expectations.
Teams and businesses inherently want the best people, composing a sort of “dream team” with only the best of the best. However, in reality, such teams rarely exist. Items such as budget, recruiting, and economics generally interfere with an organization’s attempt to put together a dream team. The Las Vegas Golden Knights, similar to the 1980 US Olympic “Miracle On Ice” team, didn’t have the best players – they had the right players for their system and their culture. In doing so, both teams exceeded expectations and excelled.
When composing a team with a limited set of resources available – choose those that are the right fit, not just those that “outscore” others with academic or professional pedigree. By taking into consideration characteristics such as personality, skill set, team chemistry, and background (even if superficially unorthodox), business leaders will be able to create teams that are not only high-performing but also durable and trustworthy.
Mission and Culture
Two factors shaped the Las Vegas Golden Knights season. First, everyone on the team felt like they had a chip on their shoulder (and, frankly, they should have – each player was essentially told by his former team that he was not valuable enough to protect). Second, a few days before the first game of the season, there was a mass shooting on October 1stin Las Vegas. This horrific event united the city and the city particularly embraced and supported the new hockey team. It may sound strange, but I am from Las Vegas – it happened.
These two factors lead to a culture of passion both for the players and the city itself. This passion, in turn, gave the players a reason to play and the fans a reason to show up. For the players, it was a way to heal the city, and for the fans, it was a way to heal themselves.
Thankfully, these circumstances are few and far between, but there is still a valuable lesson here. Team members that have a sense of mission in who they are as a team and who are also motivated by culture will always excel, be it in a game, in an office, or in life.
The Las Vegas Golden Knights were Las Vegas’ first professional sports team to play in a major league – the city and the organization worked hard to create amazing facilities and help build the fan base. The community and the organization gave the Golden Knights everything they needed to succeed and, guess what, what they did as a team was nothing short of amazing.
This lesson also holds told true for the workplace – give your team the support they need! Pay your employees well, give them solid benefits, treat them kindly when they or a family member is sick, and you will have outstanding employees. The point I am trying to make is that employees shouldn’t be able to do whatever they want, but they must have and be able to do whatever it is they need without hesitation and/or blowback.
If you want people to exceed expectations, don’t treat your employees like resources, treat them like highly valued team members that are essential to your success because – after all – that’s exactly what they are.
Let’s continue the conversation on building great teams, reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.