HOW DO YOU BUILD A GREAT TEAM?
I. CORE VALUES
The right shared values are the best the foundation for any team. The “why” of any journey is more important than the “how.”
After our own successes and failures, we put down on paper the values that we believe lead to the greatest transformation for MBAs and impact for entrepreneurs. We tried to make them specific to the demands of the journey and to the type of MBA who would thrive on the road. You and your team members should consider the purpose of your journey and your alignment with these values carefully before setting out.
We recommend building a team that embodies these core values:
a. Care deeply about the mission: MBAx is traditionally a road trip in its format, but it is an opportunity to serve others at its heart. Have an authentic and purpose-driven commitment to the work. As you consider friends and classmates for your team, ask yourself, “Is this person interested in doing this primarily because they are excited to do a road trip, or do they have a real desire to serve?” As one of our entrepreneurs says, there’s no line item on a balance sheet for “give a damn” but it’s the most valuable asset we’ve got.
b. Listen more than you speak: A team of people listening and asking thoughtful questions is more valuable than one person having a brilliant answer. MBAx teams connect with their entrepreneurs on a personal level first and include them in the work as participating members of the team, not as an audience. Think twice before teaming up with a classmate who tends to hog all the airtime in class, and seek out folks who listen to understand – not to respond.
c. Act more than you plan: The time constraints of one or two weeks do not allow for hours of fiddling with a five year pro-forma model or excruciating over font size in a soon-to-be-forgotten deck. Our litmus test: What are we creating with the entrepreneur that they can put to use the week after we leave? What can they actually do with what we are creating, and when? If the answer is “not much” or “not soon”, go back to the drawing board. While not perfect, potential teammates’ professional backgrounds can give you some clues as to how comfortable they may be with acting without perfect information and a fully vetted plan. People with experience working in an early startup, a small business, and the military all have different backgrounds but are probably more accustomed to action-based cultures, whereas people from more traditional industries and roles may be more comfortable with planning-based cultures. The best teams have a balance of both but lean into action.
d. Be willing to navigate uncertainty and discomfort: Being on the road will challenge you in unexpected ways. Be open to the opportunities for growth that these challenges bring and to learning from your teammates, entrepreneurs, and others you meet along the way. Favor teammates who won’t be miserable if your car breaks down and you have to spend hours in a Taco Bell waiting for AAA to arrive. (This is a real example). Pick teammates who are scrappy, resilient, and positive.
II. TEAM SIZE
Since our first summer we have had four MBAs per team. Four works nicely with logistics: two cars and two hotel rooms, but it also allows groups of two to break off and tackle different projects while on the ground with the entrepreneur. We recommend aiming for a team between three and five members – enough to get the work done in a short period of time and few enough people that everyone’s full commitment to the work is required to get the job done.
III. RELEVANT & COMPLEMENTARY SKILLS
Your team’s work with each of your entrepreneurs will likely span across business disciplines. Entrepreneurs get the most out of their team when you can attack their problems from multiple perspectives with a variety of skills that are relevant to their business. As you build your team, do your best to ensure that collectively you could tackle a wide range of challenges for an entrepreneur, be it marketing, finance, tech, operations, sales, etc. Long-term strategic thinking is helpful as well, but make sure your team has functional skills and experience that entrepreneurs can put to use in the near term like online marketing, cash-flow analysis, startup or small business experience, etc.
IV. A POSITIVE TEAM CULTURE
Don’t fall into the trap of letting your team or its culture form by default. From the first conversations you have with your team about hitting the road, you are creating a culture.Be thoughtful and intentional about building a culture that leads to success for your team and impact for your entrepreneurs. Do this by calibrating your shared goals for the summer with potential teammates, discussing not only the “why” you are hitting the road but also the “how” of operating a team. Are they complementary? Is this a group of people you can work hard with, have fun with, challenge, and be challenged by?
No matter how strong the individuals on your team, you will only reach your full potential for impact if you know each others’ strengths and weaknesses, care about and support each other, debate productively, acknowledge & proactively manage interpersonal conflict, and give and receive both positive and constructive feedback. When conflicts inevitably arise, letting appeasement and unresolved irritation replace constructive conversation and open debate will distract from your team’s purpose, and negatively impact both your team and the entrepreneur. Teams that are unprepared and not proactive about communicating openly, honestly, and frequently, are not up to this challenge.
a. A Mission Statement
Schedule a time, long before you hit the road, to sit together as a team and talk about your goals – your career goals but also your life goals and how they intersect with taking this journey with this specific group of people. Write a unique Mission Statement as a team. The act of verbalizing your shared mission will give you a foundation to return to when things get messy.
This is a mission statement one of our MBAx teams wrote this year: “We commit ourselves to engaging with startups across America in a co-mentorship process approached with humility, respect, and focus. The entrepreneurs will impart valuable lessons of the trials and celebrations of small American businesses. In return we will do our best to equip these business owners with implementable tools and models we have gained through our education and experience. By the end of each engagement, we are dedicated to parting not as consultants but as friends.”
b. A Team Charter (Personal & Group Awareness)
Share your strengths and weaknesses with your team upfront, and have an explicit conversation about norms. Write a Team Charter that details the norms and elements of your team’s shared commitment. Use our template or create your own. Some good starting points are:
• Make time for fun
• Make time for ourselves
• Give and receive unqualified and timely feedback
• Assume best intentions of all teammates
• Listen to understand – not to respond
• Never interrupt, ideate without inhibition (no “bad” ideas)
• Put team safety above all else.
c. Team Rituals
Ask yourselves what concrete rituals or habits you will commit to as a team to nurture these norms and a positive culture. This will also be unique to your team, but we recommend you find ways to incorporate feedback, alone time, and rules of positive conduct. Here are some examples of team rituals we have found to be very helpful:
• Every Friday we will sit down together at the end of the day and do group feedback. We will identify at least one thing we did a good job of this week as a team and one thing we want to commit to doing a better job of next week as a team.
• After group feedback we will break into 1 on 1 pairs for individual feedback. Each team member has to reinforce one strength (positive feedback) and point out one area of growth (constructive feedback) with specific examples for each team member.
• We will each commit to taking time away from the group every week to recharge in our own way.
• We will set aside Saturday nights to not talk about work at all and just have fun.
d. Getting Started
One of the best things to do to build on your team’s strength and solidify a positive group dynamic is to work together on a project before setting out. This is why we ask all teams who apply to become Fellows to create a video together. Our first summer, our founding team got to know each other in three ways: by doing a 3 day mini-pilot with a local business, by doing a weekend trip together, and by making our crowdfunding video and building our website together. A couple early projects like these are a great opportunity to learn from one another and will give you the chance to get to know each other’s working styles.