A Community Approach to Leadership and Teamwork

If you scroll through Nobel prize winners — particularly those in science — you’ll noticed multiple winners and shared rewards. We’re at a point in civilization were major breakthroughs and innovations are created by teams. They are built on the work of others. They are solved by a group of different minds with different backgrounds and experiences coming together on one problem or project.

We have great looming, global problems to solve. Climate change — ignored by the vast majority of the government in the US — being one that may utterly destroy all life on the planet in my own lifetime. Problems of this scale won’t be solved by one great leader, or one amazing scientist with one answer, but hundreds, if not thousands, if not millions of people with good approaches and behavioral changes. It is scientific breakthroughs, as much as it’s policy changes, regulation of large polluters, and community leadership.

Anyone who calls themselves a leader — from world leaders down to small companies — needs to address how they think of teamwork, and have active conversations about what teamwork looks like at their organizations. How do people communicate? How is power and rank distributed through the hierarchy? How are decisions made? How are teams operating? What is most efficient and successful? What is not? How can leaders empower teams and empower others with specialized knowledge to make company and industry-impact? How can an individual members achieve career goals, while the organization achieves their mission, vision, and goals?

If a leader cannot answer these questions with more than a work ethic philosophy, then they will not be able to scale and they will not be conscious of their impact on their teams or the world.

(What’s a work ethic philosophy? Think Tony Robbins, Tim Ferris, Gary Vee, and other bro-preneurs and lifestyle spokesmen. They think shortsightedly only on their commitment to work and maintaining their material wealth and work-centric lifestyles. This is an unsustainable zero sum game of work culture.)

The most impactful and industry-changing large scale programs I’ve been on involved teamwork. They involved understanding my own organization power and rank and understanding my team member’s skills, work they and I enjoyed doing, and ultimately trusting them to make decisions and execute on parts of that project.

GeekGirlCon was founded and (still is) run by all volunteers. It took a volunteer staff ranging from 15-35 people to execute on the fundraising events and the annual convention itself. I may have led the organization for two years, but I certainly did not do all the details, or even make all the decisions. A creative director understands visual branding better than I, the same way an Operations person knows how to file taxes and make decisions on reimbursements. The strong mission — to celebrate geeky women and anyone else marginalized in geek culture — kept us focused on the greater purpose.

And GeekGirlCon impacted the greater convention culture, especially in Seattle. Without GeekGirlCon, these other conventions probably wouldn’t do things like ‘cosplay is not consent,’ gender neutral restrooms, or place people of marginalized identities on more than just a single “diversity” panel. I remember not ever being able to find a shirt that fit my small frame with superheroes on it; now there are so many options and clothing sales account for like 70% of comic book-related, non-book, retail sales.

The very first conference I ran for Moz, an SEO software company, had only 10% women attendees of 850 people. In fact, I had to find a hotel staff member to unlock the women’s restroom, and then send a staff member to the drug store because the tampon dispenser was broken.

But over the years, we dug our heels in about making the stage gender inclusive — plus more, as gender is one step — and making sure the experience welcomed every digital marketer, no matter their background. At the last MozCon I ran in 2016, the audience was 50/50 along binary gender with 1,600 attendees, and yes, all paid attendees. And when I came to CMX, we took our stage diversity further and met goals around racial diversity and LGBTQ representation.

This didn’t just impact MozCon, but it impacted the entire SEO industry. In 2012, no one — especially industry men — called out conferences who only programmed white men. Men even questioned if there were any women good enough to speak on stage. In 2013, I got feedback from a man in 2013 asserting that the women speakers were lower quality than the men, and I shouldn’t program just for gender. (Ironically, when actually tallying the man’s individual scores along gender lines, he didn’t individually rate the women lower than the men, but his biased overall perception was that women were less than.) Now, there’s change in that, and some industry-known men don’t speak when only white men have been programmed.

None of these projects could’ve worked without understanding efficient teamwork and how to use our skills in a better manner. They couldn’t have made industry impact without it. These projects needed champions, people to sweat the details, vision, group buy-in, and more. Junior team members brought as great input to a huge organizational decision as a CEO did.

The pieces of my teamwork philosophy:

  • Open communication and information sharing.
  • Understanding your own organizational power and rank and internal biases.
  • Knowing each other’s skills and strengths.
  • Knowing the types of work we enjoy doing (likes/loves/mehs/dislikes).
  • Avoiding overlapping or redundant work.
  • Trusting others to do their piece well, on time, and better than you can do.
  • Having candid conversations around the divisions of labor and workload.
  • Discussing future career goals for team members, and being okay if those include leaving your team or your company.

The projects, teams, and individuals I’ve enjoyed working with and have seen the most success with had these qualities. No one is perfect at these things. But we all worked toward them.

There have been times where I felt competitive with another coworker, where all it took was a conversation about career goals to sort out that we were not on the same path forward. But I had to remind myself of that. There are times when not being open about communication and information is a bad hierarchical habit that comes off as a power-play, which blocks efficiency and creates redundant work or poor decisions.

If we want to solve the major problems of our world — or even execute on large organization projects with goals spanning months or years — teamwork is essential, and every leader must have an understanding of their own teamwork philosophy and how they are socializing this and showing it through their own actions.

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