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Workshopping a Team and Clearing the Way for Success

Building a Team
Remote
Conflict solving

3 May, 2021

Felix Cheung, Vice President of Engineering at SafeGraph, always wishes to leave a team in a more capable state than the one that he found it in.

Problem

Throughout my career, my proudest achievement has been the opportunity to join a team as a leader and to turn their experience around for the better.
 

One job in particular comes to mind: I was called to lead a team that was remote in the traditional sense, working together in an office and communicating with the rest of the organization at a distance to some extent. There were issues within the team in terms of reported happiness and satisfaction with the roles they were in — some of the deficiencies mentioned were levels of autonomy and room to grow and to learn. I arrived and found myself asking: what should the plan be? I used these metrics to begin designing a plan to improve engagement.
 

A big part of the issue was a failure to connect to one another and to align themselves with the goals of the organization as a whole. It’s really hard to maintain the right level of ownership for your team, especially in a remote setting. Matching an appropriately challenging project with the members of your team whose skills most closely align with the task will help them understand the context of their roles in the bigger picture.
 

Actions taken

I’ve served as both an Individual Contributor and a leader. I like both — I like the technical stuff, but I do find it a lot more satisfying to really cultivate and to help a team, as well. I think of myself as a people-first type of leader, so the way that I approached that problem at first was going into the situation and really trying to understand the people who were there.
 

Winning the trust of a decently-sized team and getting to know each other involved building upon some shared experience. There was not a strictly-professional relationship; we were peers, shifting into the role of manager-to-report when necessary. I strove to really understand what each player was looking for, individually.
 

I also sought to act as a sort of bridge, smoothing out any friction that was already there. In a cross-functional, remotely-located environment, I tried to define our place within the context of the other teams that we were working with, identifying any overlap in order to figure out who was doing what exactly. I also tried to organize within my own team itself. How could we improve communication and collaboration?
 

There were maybe two distinct groups of two different backgrounds with little interaction between them. Building a sense of team within our shared remote office was something that I found to be very useful. It became a very big part of providing and facilitating that psychological safety that allowed people to feel good about where they were and to do their best.
 

Another goal was to grow the team and to create new opportunities, whether that involved spearheading a project, attaining sponsorship and validation for certain projects, and making sure that people were given the opportunity to work on things that they were really passionate about and that aligned with their skill sets. My background in data helped to contribute to this effort, as I had done a lot of that sort of stuff in the past. I got a few small projects up and running from the beginning, which helped me prove myself and the team’s ability to execute, leading to bigger projects further down the line.
 

In only a few months, a survey found that the employees regarded the environment and conditions much more favorably than before. Mentoring was on the rise, and many of my reports eventually got promoted.
 

Lessons learned

  • At the end of the day, it becomes about leveling the team up overall. How do we give the team the proper support and coaching? How can we equip them with the skill set and the encouragement to go and to exercise these parts of themselves? It involves getting in there with the team and building that vision together. We work through the whole process of getting the project greenlit and moving forward.
  • Although this team was not 100% remote in the sense that most offices are now remote, these lessons translate to the cultural climate that we’re in currently. Having the right combination of people, projects, and opportunities will give any team a way to perform to the best of their abilities.
  • This is a three-sixty sort of endeavor. You can tell people that something’s important, but if nobody seems to care, it’s not really going to actually do anything. Getting folks excited about the work is both internal and external. If what you’re giving them is in alignment with where they see themselves down the road, they’re more likely to hop on board. What is the best way to make the interests of the project and the personal interests of the team compatible in this way?
  • A really big part of being a people-leader is having the right management principles to start with. Why am I doing this? What am I really trying to get out of myself? My firm belief is to always put people first. It has nothing to do with technology or how much you get paid, the project that you’re working on, or whether you get promoted. I want to build a really good team, one that really feels like it’s together.

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