If you could be a professional athlete in any sport, what sport would it be?
Most folks I’ve polled about this debate ultimately land on a consensus winner: golf.
The combination of big pay days, low injury rates and year-round travel to some of the most picturesque places on earth makes for a universally compelling package.
However, people rarely think about the challenges that also arise from being on your own.
If they did, they might consider that golfers face considerably more pressure to consistently bring their "A-game" to the office.
An NFL quarterback, on the other hand, could play the worst game of his life, but still win the Super Bowl due to having a great defense.
And a major league pitcher’s no-hitter could overshadow even the most futile hitting performance from his teammates.
A person’s obligation to the team depends largely on the competitive construct of the endeavor.
This is an especially important point to understand, as group dynamics become exponentially more important when small teams try to accomplish big goals.
Why is that the case?
Well, the majority of people tend to ease into the comfort of knowing that individual performances will not always have a visible impact on their team’s success.
These people may chase big goals, but they will not likely do so as part of small teams, where their responsibility and contributions are amplified. (You will not find these people on the PGA Tour.)
You’ll be more likely to find individuals who thrive off of heavily-scrutinized, high-exposure opportunities.
These people tend to be confident in themselves and determined to see their capabilities manifest into something truly exceptional.
Small teams tackling big problems usually attract individuals who are accustomed to marching (quite successfully) to the beats of their own drums.
As a result, there’s typically more room for growth among independently-minded team members, and also more benefits from their big ideas.
Fortunately for me and my Virtru teammates, we have embraced certain fundamentals to keep our brand on pitch.
From the moment our VP of Product first introduced them, these seven key principles have helped mold us into a bold, rational and highly self-aware team:
1. Nobody is entitled to opinions. You must make rational decisions.
This rule forms the basis of every decision we make.
If you want to prioritize a new product feature, pursue a new market or even change the pizza joint we order from, you must explain why.
This can't be done with opinions, but with customer feedback, metrics and other realities or hard data points derived from experiments and experience.
2. Speak with your actions.
Don’t just talk about how great your team is; write about it in a blog post.
3. Being slow and pragmatic is a characteristic of a rational approach.
A clear mission keeps everyone focused on the big picture, which can be hard for groups that are used to more immediately accessible forms of success.
That’s often why people get into petty arguments with one another, or go out of their way to withhold credit from their teammates: They overemphasize short-term validation over long-term gratification.
When team members have less to prove to one another -- and everything to prove to their families, customers, investors, fans, etc. -- there is far less of this destructive "action for the sake of action."
4. The worst thing you can do in a startup is be conservative.
This is a startup-specific mentality in Virtru’s case, but also one that I think should apply to all aspects of life.
I’ll let Paul Graham elaborate a bit here on what he refers to as the "power of the marginal:"
Being able to take risks is hugely valuable. Everyone values safety too much, both the obscure and the eminent. No one wants to look like a fool. But it’s very useful to be able to. If most of your ideas aren’t stupid, you’re probably being too conservative. You’re not bracketing the problem.
For better or for worse, what makes you stand out is what you do differently.
Embrace that notion, or be average.
5. Decision without agreement hinders trust.
In order to think outside the box and in the margins, teams must train themselves to reject much of what others are saying and doing around them.
As such, it’s easy for individuals to keep these blinders on when it comes time to act on their bold decisions.
It’s important to be aware of this effect, and to ensure that, no matter what direction the team is headed, everyone is headed there together.
People will be hesitant to propose their own bold ideas and accept other people’s if they feel that doing so will impede group mobility.
6. Failure is a great way to build trust.
During my second month at Virtru, I prematurely sent out a release announcement to 20,000 of our users, and chaos immediately ensued among the ranks.
Our Head of Engineering quickly calmed down the troops with a simple note:
Failure is the most effective teacher. I’ll bet my house that Matt never pulls the trigger again without confirming.
While I learned a valuable lesson about how to properly deploy marketing communication, the real takeaway was knowing my teammates trusted me to self-correct.
7. Everyone’s job seems simple to those who don’t do it.
Of all the items on this list, people struggle with this one the most.
Since we are all genetically predisposed to dwell on negativity, the tendency to criticize too quickly is one we must all learn to accept and suppress.
Let your team members’ actions speak for themselves before you rush to judge their competency.
If you can’t trust yourself to do this for your teammates, how can you expect them to do the same for you?