Running A Business

Everything You Know About Teams Could Be Wrong—Business Fuel Podcast #79

Jun 12, 2014 • 10+ min read
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      Everything you know about building teams could be wrong. In this week’s podcast, Dick Cross shares why he thinks building teams and solving problems with teams might not be the silver bullet most organizations think they are.

      Readable Transcript

      Information you need, the podcasts you trust, this is the podcast network.  Bringing you interviews with top business professionals and business financing tips to fuel your American dream.  This is The Business Fuel Podcast heard exclusively on  And now, here are your hosts, Ty Kiisel and Patrick Wiscombe.

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      Patrick Wiscombe:  This is The Business Fuel Podcast with Ty Kiisel, Patrick Wiscombe, and our guest, Dick Cross.  We’re going to be talking about the team trap.  Dick has some strong opinions and he will blow up everything we know about corporate America and teams.  So Ty, why don’t you kick us off.

      Ty Kiisel:  The villagers will be lighting up their torches and grabbing their pitchforks because we are turning some sacred cows on their heads today.  I don’t want to put words in your mouth Dick, but let’s just say, sometimes teamwork just doesn’t work.

      Dick Cross:  I’m reluctant to shy away from a controversial subject, especially if it’s one I believe in.  But I’m going to lay it on the line.  The headline here is we have developed a routine of overusing the concept of team.

      Ty Kiisel:  My experience is that there are things individuals need to do and then there are things that teams need to do.  I think that by making everything a team project, we make things harder than they need to be.  What do you think?

      Dick Cross:  I’ve been in some severe circumstances when being in a team is the only way to get through it.  I had a group of guys in the military with extraordinary talents and courage with a style of leadership which said, “Yes we’re going to get this done together.  When somebody stumbles, we’re going to pick them up and get going together.”  But also with a very strong understanding that a weak member of the team jeopardizes the whole team.  Those two concepts are missing in the rush to team.  It has become our standard way of working.

      Ty:  Do you think the team in the average workplace today is kind of the scapegoat for failed initiatives?

      Dick:  I think it certainly contributes to failed initiatives.  I’ve mentioned this in speeches and everybody looks at me like I’m the devil.  But if everybody thinks about it, they don’t have trouble dredging up an experience when they sat in a room with a group of people and they hated that experience.  It was fingernails on a chalkboard.  It was awful to tolerate the level of discussion and the lack of progress on an important issue.  Or sometimes it was wasting a whole bunch of people’s time on something that’s not important.  Most people will also say they had a team experience that was fabulous.  What that tells me is that there are some situations where it is entirely appropriate and some situations where it is entirely inappropriate.

      Ty:  I’m glad you said that because neither you nor I think that teams are generally bad.  Some things are more conducive to a team environment than others.  For example here at Lendio, we have what we call push projects.  One guy on the marketing teams has a project we need to help him just kind of push over the finish line.  He is still responsible, but certain disciplines are helping him out.  It’s really been a beneficial thing.  That being said, not every initiative that goes on in an organization needs a team.  I’m convinced trying to push everything into the team mode makes it harder to get things done.

      Dick:  We’re on the same wavelength.  One of my favorite numbers is 3.  You can remember  3 things, you can remember 3 names, and you can remember 3 strategies for your business.   I find, by and large, the most effective teams are somewhere in the number of 3.  They’re small enough so that everyone feels at risk.  You see big, beautiful groups of tropical fish swimming together.  They number in the thousands.  If a predator attacks, your odds are pretty good that you’re going to make it.  But if there are 3, you don’t feel that way. You feel at risk and you feel responsible for the outcome.  Therefore, I think small teams with very clear directives, with very clear end points, with very clear standards really work.  When you get up to teams of 7 or 8 people, there are too many places to hide.

      Ty:  I’ve never thought of it that way but it totally makes sense.  You talk about part of the problem with some teams is responsibility and learning.  What’s the difference between taking responsibility or ascribing blame?

      Dick:  What are the events in your life from which you learned the most?  Most people will tell you those are the times when they failed.  It’s forced them to rethink some fundamental things. There was a time in the early part of the 20th century when management was pretty brutal.  Henry Ford said a lot of things but one hasn’t followed him that well.  He said, “When I hire a man, I wish I could just get his hands and his back and not his mind.”  That was an unusual comment for him.  But at the other bookend, we now can’t make anyone feel uncomfortable. We have a very difficult time telling them they haven’t done what’s required of them.  We need to swing back to the middle and be very clear about people having responsibilities for things that are important while recognizing that occasionally, they are going to fail.  Failure is an ok thing.  What makes it ok is that follow up if there is some learning.  We have two things going on in a lot of businesses today.  We are reluctant at the top to hurt anybody’s feelings by telling them they haven’t done what the business expects them to do.   And we collect them up in a whole gaggle of people so that if there is a failure, no one feels responsible for it.  We grow through accountability, responsibility, and failure.  This whole team thing has watered that down.  That’s not to say that a team isn’t the exact thing that needs to be in place sometimes to get things done.

      Patrick:  One of the biggest pet peeves that I have is the participatory trophies and everyone is a winner.  Baloney.

      Dick:  A lot of the work I have done in turning around companies is to cut through the “everyone deserves a trophy.”  You have to insist that if you’re going to be a member of my team, you have to be a championship level player.  I talk often about building a management team the way professional managers build baseball teams.  They are constantly on the look out for a better player for every position.  They are also constantly trying to make the people they have, as good as they can be.  The team things allows us to avoid all of that.  There is not individual responsibility for fielding a ball and getting it to first base every time.  When we call an error on a team, it dissipates across all the members and nobody really learns anything.

      Patrick:  Who is your favorite baseball team and who are the top players you like?

      Dick:  Boston Red Sox and Dustin Pedroia.

      Patrick:  No surprise there.

      Dick:  The Red Sox cleared the deck two years ago and put together a team that won the World Series.  Dustin Pedroia is a guy who feels responsible for every other player on his team and tries to help them.  When he’s at the plate, that little guy does his job.

      Ty:  So what about that poster that hangs in offices all over the world that says, “There is no I in team”?

      Dick:  The team is an idea of a nice, cosy place to work.  Work is for getting stuff done.  Work is for getting extraordinary stuff done.  That depends on extraordinary individuals.  The shift to teams dampens that

      Ty:  Why do you think we went that way?

      Dick:  That’s a really good question and I simply don’t know.  A lot of how we think about management, up until about 20 years ago, came out of military history.  But I don’t know if it’s guilt about the style of parenting that’s going on in the country or where it comes from.  Our whole education system is pervaded with this idea that we have to learn to play nicely together.  I think what makes great organizations is men and women who are nice to one another, but they’re going to be as good as they can possible be.  Nobody is going to stand in their way as individuals.

      Ty:  You mentioned military teams.  If you take a seal team for example, everybody has a discipline that they’re a specialist in so that they all rely on each other.  In the workplace, how do you build a team that’s effective?

      Dick:  It starts with very clear direction.  Absolute, unambiguous clarity about what the goal is, what needs to be achieved, and who is responsible for playing which roles to get there.  A lot of stuff is naturally going to be done by the individuals.  But there are some problems that really require someone who knows arithmetic, someone who knows science, and someone who really knows manufacturing.  In that instance, you need those 3 individuals to solve that problem.  No questions asked.  But make the teams as small as you can, be as clear as possible about what the directive is, be as clear as possible about what the responsible of each individual is, set a clear timeline, and declare a win or a loss.  That just doesn’t happen very often.

      Ty:  How do you evaluate success or failure?  Do you recommend going in and evaluating the performance of individuals on the team?  It seems that the project may have been a success, but everybody on the team was not.

      Dick:  It’s a hierarchy of responsibility.  There’s one level of responsibility for the individual.  So there is responsibility for assembling the right people and as few of them as you can possibly have.  Then you pick a team leader.  If somebody is not pulling their weight, get rid of them.  Too often we are afraid to put individuals in teams on the hot seat for their individual contributions because we don’t want to embarrass them in front of all the other people.  So there’s three levels.  The person who puts the team together.  The person who’s the team leader.  And then the individuals of the team.  It’s clarity of purpose, direction, and assignment.  It’s a cop out if you don’t know what direction to go so you differ it to a bunch of others.

      Ty:  That leads to the elephant in the room.  Is the CEO a team job?

      Dick:  No.  Unequivocally.  The worst one’s I’ve ever followed up on are those who thought it was.  The greatest attribute of a CEO is comfort with yourself.  That doesn’t mean you make all the decisions by yourself.  But what you end up doing is taking council, then you sit down by yourself 60 minutes, 3 times a week, and think about it.  You make those decisions and you stand by them.  Too often the idea of team migrates up into the offices of the C suite and we find CEO’s who are afraid to make a call.  Most people running mid-tier businesses are terrified.  They don’t sleep at night.  Most people don’t want to be put in a position of being accused of being stupid or wrong.  That is prevalent and it has something to do with this team thing.  It gives a weak CEO a tool to avoid exposing themselves.

      Ty:  Just minutes before the podcast I was having a conversation with the CEO of Lendio about the mentors he’s had along the way.  He said something that I think indicates the strength of the individual.  He said, “In the early days when I went to my advisors, I only took the good news.  The Board of Directors only heard the good news, and my mentors only heard the good news.  Then one day it clicked.  I wasn’t getting the value because a good advisor is someone you can take the bad news to when you need help figuring your way out of a disaster.”  I came away from that discussion feeling like we have a strong CEO who recognized that it was his job to take responsibility when things were bad, and he is secure enough to share the bad with mentors instead of being afraid he was going to be discovered.

      Dick:  The wonderful thing that people don’t get is that people love you more when you are wrong and are honest about it than they love you for being right.  The strongest thing you can do to create maniacal followership is to admit that you made the wrong call and it is yours.  But here’s what I learned from it and here’s what we are going to do next time.

      Ty:  This has been a great conversation.  It isn’t an anti team conversation; just teams are appropriate when they are, and individual effort is required when it’s required.  I appreciate it. It’s been really fun tipping sacred cows.

      Dick:  I’ve got a few more of these things that have seemed to reach the stature of religion.  Call me a heretic, but I think some of them are just wrong.

      Ty:  This was awesome. Thank you Dick.

      Dick:  Thanks guys.

      Patrick:  Be sure to pick up Dick’s book, 60 Minute CEO.  You can pick it up anywhere.  Is there an audio version of this?

      Dick:  What a great question.  A couple of weeks ago, it was in the top 30 on iTunes.  So thanks, there is an audio version.  We’re having a great time with it.  It’s shorter than the last book and I made a conscious effort to make the chapters 5 or 6 minute reads.  You can open it up anywhere and get a whole idea.

      Patrick:  Dick Cross it’s always good to chat with you.

      Dick:  My pleasure and I wish you all the best for the next 30 days.

      Patrick:  Ty Kiisel, let me switch over to Forbes for just a minute.  What’s your article this week.

      Ty:  The last couple of weeks we’ve been talking about the future of small business lending.  I sat down with Steven Sheinbaum from Merchant Cash and Capital.  He’s in the alternative space and has been around since 2005.  He’s seen a lot of changes over the years so we looked into his crystal ball 5 years down the road as to what small business lending is going to look like.

      Patrick:  You can read all of Ty’s stuff on  Just do a search on his name, Ty Kiisel, in the upper right hand corner of their website.  Of course you can also read his writings on  So for Dick Cross, Ty Kiisel, I’m Patrick Wiscombe.  Thanks for listening.  We’ll talk to you next Tuesday.

      Bringing you interviews with top business professionals and business financing tips to help fuel your American dream.  This has been the Business Fuel podcast, with your hosts, Ty Kiisel and Patrick Wiscombe, heard exclusively on



      About the author
      Ty Kiisel

      Small business evangelist and veteran of over 30 years in the trenches of Main Street business, Ty makes small business financing and trends accessible in common sense language devoid of the jargon.

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