Tasks in the national security world are too complex for one person, which is why we have teams. We have all been part of a team at some time, probably multiple times in our career. I recently had a conversation with a friend who, years ago, was part of a team that I led. He and I got to talking about that team and teams in general. What defines a “good” team? What can you do to ensure that a team is successful? How do you position your team to have the best chance at achieving the results that you want? There are some things that you can do.

First Team Experiences in Your Life

Before you ever entered the professional workforce, chances are good that you obtained team experience through clubs or sports. The most gifted individuals, even with herculean effort, still cannot get the job done when a team is required. It is through our initial exposure to teams that you get introduced to team roles and learn when and how to interact with others on the team. You learn to hold one another accountable, you hold yourself accountable to others, and you learn how to work towards team success. What this experience taught you is how to engage with others to achieve team goals. This was also likely the first opportunity to engage in communication and interaction with others while under a framework of rules.

The Team Life

Maybe you will have a great team lead, but maybe you won’t. You are only responsible for you in terms of professionalism and contributions to the team. You may not be the lead, but you can definitely provide a positive example and contribute to team goals.

  • Know your job well. Unless you’re new, no one else should know what your job is better than you. If you have to be reminded by others, maybe you need to study your role a little more.
  • Understand your role on the team. Everyone has a different role. Some are more active than others, but it doesn’t mean some are not as important.
  • Make those around you better. Whether you are helping them or being an example to them, if you and those around you are top performers, you have a better chance at achieving team goals.
  • A great Harry Truman quote is. “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.” The team lead does not take credit, but rather gives it to his/her team. Learn this early and put it to practice. If you do, your reputation and value will soar. Do this and in time, you will become the team lead.
  • Once you have learned your job well, learn what you can about the areas you interface with. This will increase your value and help the team.
  • Look into the industry best practices and professional certifications available to you within your lane of performance. Also look at the requirements for your next step. Find out the blocks that need to be checked off and work on those. If you are a mid-level engineer, what are the requirements of a senior engineer? You need to be more invested in your career than anyone else.
  • Help the team lead. For example, take a look at the report that the team lead does on your team’s performance. Can you give the lead your report and stats in a way that would make the follow-on report easier to create? Easier to read or understand?
  • Make sure that you do not let the team down. Do your job well and keep an eye on those team goals as well.

Balancing Program Success and Team Perceptions

Know about perceptions and realities. My first team had an unfair reputation of never being in the office when needed. I investigated and found that this was because the team had other responsibilities all over the building. Problem was, the customer believed the misperception, so if I wanted the customer to see the value of my team, I had to fix this. I came up with a strategy to turn a negative into a positive. I had the drafting department print out a huge map of the site. I hung this chart on the wall so that the people who would come looking for a computer operator (CO) would find it. I put a big red, “You Are Here” star on the map. I then drew lines to all of the locations a CO had to go to perform his/her job. We had lines going all over the building. This fixed the perception problem and turned the CO area into a top destination when the government director of operations wanted to show visitors around the building. Perception or not, negatives must be addressed for your team to get the recognition they deserve.


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Todd Keys is a Program Manager at Cantada, Inc. He has been in the intelligence Community for 30 years, as a member of the military (USAF), and as a contractor for top 100, top 10, and small business federal defense contractors. He has held multiple roles, CONUS and OCONUS, ranging from technician to executive, providing site O&M, system administration, engineering, supervision, contract management, and Capture/BD for the DoD and multiple intelligence agencies.