Team Building Can Be Deadly

For a couple of years, I taught at a school in Manhattan for tradesmen. My students were electricians, plumbers, carpenters, a bricklayer (I didn’t even know the profession still existed!), and project managers. They had all graduated high school. Only a few had attended college and fewer had a degree. I was, to put it mildly, intimidated. I was used to teaching university students. This was something totally new for me. I was out of my element, had been thrown into the deep end.

And I enjoyed every minute of it. I had to learn a completely new way to get my message across. I had to learn a new way to gain/earn respect. And I had to be willing to be their student as much as their teacher. We had fun. We laughed. We all learned. There was no superiority and no inferiority. After a few weeks, we got to know each other. We learned how to work together. In many ways, we were a team.

I was reminded of this recently when I was interviewing an electrician for a position I was looking to fill. (Don’t bother asking for details; the position has been filled.) He made a joke about a cracked water pipe leaking into a light fixture. I jokingly said, “Even I know that is not a good thing!” He laughed and said, “Electricity and water work together but don’t get along.”

I don’t know if he realized how insightful a statement that was, but it got me thinking.

When I am considering candidates for positions with my executive recruiting clients, culture is the most important factor. I give a six-month guarantee, so I don’t want someone leaving after a few months. I have to be certain they are a match. A new hire has to be able to work with existing staff, but, unlike electricity and water, they must also get along. And there’s the rub. Existing staff must make the new hire feel welcome, but the new hire has to be willing to recognize that they are joining a preexisting team; the team is not joining them. The difference is significant. The new hire, over time, may be able to change things, but in the beginning, they have to conform (with the obvious exception of a senior/executive hire).

In most cases, hiring employees means expanding or maintaining an existing team, not changing its fundamentals. Knowing that means security and comfort for current employees and an appreciation of the need for acceptance of that fact by the new hire(s).

Electricity and water can get along as long as they are adjacent to each other, separated by some sort of protective covering. But put them together and sparks will literally fly. Make sure the same does not happen when you put a new hire together with your existing team! They must be able to work together and get along. Otherwise, it will be like electricity and water meeting at a light fixture.