One of my favorite books is “Into the Wild,” a story based on the life of Christopher McCandless. After graduating from college, McCandless abandoned society for total freedom and solitude. For me, the story is about freeing oneself from control systems and societal expectations with the goal of finding true happiness. Nearly everyone has had the fantasy of being free from the opinions, expectations and dependencies of others. For most, the notion of escaping the grind of competing priorities, ambiguity, bureaucracy and unrealistic expectations is inarguably tempting. Having abandoned family, money and opportunity for a life alone in the wilderness, in a final moment of irony McCandless has the deathbed revelation that, “Happiness is only real when shared.”
During the course of my first “real” job, I learned a lesson about this axiom from my boss and mentor, Mr. Chuck Wise. I was working at the Office of Advancement while in grad school at Purdue University and was charged with leading a team on a major project. Toward the end of the project, Chuck asked for a comprehensive update on my team’s area of responsibility. Two or three days following his request, we presented a 20-page report for his review. A few days later, Chuck gave it back to me with only one recurring edit – every “I” in the report was circled. After attempting to un-puzzle his feedback for what seemed like a lifetime, it finally hit me.
Every “I” was a statement that my contributions were somehow above the work of the team. I had made this happen. I willed our results into existence. I made all the right decisions. I kept us on budget. And in summary, I deserved all the credit. He had presented me with a golden opportunity to elevate the contributions of everyone on the team and I had failed to recognize them. “I” was embarrassed.
Chuck called me into his office the next day. He smiled and took the report from my hand, crossed out the first “I” in the report and wrote “We.” Then he patted me on the back and said, “No one does it alone son.” He was right. It had been a tremendous team effort.
We revisited and rewrote the report from the “we” perspective. This small shift in tone and perspective changed the entire tenor of the report. More importantly, it reinforced the collective ownership of our success and the team’s motivation to charge the next hill.
“We-speak” may feel like a control system that swallows individuals into the collective Borg but the “we world-view” actually does the opposite. When a manager hears an employee bragging on the contributions of others and the team, he or she can’t help but think, “Wow, this person can lead. He or she knows how to bring the best out in others. Definite management potential.”
At Marxent, we depend on strong teams and a commitment to collaboration. Many folks contribute to each success, some in small ways and some in bigger ways depending on the project. We appreciate and encourage individuality and independence but when it’s a team effort accolades always go to the team.
Both Chuck and McCandless were right. Like happiness, success is only real when shared.
Beck Besecker is CEO and co-founder of Marxent Labs.