2016 / 19 January

How important is trust when building a team?

The recent WADA decision to ban 34 Essendon players as a result of the club’s supplements scandal has sent shockwaves through the sporting community. As expected the ruling has lead to numerous debates about who is to blame and whether the penalty is too harsh on the players.

Given that the offences happened three years ago and (aside from Jobe Watson winning the Brownlow) there was no obvious advantage to the team itself, I think the penalty is a little superfluous at this point. What interests me is the discussion about who is to blame.

On the one hand, commentators are saying that the players should be responsible for what they’re putting in their bodies and are 100% at fault. The other camp says that it’s the job of the trainers and nutritional staff to be professional enough to provide guidance in the best possible manner. These professional staff get paid to provide support, and in this instance, they failed.

The reality is, as usual, somewhere in the middle, but it brings forth the question of trust. To say that these players should question absolutely every decision made by their training staff is ludicrous. That level of scrutiny is not only unfeasible, it should be completely unnecessary for players. Yes, they are professional athletes and are driven to succeed but they are not professional nutritionists, trainers or psychologists. There should be an expectation and a trust in the staff to provide that advice for the ultimate benefit of the team.

The application for the Oxford MBA asked what could be learned from a sports team when running a business. My take was that while the players themselves are the public facing arm of the team, their ultimate success hinges on the quality of the internal staff. Much like a business, the public facing staff (CEO, PR etc) are all able to perform their jobs properly if they are supported by the team (whether they’re developers, accountants, marketers, whatever). These individuals should be aware of the functions of the other staff, but they are required to be the expert in whatever they do, with the collective success riding on the ability of everyone to work together.

As this saga has unfolded, I have tried to apply it to my own context. We are still in the early stages of creating our business, and thus I believe that trust is paramount. The paradox of creating a brand new enterprise is that even though you’re supposed to be expert in the room, there are still a million unanswered questions and problems to solve, so you really know very little. While you may know more than the person across the table about the business itself, the collective knowledge required to get things off the ground and generating profit is more than any one individual.

As the path to our MVP takes shape, so too does it introduce more questions. It is my job to find the answers to those questions, so I have to rely on a level of trust and intuition to ensure I’m learning from the best people I can. Similarly, as we grow and have to recruit new people, I have to help recruit a team that can be relied upon and that we can trust to collectively create the best possible product.

Anyone who has started a business knows that the path is not smooth. It’s more akin to sanding something with a cheese grater. At every step, there will be new considerations, new changes and new circumstances. There has to be an inherent level of trust within the team that collectively, the best decisions are being made. I’ve worked in businesses where lack of trust was almost a cultural value and I believe their success (or lack thereof) will be a reflection of this. Therefore one of the greatest considerations I have is how we build the best possible team, with trust at its core. But what does trust look like?


Are they able to say ‘I don’t know?’

No one has every answer to every question. There is often an expectation that you do, which leads to ill-informed or rash decisions. The ability to say “I don’t know…” requires a level of trust, because it makes you vulnerable. What’s important is to follow that up with “…but I will find out”. Trust goes both ways, so the ability to give someone a task and trust them to come back with the best answer needs to be balanced with their trust that you’re giving them a reasonable amount of time to perform their duties.


Can I have a beer with this person?

We spend so many hours of our lives at work, there needs to be a level of comfort with your team. More so than that, starting a business will put people together in a high stress environment. There will be success, failure, anger, there may be tears. There will be a level of vulnerability displayed by everyone. That should be acknowledged and supported. You should be able to drop the tools and just go have a drink and talk to any of the people you work with about any subject other than work.


Are they as excited as you are about what you’re doing?

Many people work for the dollars, others work for the passion. In a new business, passion should always trump dollars because it’s the intangible things that spur people to work. It’s the desire to do something meaningful and create something amazing that will get people out of bed and work harder or smarter for less of an upfront financial gain. So are the people you work with as excited as you? Do your questions make people sit upright, become animated and lead to healthy debate about what’s next? Or are they passive and roll over to any request? Are they only there from 9–5 or can you trust them to put in the extra time when required?


Can I depend on this person in a crisis?

While so many of us define ourselves by the work we do, the reality is that life should come first. Family and friends all depend on us in times of need, and your work should be no different to that. Things often happen that are outside of our control and quite often, we will need to lean on the people we work with to support us. That cannot happen if you can’t trust those people.


These are the kinds of questions I ask myself when I speak to people about our business. It’s my version of an internal scorecard. It’s not precise and has lead to some poor decisions in the past, but that has lead my intuition to improve. While it will never be infallible, I have to rely on it to try and navigate the world ahead. I imagine if you asked the 34 Essendon players these questions about some of their support staff, the answer would be a resounding ‘no’.

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