Who’s in Your Canoe? 5 Things to Consider When Building a New Team

I’m building a new team; who should be on it?

Often we just inherit the teams we lead, but occasionally we have the opportunity to build a new team from scratch.  How do you know who to pick?    Here are five action steps you can take when building a new team that will give you the best chance of success.

Whos In Your Canoe - 5 Things to Consider when Building a New Team

Up the River With a Paddle

We should have seen it coming.

A few years back, an organization I belonged to made it a practice to have a fun outing every once in a while.  The purpose was to build camaraderie and foster cooperation.  We worked at dispersed locations on small teams, and these outings were a great way to bring us closer together.

One of these events we dubbed the “Manly-Man Weekend.”  We gathered in northern Arkansas to spend a few days canoeing the scenic Buffalo National River.

Paddling a canoe was not necessarily a job-related skill, but it was just assumed that we were all comfortable with the idea of getting in narrow boats and using wooden sticks to propel us across the water.  Maybe we shouldn’t have been so cavelier.

As a long-time Boy Scout, this was definitely in my comfort zone; my canoeing partner had also spent a lot of time on the water.  We knew:  you both face forward, the person in back steers, the one in front provides power.  We flipped for it, and I stepped into the bow.  Soon we were out in the middle of the river.

As we departed, I couldn’t help noticing one of the other pairs.  They were from a different team, and it was quickly evident that this boating thing was not something they were very familiar with.  One person climbed into the back of the canoe and sat down facing forward.  As he did so, the other climbed into the front of the canoe and faced rearward.

I’m not sure if they knew at that point that they might have a problem.  Perhaps we should have said something, but we didn’t.  These were grown men on a “manly-man” outing.  Surely they’ll figure it out.  Alas, this was not the case.

Before long, we heard shouting behind us, and then the inevitable splash as the canoe dumped both occupants into the water.  We quickly paddled back to help out; the only injuries were to personal pride.

But the incident still sticks in my mind as a brief, soggy reminder that building a new team isn’t just a matter of tossing people into the same boat.

Building the Team

When you are putting your team together, you can reduce the risk of capsize if you follow these five steps.

1. Define the mission and goal.  It’s always a good idea to start here.  What’s the destination?  How will you know when you get there?  Above all, a clear idea of where you want to go and what you want to accomplish with your team should drive the choices you are about to make.

If you use a construct like SMART Goals, you’ll have a solid idea of your timeline and deliverables.  These will then help you make wise choices about who’s on the team.

2.  List the skills. Just as there are two positions in the canoe, each with specific functions, think through what your team will require.  What specific abilities does the job demand?  What experience would be helpful?  Consider things like technical expertise, design, sales, project management, and communication.

Think through your project from start to finish and what you’ll need every step of the way.  You may have lot of good friends in the Sales Department, but you may need more than sales to reach your destination.  So before you start naming names, list out the skills.

3.  Match candidates to skills.  Once you know what attributes and skill-sets would be helpful for the team, you can begin to identify those who will match your team’s need.  Try to pair individual strengths to the positions where you can make the best use of them.

It’s a good idea to list several potential candidates for each position; some may not be available, and later, when you’re thinking about fit, having options will make your life easier.

4.  Select the right candidate.  The first name on the list may not be the best option for your new team.  Two things to consider here:

You don’t want the best individual.  This may sound a little counter to common sense.  It’s easy to be seduced by the idea that you want to get the best players on the team, but that can be a dangerous approach.  Often the stars can be more focused on their own ego, status, and wellbeing than on the success of the team and the project.

What is better is to have the best players for the team.  Individual success should come as a result of team success and that’s how your players should be focused.  The real stars are the best team players.

The best teams are the ones with the best teammates. Click To Tweet

Pick people who aren’t like you.  We all have a tendency to like people who are like us, but that doesn’t work to our advantage when building teams.  You need a variety of skills, strengths, and perspectives on your team.  If everyone thinks like, you, then someone isn’t thinking.

Look for the non-conformist who is willing to challenge assumptions and question “the way we’ve always done it.”  Having a good mix of perspectives may not make for the smoothest journey, but the clash of ideas can keep you off The Road to Abilene, and lead to a better result in the end.

5.  Define the culture. Building a new team means establishing a culture within which the team will operate.  I’ve covered building your culture from the ground up in a previous post.  The key point to make here is that it’s a good idea to define what you want that culture to look like now.  Write it down, identify your cornerstone principles, how you want the team to communicate and cooperate.

Now go through your list and look for the people who have the skills that will also fit that culture.

When you meet for the first time, make a point to talk not just about goals and objectives, but also the culture and values you want the team to live by.  Ask for their agreement on day one, and then continue to reinforce those values in word and deed every day going forward.

Building a New Team – The Takeaway

Back on the banks of the Buffalo River, we all learned a simple lesson about building a new team:  It works best if you are deliberate about who you are putting together in the same boat.

Be clear about the goal, identify the skills you’ll need to get you there, then look for people who can not only deliver, but also thrive in the culture you create.

Once you and your new team are out on the water, you want to spend your energy moving down river to your destination, not struggling to keep your vessel upright.

And of course building a new team doesn’t stop there, either.  Teams have a life cycle.   For each stage of your team’s development  be ready to adjust your leadership style to keep them moving productively forward.

Lead on!


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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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