Building a team is a tall order

There’s an abundance of experts out there covering various areas—from keto diets to bee venom, from scaling the business to building a healthy culture, from hiring to firing. The simple fact there are so many megaphones is a challenge in itself. We need more voices that are willing to say—”I don’t know.” Otherwise, we tend to believe that all the answers are one click or a few books away. That is, of course, superfluous.

August 27, 2020
Reading time 6 – 10 minutes

I’ve been in charge of building the Pixelgrade team for a few years now. I’ve put skin and soul in the game from the very beginning, even though nobody asked me to take on this challenge. It all started with my inner desire to make my work better next to a hand of people with whom I can trust and build stuff I’m proud of.

First, I embraced the so-called people-person role. I started to run 1:1 sessions with everyone in the team, pay attention to an entire river of unspoken discontents, facilitate communication, and balance the feedback to move further. Two years ago, when I shook the hand with George and Vlad and became a business partner, the responsibility got bigger. With it, the price I pay for accepting the new performance.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy it even though there are days when I would like to take this hat and burn it to ashes. It’s draining, frustrating, full of blockers, and with little to no acknowledgment in return. Still, it’s a challenge I am grateful for and ceaselessly shapes me. It helped me become who I am today—a better version.

We want all and a bit more

Teams are tricky because we’re talking about people, not robots. You and I have feelings, anxieties, ambitions, fears, dreams, biases, beliefs. Those cannot be automated.

In the Romanian culture, defined by reluctance and plenty of skepticism, there are pleeeenty of companies where the command-and-control attitude is still alive and kicking. I haven’t had too many role models for nurturing a team, especially one working on their products and willing to act following a clear set of values.

For instance, I give my best to work on the opposite side of the spectrum, with different tools. I want to understand people in their complexity and make room for them to come to the office in their fullest self. I started with myself by doing therapy and coaching sessions. Now, I’m trying to lead by example and reinforce positive behaviors and attitudes as much as I can. But I’m a human being after all, with my fair share of lack of strength, motivation, and screw up moments.

It’s been almost a year since I started noticing a pattern across our team. I believe that if you pay enough attention and you are ready to face reality, you will see it running in your company too. It’s not bad or good; it’s not black or white; it’s not fixable or understandable. But it leaves a mark on both the culture and the business.

People show up with an entire (and growing) spectrum of needs at the office.

Let me give you a broader context about what I’m trying to highlight with the bold statement.

Most of us continuously fail in how we relate to our partners in our private lives, often putting pressure on them to play various roles flawlessly—husband, buddy, brother, father, comrade, and-so-on. It takes a lot of sweat even to accept it, and even more to put the work and change it for the better. When it comes to the office, similar expectations float in the air, no matter if we recognize them or not.

Today, especially in the creative industries (fields such as tech, architecture, music, design, copywriting, photography, ceramic, animation, etc.), folks pack a wide range of needs under the same roof. And they want to fulfill them in those eight-ish hours spent at the office. No more, no less. They want to cover them all within a full-time job, whatever that means today.

The nasty part is that we are besieged with confusing messages such as: “Find what you love and will never feel your work a day in your life.”, or “Working with passion feels like a breeze.”, or “Everything’s easier when you enjoy what you do.” Therefore, we live with the impression that it should be easy and shiny and creative.

These are only illusions. If you love what you do, you won’t probably stop at 6 pm. You will continue to learn, to improve your abilities, to become better at your game. For steady growth to happen, you need more stamina. At Pixelgrade, I think it’s my responsibility to be straightforward and stop this cheap propaganda.

People and business, not or

As a CPO (Chief People Officer), there are countless times when I see how many needs and requests are crowded in a very narrow timeframe, such a 9 to 6 kind of schedule. From learning to entertainment, from exploring to mentoring others, from solving personal struggles to growing, from creating stronger bonds to having light talks about various topics, from chatting about the latest movie to debating what’s happening globally. All are on the table, waiting to be sliced and digested bits by bits in the same amount of time.

We often link our identity to our job, and if sometimes goes wrong or a need from the above is not met, we think something is deeply broken.

How did we land here?

While I am well aware that projecting and finger-pointing so many needs into one’s face are killing the relationship slowly and surely, I am also confident that it’s not sustainable to swallow so many expectations at work. In a way or another, at least some needs will remain unfulfilled.

On top of that, what I witnessed lately is that the cost of treating people in their fullest complexity, as we’re doing at Pixelgrade (meaning that they have feelings, problems, good days, bad days, beliefs, triggers, a never-ending dynamics that’s welcome) is getting higher and higher.

How can a business adjust to all these solicitations while being profitable (that’s why it’s a business) and treating people in a humane way (that’s our calling)?

I know that a few possible answers can pop-up at the surface. I did these exercises a bunch of times, and here is the outcome:

Maybe I need to find different rules and boundaries.
Maybe I should care less.
Maybe I must extend the working day.
Maybe I need to hire other people.
Maybe I can encourage them to go to therapy.
Maybe I am too flexible, too permissive, too good, too you-name-it.
Maybe I should remind them that they’re adults.
Maybe I need to learn how to navigate such moments better.

Or maybe a more humble and balanced answer would be—“I don’t know.” I honestly and kindly admit that these are murky waters that are brand new to my generation of first-time team builders if you want. Nobody swam them before, and we don’t know what’s underneath the water, what creatures live there.

Invisible forces leave a mark on the team

It’s a new reality (not because of the pandemic, even though it does not help in any way) that we need to deconstruct first to grasp its gist better and put it together in a more coherent story. It is a complex process that requires plenty of resources, both intellectual and emotional.

Never again until now, we, aka people who lead and consolidate teams from the first line, needed to shape our mental system to face so many demands that are comprehensively impacting a team.

These invisible forces are impacting our lives for better or worse. They surely don’t leave us untouched or indifferent.

I admit I’m a bit startled and quite worried about how I will continue to do my job in an organic and caring way if these needs continue to show-up at this pace, and are not tempered or renegotiated in different terms. If they will be expressed so intensely across nine hours spent at the office, I wonder how it will impact our becoming as both individuals and a team.

I genuinely hope to find a path that’s in alignment with our values and the particular moment I am in life that will change and come with new dilemmas and difficulties. In the end, maybe that’s the beauty and the stake of doing my job so passionately, right from the tranches: to transform a tall order into something achievable and autonomous that can stay on its foot as healthy adults do.

I know that at Pixelgrade, we have everything we need to make it happen and live a blossoming life, full of meaning, and beautiful experiences.

One day.

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