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Lessons from My Team Mates: Three Characteristics of Winning Teams

My team mates on the American International College Yellow Jackets hockey team taught me everything I know about team work. They taught me that great teams have three characteristics that contribute to their success. Just like in my professional life, it’s not about being the biggest or the fastest, it’s about how well you work together. I want to share these characteristics with you but I also want you to meet my former team mates.

It was a cast of characters. Don “the Rock” and Big Daddy Pao were two of the funniest guys I have ever met. We had Marty the pig farmer from Quebec and his ever-so-cool roommate Luss who would light a butt (ala Lafleur) after each game. We had superstar Vezy who would later play in the Torino Olympics and World Championships. We had Morris, the philosopher from New Jersey who would entertain us with stories from the Jersey shore long before it became a reality tv show. My roommate and resident hot head Sericolo would go on to fame as a linesman in the National Hockey League. We had Worto who would graduate and later play for the Calgary Flames. His roommate Maff had some of the best hands I’ve ever seen in the game and in his spare time was a jai alai fanatic. Our goalie Lewy could do an impression of anyone on the team and did so at every opportunity.  Jimmy brought a hard-nosed but comedic attitude to everything he did. Walshie was the team strongman and only guy I know to install “the clapper” in his 10×10 dorm room. Hard-nosed Gutes from Michigan played the game the way I thought it should be played. Batsey was probably the nicest guy you could ever meet despite his imposing Adonis-like body. Cappa had crazy eyes and a uni-brow and would never let you forget Smartfood popcorn was made in his home town. Can’t help but laughing as I think about them all.

Yet despite our varied backgrounds, we consistently beat bigger and better teams that we had no business beating. We achieved an unsurpassed record of victories culminating in an Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference Championship in 1990.

It’s been 25 years but the lessons these guys taught me about team work inform the decisions I make today as I lead our personal injury law firm.

Everyone is a Leader

On successful teams everyone has a role and everyone is a leader in their own way. Famed leadership expert Robin Sharma wrote about this concept in his best seller The Leader Who Had No Title. Simply put, Sharma’s thesis is that everyone within an organization has the power to lead.

This was my experience with the Yellow Jackets. To be successful, we needed our goal scorers to score, our penalty killers to kill penalties, our defensive players to block shots and our goalie to stand on his head. We succeeded because each player fulfilled his role – and in doing so each of us was a leader in our own way.

We have the same sort of leadership at our firm. Our Client Relations Coordinator, Megan is one of the most pleasant, engaging individuals you could ever meet. She is the first point of contact for our clients. She is the friendly voice our clients hear when they call our office and the person who knows their children by name. Our Accident Benefits Manager, Leanne is a former insurance adjuster and knows insurance companies from the inside out. She’s the perfect person to help our clients deal with their own insurance companies. Our law clerk Nicole is a stickler for details; perhaps almost as anal as I am! She spends countless hours combing through medical reports getting to know our clients’ cases so that we can tell their stories to a judge and jury. Our Office Manager Nancy has a gift for numbers so she manages the budget. The fact I am married to her doesn’t hurt either! In short, all of our successes are owed to each of our team members leading in their own way and I am grateful that they do.

Everyone Raises Their Game when it Matters the Most

It’s not the game you win by 10 goals that proves the character of a team. Team character is proven in the hard fought battles in which everyone elevates their game. Good teams, and good players take it to the next level when championships are on the line.

This is why the Yellow Jackets earned so many victories. Everyone raised their game when it came down to the last minute of a tight match. When you thought that they had nothing left in the tank, you would see guys do things you never thought they could. Lewy will make a “Hollywood” save. Pig farmer Marty, not known for his physical play, would go into a corner and come out with the puck. Walshie, known for scoring goals but not assists would make a pass that created a goal. We achieved what we did because everyone elevated their game when it mattered the most.

This happens at our firm as well. As a personal injury lawyer, the build-up towards mediations and trials are when our team raises its game. It’s something about the narrowing of focus and adrenaline rush that allows us to function more efficiently and with a single-mindedness of purpose. Our clients are the beneficiaries.

They Have Fun Together

Great teams have fun together. Fun allows team mates to grow closer. By growing closer, they play harder for each other. Don’t get me wrong they may not love each other all the time but after a hard fought battle, they learn respect. The opportunity to have fun together builds camaraderie which translates to wins.

We enjoyed lots of fun as Yellow Jackets. The Smead Arena locker room was trash talk central. Lewy would be doing impressions of Don “the Rock”. In broken English, Marty the pig farmer would be chirping Walshie the strong man, and in return Walshie would be using his limited French vocabulary to insult Marty. Of course, if you know hockey teams, I can’t even begin to describe the antics.

Having fun at our personal injury law firm is more challenging. Each day, we are helping clients who are suffering. They’re attempting to come to terms with spinal cord injuries, brain injuries, severe orthopaedic injuries and sometimes even death following car crashes, boating accidents, horrible falls and other mishaps. It’s a long way from a locker room after a practice.

But here I take the advice of my Dad the former homicide investigator. He always taught us that his best teams always took time out for fun. He explained that it helped to lighten the mood when they were dealing with life and death on a daily basis. With a record of solving over 90 murder investigations it’s hard to argue with that.

At our firm we create opportunities to have fun together. We celebrate birthdays, family additions and marriages. We enjoy local charity events. We have fun social events just for us. And throughout the day, we pause and we laugh. We work in a stressful environment, and the chance to have fun, to laugh together, helps us perform our professional roles.

In today’s business world, far too often, lip service is paid to the concept of team. “Team Smith” simply means that you work for Mr. Smith. Mr. Smith is the only leader. No one elevates their game and there’s no fun.  It’s a matter of punching the clock and going home. Then leaders wonder why their turn over rates are so high?!

Me, I was lucky and learned early about team work. I’m forever indebted to the 20 guys who taught me what team work really means. I love you fellas.

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