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Team Player or Individual Contributor?


When those of us in the nonprofit world go to hire folks, one of the tired and true interview questions is always, "Are you a team player?". I'm not convinced this is the BEST attribute we should be looking for in a future employee. Yes, it's important to play well with others, but in this surge for everyone to do collaborative work, I believe that we may have lost sight of the value of a strong individual contributor. These high performing employees can take a project from strategy through execution and do it well. I think we devalue this skill set. I may be speaking from a point of personal bias here as I firmly believe I am a strong individual contributor and even though I know how to lead a team of performers, sometimes I prefer to do the work myself.

Have you ever found yourself in a meeting discussing implementation and thought, "by the time this meeting is over I could have completed what we've been discussing for an hour now". There's a great meme that has a photo of a ribbon that says "I survived another meeting that should have been an email." I chuckle every time I see it. The hollow truth is that while we value consensus and everyone having a voice, at a certain point, the work has to get done. I'm a get it done kind of girl, I know there are others out there too. I'm the one who doesn't have an MBA for one specific reason (read group work). :)

They say in fundraising there's an 80/20 rule, that 80% of the money comes from 20% of the donors. I have my own 80/20 rule for working and implementation and its one that may strike home for you too. 80 percent of the work gets done by 20 percent of the employees. Some of you might be miffed by this, but I find it wherever I go. If you find yourself toiling as someone gleefully walks out the door to happy hour, ask yourself what's wrong with this picture? This happened to me a few jobs ago when I was building board books for Trustees. A "teammate" walked by and said "better you than me" then she cackled (the cackle may be a bit of a miffed exaggeration but you get the gist). I never looked at her the same way again.

If you're an individual contributor, meetings are the bane of your existence. You see right through the renaming of committees into "task forces". When you receive a meeting request, you wonder immediately what the outcomes will be. After the meeting you're looking for the next steps and action items. The question remains, can you be a bit of both? Of course you can, the choice is not one or the other, it's not that easy. It's about what you prefer. If this is obvious for you- then what is the solution? We must value both team players and also individual contributors. We need to encourage second level proactive thought and problem solving. It's ok to have independent ideas and be able to implement and execute without getting consensus. We have to value each contributor both of parts and the whole in order to recognize success. Also we need to hire both types of professionals, those who love group work and those who thrive flying solo.

Do you see this manifest itself in your shop? If so how? Which one do you identify as? I would love to hear your commentary below!

Cheers, Lynne

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