Back home, few leaders are more revered than the great football coach Erk Russell. He was an assistant coach for my alma mater, the University of Georgia, for a long time, and later he built Georgia Southern University into a Division I-AA powerhouse.
I heard him speak once when I was a kid, and I think that might’ve been the exact time I became focused on building great teams in business and life. Russell was an amazing motivator: He had all of his players wear T-shirts under their jerseys with the word TEAM scrawled in giant letters, and then under it in tiny microscopic letters was the word me. The players got the message, and Georgia Southern won three national championships.
You have to be a great team-builder if you want to be leader for very long. You have to be a great teammate, too. The best example I can give from my business career is my continued relationship with Rick Williams.
In 1989 Citigroup bought the financial services company where he and I worked. The company had a string of CEOs come and go in the 1990s. Back then, Rick was the chief financial officer, I was head of marketing, and together we developed an incredibly strong bond despite having completely opposite skill sets. Rick was this brilliant Wharton MBA, a detail-oriented financial brain, and I was this very attention-deficit-disordered, wide-open, ready-fire-aim kind of personality. Then in 1999 we were named co-CEOs.
About 99.9 percent of the time, a co-CEO structure doesn’t work, but Rick and I had a very successful 15-year run. Our teamwork was the reason. We had great growth for a long time, and then when the financial world collapsed in 2008—with Citi and all the big banks at the epicenter—we pulled off an incredibly successful initial public offering together. That IPO saved the company—miraculous, considering this was a time when IPOs just weren’t happening and the markets were frozen.
People always asked us how the co-CEO thing worked. My answer was that 1 + 1 doesn’t equal 2. It really equals 11. When two complementary minds and visions come together, the results are exponential. Greater than exponential!
We had a shared vision. We made all our big decisions together. Neither of us was egoless—we knew we were effective individually—but together we were unstoppable.
You have to be a great team-builder if you want to be a leader for very long.
The lesson here is to understand you aren’t great at everything. We all have strengths and weaknesses. If you surround yourself with people whose strengths are different from yours, you benefit from a greater-than-exponential multiplier effect when it comes to the capabilities of the whole team.
To build a winning team, as Coach Russell or Rick and I have done, you have to be honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses, as well as surround yourself with trusted people willing to subjugate their egos and apply their skills to better the team as a whole. Finally, as a leader, you have to constantly reinforce that team. You have to let people know that although you have the big title, you aren’t bigger than the team.
That’s how you beat the competition. You’ll find out it’s a lot more fun to win together.
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