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Leadership Is a Team Sport: To Whom Do You Belong?

Every time quarterback Matthew Stafford knelt during his huddle in Detroit Lions games, he captured the attention of Susan Packard. Susan grew up in Detroit, so she’s a loyal fan, no matter the season record. “First of all, I have to say it’s hard to be a Lions fan. I’ve been saying that for twenty years, and nothing changes,” says Susan.

What did change for her was noticing how Stafford appeared to respect his teammates in the huddle. “He gets down on his knee and he looks up at his teammates when he’s calling plays—as if from a position of homage. It’s as if he’s looking at his left tackle and saying, ‘I know you’re going to protect my blind side.’ And to his receivers, he’s saying, ‘I know you’re the guys who are scoring the points.’ It’s a great visual for leadership,” she says.

Susan’s observations about Stafford’s huddle speak to her own values as a leader. She’s built media brands like HBO, CNBC, and HGTV. She cofounded Scripps Network Interactive, served as COO of HGTV, and authored two books about the journey. While each of these credentials speaks to her individual success, she’s the first person to acknowledge that her best work was built on the shoulders of teamwork.

Here are three teamwork practices that surfaced during my conversation with Susan:

1. Be willing to confront yourself in the context of teamwork.

Sure, consider what your own strengths are, but ask yourself about vulnerabilities. Who will protect your blind side? By asking who will protect you, you’re broaching big decisions with the broader considerations of your team. Susan recalls throwing her hat in the ring for a promotion. After the short-lived thrill of this declaration, she started to feel a pit in her stomach. Upon reflection, she realized those feelings were the reservations centered on leaving her team. Her concerns ranged from departing without a succession plan that would bridge the transition gap to breaking up a cohort that complemented each member’s skill set. If you’re a leader with a strong ethos about teamwork, then confronting yourself means addressing how your professional moves affect others, how you care for what you’ve collectively created.

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2. Turn your org chart on its head to celebrate collective efforts.

Like my colleague and former CEO of Home Depot, Frank Blake, Susan is a fan of the inverted-pyramid approach to leadership. The inverted pyramid is a different way of depicting your organizational chart. The traditional leader, for example, is at the bottom while the employees and customers are at the top. Susan knows from experience that leadership is a team sport. Your front lines are as critical to your success as those in the corner office devising strategy. Susan told me about a time when HGTV began experiencing profitability. She and her senior team decided that they were going to give the first profits back to the employees who had helped the company through the early years. They pulled themselves out of the list so they could stack the deck. The support staff who had been with them the longest received the biggest checks. Giving a bigger check to a support staff member than an executive was a powerful way to say, “Thank you. It doesn’t matter what your station is in this organization. Each of you plays a part in how we’re going to be successful.”

3. Ask to whom you belong.  

Susan explains that an emotionally fit leader recognizes that their accomplishments are the result of acting as a team. Leaders play the part of a greater professional ecosystem. So asking questions like “Who am I?” doesn’t accomplish a holistic approach. Instead, she suggests borrowing a philosophy she read about a Quaker teacher who taught his students by posing questions. One of the questions he suggests you ask is “Whose am I?” Without the context of those around you—your home community or work community—you can’t answer the ultimate “Who am I?” existential question. Susan latched on to this idea because it describes how a leader should think.

People often ask me why I returned to lead Prologis when the company’s stock value was plummeting, and the executive team was suffering from the effects of their departed leader. My response always comes easily; I returned for the employees. I had hired many of them during my tenure, and I wanted to help them in a time of need. Had I known Susan’s philosophy back then and been asked “Whose am I?” I would have said, “I belong to the employees at Prologis.”

Knowing to whom you belong begs a question Susan often experiences when she shares her story about the teacher: What choice should you make when you don’t feel a connection to your leader? What are your options when you don’t belong?

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