Career and Money Advice At The Intersection Of Business And Technology

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Is team work overrated in corporate environment?

September 11th, 2009 · No Comments

When I was an impressionable college student, I bought into the notion of "team work". As a computer science student, I did many projects in a team environment. I tried hard to be the team player, was willing to sacrifice for the team, and never hesitated to take on tedious tasks for the team.

Professors, recruiters, career center counselors all told us that we needed to be team players to succeed in the real world.

But, is this really true? Is team work really that important for company and career success? Will being a team player help you build a successful career?

I have worked over a decade now.  I have had several employers so far: one management consulting firm, two Fortune-500 companies, 3 start-ups. Some of them have been successful while a few have failed miserably.

None of them operated in a "team environment". 🙂

From my own experience, it seems that 80/20 rule applies:

  • 20% or less of the sales guys generated 80% or more of the company revenue
  • 20% or less of the software engineers wrote 80% or more of the software code
  • 20% or less of the QA engineers caught 80% or more of the software bugs
  • 20% of less of the professional service consultants did 80% or more of the implementation work

Here are a few examples.

A star sales guy was arrogant, demanding, a pain to work with. But, he kept his job because he generated a significant amount of revenue for the company.

A software engineer was extremely high-maintenance. But, he was extremely productive when he was writing code. He would always get a good review because the company needed him although his peers hated to work with him.

A VP of Account Management was ruthless and clueless. But, by luck, her team operated in a very hot market. Customers would happily write a check without any selling. Her Account Management team met the sales goals although she had alienated a lot of people in the company. She still had her job.

I knew many people who worked at Oracle, a highly successful enterprise software company. Very few of them told me they enjoyed working there. It was a sales machine, but not a team environment.

Microsoft is one of the most successful high tech companies of our time. But, I heard a lot of complaints from current and ex-Microsoft employees about how political the place has gotten. Just read my Microsoft Layoff Satisfaction Survey.

Apple has been very successful in the past few years. But, everyone knows Steve Job is a micro-manager. It’s extremely difficult to work for him. But, he delivers, just not in a "team environment".

I could give you many more examples.

No, I’m not becoming cynical. I’m writing this post because I want us collectively to accept the reality:

  • Every human being is dysfunctional. But, a dysfunctional human being can still make great contribution to the world.
  • Every family is dysfunctional. But, a dysfunctional family can still raise great kids.
  • Every company is dysfunctional. But, a dysfunctional company can still succeed.

Team work is neither necessary nor sufficient for building successful companies.

As an individual, each of us needs to figure out how to fit into the overall organization, balance our own interests with others’ interests, and maximize our contribution in alignment to the company’s profit objectives.

It’s not about being the team player. It’s about being the 20% or less that contribute to 80% or more. 🙂

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Excellent resources:

Tags: Corporate Ladder · Frustration@Work

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