Choosing a Job? Learn How to Choose Your Team First

April 11, 2019

You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.

This piece of wisdom from entrepreneur Jim Rhon is frequently quoted, perhaps because it rings so true for so many.

The people you surround yourself with have a tremendous influence on your life. Knowing that, doesn’t it seem obvious that we should seek out people who will have a positive impact?

In our personal lives, we’re usually empowered to be selective about who we spend significant amounts of time with. We go on dates, getting to know our partners’ beliefs, values and personalities before settling into a committed relationship. We choose which of our friends to invite over for dinner or hang out with on weekends. We may not get to pick our families, but as adults we can usually decide how much time we spend with them.

In the professional world however, employees are rarely granted the “luxury” of choosing who they’ll spend so many of their waking hours with.

I interviewed hundreds of engineers to try to understand their experience in the job market, and a couple of observations made me realize I had been thinking about fit all wrong.

When I ask about what people are looking for in a job, most people will talk about the type of projects they want to work on, the size of the company, the impact they want to make or the industries they’re interested in. Rarely do people tell me what they’re looking for in a team.

But, if you ask people about the best job they ever had (or the worst), it usually doesn’t take long to find out that the team is what made them love the job (or hate it).

When it comes to searching for a job, we somehow seem to overlook the the fact people are among the most important factors in job fit, not to mention how they influence our development. Perhaps that’s because we haven’t put much effort into choosing the people we work with—we may not have even thought that it’s possible.

Employers have traditionally had the upper hand in the recruiting game, leaving candidates to make decisions with little knowledge of how their actual team will impact their future, personally and professionally.  

That means that, if Rhon is right, we’ve essentially been leaving it up to someone else to determine who we become. Just think about the five people in your life you spend most of your time with.

I propose that, if you’re in the fortunate position to be able to turn down a job, you should never accept an offer before meeting every member of your immediate team.

Even if you hardly spend any time at home, you probably wouldn’t move into an apartment before meeting every roommate (or even seeing every room), so why would you accept a job, where you’ll spend so much of your life, without meeting your team?

Not just your manager but your entire team can determine the course of your professional development. In addition to providing opportunities to learn new skills, these people set the professional bar, challenging and motivating you… or perhaps not so much. High-performing teams trust and support one another, resolve conflict constructively and work effectively toward their goals.

If you have great team chemistry, you’re more likely to enjoy your job, which is no trivial concern given how much time you’ll dedicate to it. Join a team that energizes you each day and life is wonderful. Join the wrong team, and each day is a struggle.

That’s especially true in fast-paced startups, where there’s so much change and uncertainty on a day to day basis. Researchers have found that role ambiguity is strongly correlated with poor job satisfaction, while team cohesiveness is strongly correlated with positive job satisfaction. Moreover the positive impact of team cohesiveness is even more pronounced in ambiguous working environments.

In other words, if you want to thrive at an early stage startup, you really need to get along well with your team.

For these reasons and others, the people you work with are likely to be among the most critical factors in your decision to stay or leave your job. In my experience, when employees love the people they work with day to day, they’re likely to stay in a role even if their product, leadership or company growth are not particularly compelling. On the flipside, many people will leave a “great job” if their relationship with their team is toxic.   

So, if things like job satisfaction, professional development and general happiness matter to you, making a concerted effort to choose the right team should be high on your priority list.

If you’re a highly skilled professional in an industry like tech, you’re in luck. Employers are increasingly willing to give talented prospects opportunities to meet with their future teams, even if it comes at the cost of longer, more expensive hiring funnels. That’s no surprise given the influence team cohesion can have on performance and turnover— not to mention the difficulty of winning over great talent in the first place.

How to Evaluate Your Next Team

Once you know that you want to choose your own team, the next step is to figure out how to find what exactly you’re looking for.

Fit can often be sussed out by asking the right questions and using well-thought out criteria to evaluate the responses you get. This requires a bit of preparation. In fact, I’d argue that its worth putting as much thought into the questions you ask a prospective employer as you put into preparing to answer their questions in an interview.

Based on an in-depth review of academic research, as well as my own experience interviewing job seekers, I’ve developed a set of five factors that can be used to predict how well you’ll align with a team, and in turn, how well a job will help you achieve your objectives.

#1 Intellectual Stimulation

Your teammates should set a high bar for themselves and for others. To find out if that’s the case, dig into their academic background as well as their work experience. How does their trajectory compare to yours? Have they worked on meaningful projects at inspiring companies?

Example question: What project that you’ve worked on, here or elsewhere, are you most proud of?  

#2 Learning Goals

Your progress depends on your ability to constantly pick up new skills. First ask yourself what learning goals are most important to you, then consider how instrumental your team could be. Do your teammates have expertise you hope to acquire, and experience you could benefit from? Is there anyone on the team you could look to as a mentor to improve your skills? What about opportunities to mentor others?

Example question: If I want to learn [xyz skill] is there someone on the team who can help me figure out how to do it?  

#3 Working Style and Intentions

There’s more than one way to conceptualize what an ideal team is. What does work-life balance mean to you? Do you want to be friends with your colleagues outside of work or keep it professional? How much of a priority is personal development versus team development? Find out how the team currently functions and look for signs that it aligns with your intentions.

Example question: What are your personal objectives with this current role? What would you like to get out of this?

#4 Team Chemistry  

The vibe you get, the values you share and the things you do outside of work are all things you should consider seriously. How well you get along with each member of the team, and how well the team jives as a whole are both good indicators of how productive and enjoyable your experience will be at work.

Example question: What did you do this past weekend? What are your passions outside of work?  

#5 Diversity

On initial impression, our biases tend to make us feel more “comfortable” with people who are similar to us, but in fact it’s people of different professional/academic backgrounds, demographics and experiences that help us grow. There are ample studies showing that diversity helps teams perform better. Keep this in mind as you consider each of the factors above, paying close attention to how certain differences can appear to be weaknesses, while the reality may be the opposite. The exception is working style and intentions, or shared interests and passions, which can be the glue that holds an otherwise diverse team together.

Example question: How diverse do you consider the team to be in terms of people’s backgrounds and experiences? What is unique about what you bring to the table, relative to the rest of the team?

You may be able to get some answers in an interview, but I’d strongly encourage you to  set up meetings over coffee or lunch, and really get to know your future team members (or should I say, future you?).

This article draws on the following research:

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