As a team advisor, I often hear clients refer to their “first team.” It’s an expression coined by Patrick Lencioni in his books The Five Dysfunctions of a Team and The Advantage. It gets considerable attention in team effectiveness discussions.

Since I first heard the expression, I’ve wrestled with the idea of a first team and struggled to understand its value (or even its purpose). After the subject came up again recently, I decided to dig in and figure out whether it’s a help or a hindrance.

I’ll skip to the punchline: I like the idea of first team even less now that I’ve thought about it some more.

What is a First Team?

Every manager (perhaps with the exception of the CEO) belongs to at least two teams: the team they lead and the team they are a member of. The first team approach argues that managers must prioritize the team they are a member of over the team they lead.

It’s a simple concept. I like simple concepts. 👍🏻

Is Having a First Team a Good Idea?

Lencioni, (who is one of the most insightful and prolific insight generators in the field of team development) developed the first team in response to his observation that there are too much siloed, self-interested, narrow-minded behavior from managers who spend their time and energy around their boss’ table lobbying for their own team’s needs to the exclusion of what’s best for the enterprise. That’s a genuine problem and one worth addressing. 👍🏻

Why Insisting on a First Team Doesn’t Work?

Unfortunately, addressing the self-interested, narrow-minded jerk problem with an absolute statement such as, “Demand that team members prioritize the executive team over all others” is solving one problem by creating another. 👎🏻

I have seen the effects of the members of a leadership team prioritizing their team over all others:

  • Team members start to breathe their own fumes and slowly their insular thinking leads to insufficient conflict and eventually, to shoddy decisions
  • People outside the leadership team start to perceive the members of the team as an inaccessible, unapproachable, inner circle. The leadership team gets cut off from candid communication and makes decisions in a vacuum or based on insufficient or inaccurate information
  • Members of the leadership team become myopically focused on the team and spend insufficient time cascading and translating decisions to the teams they lead. Alignment and execution suffer.
  • The leadership team starts to think it can meet any time at a moment’s notice and expects team members to drop everything else to accommodate. The rest of the organization is thrown into chaos.

Two Hats are Better Than One

The first team approach encourages leaders to “take off their functional hats.” If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say, “Put on your enterprise hat,” I could… well…at the very least buy a nice hat.

But it’s too simple!

The functional hat is not bad; not inherently evil or anti-social. Your functional hat (and your functional brain beneath it) is a big part of the value you’re paid to bring to your organization.

First Job and Second Job

It’s your first job to advocate strongly and with compelling evidence for the function you lead. If the head of marketing isn’t pushing and challenging and putting tension to make your products more desirable to the customer, who the heck is? And if the head of engineering isn’t pulling back equally hard to ensure the product is reliable and stable before you rush to release it to the market, it ain’t gonna be pretty. High-performing teams have productive, necessary tension when team members realize that their first job is to advocate for their unique perspective.

Person putting on a fedora

A snazzy fedora seems like an “enterprise hat,” don’t you think?

I suspect that the first team concept emerged because of the paucity of executives who realize that they also have a second job. The second job, after laying out your argument and advocating convincingly for the stakeholders you represent, is to reposition yourself as an advocate for the best answer for the whole team. When you’re making a decision as part of a team, your job is to optimize the decision across all of the different angles, perspectives, and stakeholders involved in the decision. And yes, if you must, you can switch into your “enterprise hat” to do so.

You need to do both of these jobs well to be an effective leader. You need to be great at your functional role and you need to be great at looking at the issue more holistically. You need to be an engaged and effective leader of your team and an engaged and effective member of your boss’ team.

The concept of a first team doesn’t work for me. It’s a little too simple. I get that every manager has an obligation to optimize decisions for the good of the organization. I just don’t think that requires a false dichotomy between which team is your first priority. I also worry that adherence to the first team approach can inadvertently cause you to shortchange the team you lead.

Instead of setting up a false choice between the team you lead and the team you’re a member of, be deliberate about your role in any given moment. If the decision calls for you to bring some tension from your functional perspective, great. If it calls for you to challenge your own self-interest with what’s best for the enterprise, that’s good too.

Further Reading

Why you owe it to your teammates to disagree with them

When the problem is outside your team

What’s missing from executive teams today?

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