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. I’ve always wrestled with the idea of a first team and struggled to understand its value. After the subject came up again recently, I decided to dig in and figure out where and how this concept works (and doesn’t). 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.

A Good Idea

Lencioni developed the first team concept to overcome the siloed, self-interested, narrow-minded behavior of 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.

Poorly Implemented

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:

  • The team starts to breathe their own fumes and slowly insular thinking leads to insufficient conflict around the table and the resulting shoddy decisions
  • The people outside the leadership team start to perceive the members of the team as an inaccessible, unapproachable, inner circle. The leadership team becomes cut off from candid communication and decisions are made based on insufficient or inaccurate information
  • Members of the leadership team become so focused on their leadership team that they spend insufficient time cascading and translating the decisions to the teams they own. Alignment and execution suffer.
  • The leadership team starts to think it can meet any time 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 “wear their enterprise hats.” If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say, “Take off your functional hat,” I could… well…at the very least buy a nice hat.

But it’s too simple!

The functional hat is not bad; not somehow inherently evil or anti-social. It’s 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 on the discussion to make the 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 release, 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.

I guess where the first team concept came from is the rarity of executives realizing 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.

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 an effective member of your boss’ team.

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?