My Team Makes Me Uncomfortable – And That’s A Good Thing

Mio Squirtcar

Want to try uncomfortable? Our team turned a streetcar into a concert venue.

Seven years. It’s a long time in the agency world. In an industry where 25% turnover is (sadly) often the norm and you can seemingly measure tenure as you would ‘dog years’ – it’s a lifetime.

Over the last seven years at Edelman I’ve gone from leading a local office team of a dozen or so, to leading a national, multi-office team of more than 50 people across Canada. I’ve been here long enough that almost everyone on our Canadian Digital team has joined while I’ve been at the firm, and I’m happy to say that the team we have now is as strong as it has ever been during my time here.

A lot of people ask me what has kept me at Edelman for this long, and I tell them all the same thing: the people. While this applies to my colleagues broadly in the organization, it is especially true for the people on my team.

They’re people who keep me on my toes, who force me to keep learning and who make me uncomfortable — in a good way.

What does “uncomfortable” mean?

We should all strive for some level of discomfort in our professional environments.

In this context, this means working with people who aren’t afraid to challenge ideas and to push our work – and me – to be better. It means working with people who have new skills that I may not yet have, and bring to the table ways of thinking that I may not bring. It means working with people who are so smart, I’m fairly sure one of them will be my boss at some point down the road.

Riding the emotional rollercoaster

Seeking out the uncomfortable is not simple or even easy. “People” aren’t just something that happen at a company – they don’t just suddenly show up one day, out of the blue.

After seven years at Edelman, I’m now at a point where everyone on the team has joined while I’ve been here – and I’ve had a hand in hiring most of them. I take pride in this as I firmly believe that one of the most important parts of my role as a leader is building the team around me.

This has been a significant focus over the last few years. Our team has undergone a significant transition to broaden our capabilities from our historical core strength in social media into additional digital marketing areas. As our business evolves, so has my approach to leadership. This shift has meant bringing new types of people with new skillsets on board, and pushing outside our comfort zones.

Stop looking for people who are like you.

We naturally gravitate to people like us, but a homogeneous team isn’t the path to great work – it’s the path to staleness. I deliberately push myself to resist hiring reflections of myself and my skillset, and instead aim to hire people with diverse backgrounds, experiences and perspectives.

Hire people who are smarter than you.

A team member mentioned to me recently that if they found they were consistently the smartest person in the room, they would know they were in the wrong place. I wholeheartedly agree – and I think this is especially important in a leadership role. As a leader, you don’t need to be the smartest person in the room – you need to put the smartest people in the room.

Take satisfaction from the team’s wins.

If you truly want to build a high-performing team, you need to be comfortable with their success. Remember that if they succeed, you succeed, and don’t allow their success to make you feel threatened. I found this tough at first – it’s hard to go from being the one in the spotlight to enabling others to be in that place – but it is critical, especially as a team scales in size. Now, I look at things differently.

For example, for several years we incubated a specialty group within our Digital team. When we eventually spun that group into a stand-alone team, it would have been easy to feel challenged by that shift. Instead, I celebrated it as recognition of a job well done. The same applies to awards, new client wins and all the other moments that you get to enjoy when your team is performing well.

Get used to being challenged.

If you’re truly committed to building a high-performing team, get used to them challenging each other – and you. In fact, foster and encourage an environment that embraces challenge. It can be uncomfortable at first, but in time encouraging that kind of constructive conflict can be immensely beneficial – and can help to avoid group-think.

Learn to manage your discomfort.

There will be times when you find yourself reacting to the tension that surrounding yourself with high performers can create. This one was big for me. As a stereotypical red-head, one of the most useful skills I’ve learned over the years is to recognize my own ‘fight or flight’ response when it kicks in – a physical reaction that I came to realize was unhelpful in most workplace situations.

Nowadays, I’m more self-aware and have a variety of coping mechanisms that I can immediately apply to allow the constructive dynamics on the team to play out.

It’s not easy to put this into practice. When I say my team makes me uncomfortable, it’s not in jest. Still, one of the pieces of advice I give to aspiring team members is to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. That discomfort is something that has kept me in place for seven years (or 49 dog years) and counting, and I aspire to seek out that feeling for as long as I can.

How about you?

Dave Fleet
EVP Digital at Edelman. Husband and dad of two. Cycling nut; bookworm; videogamer; Britnadian. Opinions are mine, not my employer's.