Be a team player
Updated: Jan 17
In whatever organization you are in, be a team player. In large part, your reputation and success will be based on whether you are a team player -- or a jerk, a one-way “blocking diode.” Team players win for themselves and others. "One-ways" succeed for a while, but their ultimate success might be limited by their lack of a loyal following, and no one will be there to help them if they falter.
This was very true when I was as an admiral's aide. It is true today.
This is a blog about leadership and business success lessons that I learned as an admiral’s aide over 30 years ago. I have practiced these lessons during my military and civilian career for many years. I did careers at the same time. I was getting promoted in the Navy Reserve while I was climbing the ladder at a law firm or corporate law department. I did so by learning and applying the best leadership principles to both worlds.
This is a discussion about the importance and power of being a team player.
The Admiral's team
The Admiral’s staff consisted of about ten other officers, all significantly senior in rank to me. His front office consisted of me, the Chief of Staff (a Navy Captain), the Flag Secretary (a Navy Lieutenant Commander), and the Admiral’s Flag Writer (a Navy Senior Chief). We were a great team. Here’s why.
Captain Bruce Jansen was the Chief of Staff or “COS.” Per Navy uniform regs, as an Admiral’s Chief of Staff, he also wore a loop, and as a Captain, he wore silver eagles on his collar. He ran the staff and was the Admiral’s senior confidant. COS was a big, bald, burly man with a large head and a round stomach that hung slightly over his khaki uniform waistline. He usually had a pipe in his mouth, but it was rarely lit unless it was after hours, and he was standing near his open office window.
Captain Jansen had multiple neat stacks of papers and manila folders with attached yellow stickies and various clips, four to five inches high, on his desk. Despite the appearance of chaos, he knew where everything was. And he had a great sense of humor.
He called me “Bud” as in the following:
“Bud, look here, why don't you step into my office and let’s see if we can unscrew this mess before it gets to the boss.”
“Bud, boss ain’t gonna like this turd. It has the makings of a real shit show, so let’s discuss it and the best time and way to raise it with him.”
“Bud, take these signed awards with you on your trip tomorrow to Iceland and make sure you don’t forget them or lose them. That wouldn’t be good. In fact, that would really suck for you.”
And my favorite, with his pipe in his hand, late on a Friday afternoon, when we were the only two left in the building:
“Bud, it’s late, and we’re soon to be the only ones in this damn building other than the front door sentry. This mess will be here Monday. I say we secure and head over to the Officers’ Club for a cold beer.”
He was full of wisdom. He was a pilot also and a rather salty sailor. He knew that he would never promote to flag rank, but his sole purpose was to support the admiral and run the staff -- and he was very good at it!
The Flag Writer was Senior Chief Rebecca Mooney. She managed the Admiral’s schedule, helped with our travel packets, choreographed the daily meetings and phone calls, and prepared and handled all the Admiral's correspondence, including the thank you notes. She was what we call today an Executive Office Assistant, and a real good one! Most importantly, she was a Navy Chief.
Senior had worked for the Admiral for some time before I arrived, so she knew the Admiral better than I did. Quite frankly, she saved my tail on several occasions! I could call her anytime with a logistical issue or a scheduling problem from anywhere in the world as we might be jumping on a plane to our next location. She would always answer the phone. She would reassure me, “Don’t worry about it, Lieutenant. I got it.”
Trust, reliability, and dependability were integral to her performance. As was confidentiality!
Senior would solve any problem before we landed. She worked her magic 24/7. She didn't wear a loop, but she didn’t need to. Everyone knew who she was in the headquarters building and on the base. She, too, could use the Admiral's stars when needed.
Senior also had a kind heart and was the first to reassure me that all would be okay when I screwed up. At that time, I was still single, living alone in a rented house in Brunswick, Maine. It could get pretty lonely, especially during the short, cold days of winter.
Senior saw how hard I was working and the hours I was putting in. On several occasions, she would take my mistakes to the boss. She was just another great example of the value, loyalty, and wisdom of a Navy Chief.
The Flag Secretary also wore a loop. He was a P-3 pilot on on his shore duty tour. He would later become the commanding officer of a P-3 squadron after leaving the staff (something I did fourteen years later also!). He, too, took care of me and had my back.
The COS, the Flag Writer, the Flag Sec, and I worked flawlessly together as a team. We knew the mission, and we were all aligned in our purpose. It was a hardworking, fun group.
The staff was rounded out with several hand-picked, very sharp enlisted sailors from the most junior third class petty officer to a master chief, the most senior enlisted rank in the Navy. As a young Lieutenant with only about five years in the Navy, it was not uncommon for me to be the most junior officer in the room or the building, for that matter.
Don't let it go to your head
As a Loop, I wielded a lot of power. Folks, many of whom outranked me, did what I said. Like any position of authority, an aide job could lead you to become rather heady or arrogant. It was essential for me not to let that happen.
Being a team player was important. It meant earning and gaining the trust of the front office and the rest of the staff, many with whom I would most likely cross paths in the years ahead. And I did see many of them years later.
My reputation as a loop depended primarily on how well I took care of the Admiral and how well I was a team player with the staff.
Often individuals in leadership positions or positions of authority forget the importance of being a team player. That can be detrimental to the morale of the group and one’s reputation. As your career progresses, it’s a small world. You will likely encounter many of the same colleagues in the future. They will remember whether you were a team player, and “how you made them feel,” as Maya Angelou stated.
For example, several times, in my corporate job, my contemporaries became my boss. Others skyrocketed to vice president positions well before I did.
Being a team player on the Flag staff was simple. Our primary goal was to support the Admiral, and then second, everyone wanted to survive a rather demanding military “shore duty” tour. In the Navy, “shore duty” was supposed to be a rotational break from the more arduous “sea duty” assignments. I am not sure an aide job met that intent, but I was aware of that when I accepted the position.
Point to the assist
As the aide, I implemented a couple of simple practices and professional courtesies as a team player. They served me very well not only with the Admiral, but also with the rest of the staff, who could save me.
First, I always gave credit when credit was due. And even if credit wasn't entirely due to an individual, I gave credit to them whenever I could. For example, the Admiral was frequently a guest speaker at military and civilian events. I would work with his staff and the Public Affairs Officer or “PAO” in preparing and polishing his remarks. Even though the PAO completed the first draft of most speeches, I had complete license to edit the remarks based on what I knew about the Admiral or the specifics of the event. The Flag Writer could make edits and suggestions also.
In most cases, I knew more about the event than the PAO. I would have called the event coordinator with a bunch of questions in advance. “What should the Admiral know about the event? Who will be in the audience? Any historical facts about the location? Is anything special about the person being honored? What is the name of the honoree's spouse, and will any other family members be present?" I might insert some specific unique historical facts about the location, the audience, or the event. Making the speech personal made it impactful. and connected the boss with the audience. My goal was that every speech would be recognized as exceptional and perfect for the occasion.
When the Admiral's remarks were was well received, and the Admiral would receive a compliment about the speech, he would say: "Well, you can thank the Loop, he wrote it for me. I saw it for the first time yesterday morning."
I would then say, "Well, you should really thank the PAO for this one!" Just as the boss had done, I would deflect praise from me to the PAO - someone else on the team. In so doing, the recipient of the deflected praise got an “Atta boy.” When the news of such credit got back to that individual, they knew my part in insuring the success of the event, as did the Admiral. As a secondary benefit, the praise recipient would thank me for the “shout out.” Those who knew my significant input in making an event successful, would typically admire my humility and the fact that I was giving credit to someone else. We both won! It worked well with the staff as they all had their parts in making our day successful. It was a team effort.
If you are a college basketball fan like me, as a UNC-Chapel Hill graduate, you know this concept is widely used by the Tarheels. I was at UNC in the golden years of James Worthy, Sam Perkins, and the Goat - Michael Jordan. Coach Dean Smith taught his players not to be selfish - to pass the ball to others. Whenever a player scored off an assist pass from a teammate, the scoring player would point back to the player who had unselfishly passed the ball to him.
I realized that practice worked just as well on the Admiral’s staff and in the corporate world as it did at Carolina basketball games. In corporate meetings, when I was singled out for assisting with a successful external event, I would make a point of deflecting the praise and stating, "Well, you know, it was the government operations director who was responsible for this event and made it such a success for us." Then perhaps, at a meeting later in the week when someone singled out the government ops director, she would in turn state: "Indeed, it was just a great day for us, but I have to admit it was really Mark's work behind the scenes that made it such a successful event." Everyone wins and feels good.
Give others a "heads up"
As a loop, I could be a team player in that position of authority by giving other officers on the staff insight or a “heads up” when it was appropriate to do so. I am not talking about breaching any confidence. For example, if I was in the Admiral's office when he was discussing with the COS his frustration that the Admiral’s ultimate review and signature on several military awards were simply taking way too much time, and that he wanted to discuss that directly with the Flag Secretary, that kind of inside knowledge was beneficial to pass on to the Flag Sec.
I would seek out the Flag Sec and tell him, “Hey, commander, the Admiral wants you to get on his schedule tomorrow for about fifteen minutes. He wants to discuss the turn time on the awards.” Knowing the next day that the Admiral had set up a time to speak with him about "awards," the Sec was prepared for that meeting because I had given him an "oh, by the way," letting him know the meeting's subject matter. It might include a little “stick and rudder” from the boss!
There was nothing wrong in doing that. It provided for efficiency and adequate preparation of the staff officers in their interaction with the Admiral. Knowing the subject of the meeting, the Flag Secretary came in the door prepared with an explanation and a plan to address the Admiral’s concerns. The Admiral would also appreciate it because the officer came in prepared. He didn’t have to say: “I’m not sure, Admiral; I will have to get back to you on that.”
Cover for others
Finally, being a team player on the admiral's staff meant that I covered for others when necessary. To do so, I got to know others both professionally and personally. To get to know someone personally, it helped to ask them on Monday morning, "How was your weekend? What did you do this weekend?" Or, better yet, "How was your daughter’s soccer game this weekend?" "How's your mom getting along since you moved her 'into the assisted living facility?” It important to know what is going on in your coworkers' personal lives.
If you know other teammates personally, you should cover for them when something is occurring in their personal life that might distract them from work. I'm a big fan of being open and honest about those matters. There are legitimate times when someone on the team might need to be away from work for a family matter. You should always assist in making that absence pretty much a non-factor and cover for the other individual.
For example, as a loop, if I knew that the Operations Officer had an event to attend at his daughter's elementary school one morning, I would cover for him. That meant I would ensure that there were no meetings involving him that were scheduled during that time frame, or if someone was looking for him, I would tell them, "He is unavailable, but I'd be happy to help you with any issue you might have and pass that along to him."
Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying “cover-up” for people, or lie, mislead or hide the facts. I am simply saying cover people for legitimate personal and family matters. If pushed by the Admiral asking, “Where is the Ops O?” I would say, "Sir, he's got a personal family matter that he is handling this morning, and I told him I would cover for him." The Admiral appreciated that.
Later, I would inform the Operations Officer, "Sir, while you are out, the boss was looking for you. I think it was about next week's staff meeting if you can get back to him ASAP on that."
Family matters and should always come first. Do not be fooled about the loyalty of an employer and sacrifice your family for work. Driven by a balance sheet, businesses and corporations will lay you off in a heartbeat perhaps with a simple apology irrespective of how great you might be. You won't even see it coming, but it happens in small businesses and major corporations alike. As I write this, Oracle, Wal-Mart, Netflix, Peloton, Meta, Twitter, Tesla, and Ford have announced thousands of layoffs in just a few months.
Balancing one’s personal life and family commitments are critical.
Being a team player is easy.
Give other people on the team credit. Point to the person who gave you the assist.
Provide other teammates insight as to what is going on. Give someone a “heads up.” Tell them what you know.
Give others the personal and professional courtesy of cover. That shows them "I got your back and want you to succeed also!"
As a loop, doing these three things was incredibly important to my success and contributed to the morale and camaraderie of the Admiral’s staff. I have employed these same three concepts for many years. A good leader should, too.
I have written previously about the importance of being on time. My next post will refine that a little more and discuss that in terms of being a leader and what I learned from the Admiral about that! Sometimes, as the leader, being early is not good. You should know why!