Building Great Teams

A Few Tips from My Successes (and Mistakes)

On Team Building

On Team Building

1024 683 Michael Kraabel

I wasn’t always a good manager. In the early stages of my career, my style often lacked the finesse and insight I now possess. Having hired (and unfortunately fired) quite a number of employees over the years, I’ve learned a lot of invaluable lessons during the process.

Early in my career, I focused more on filling positions with “top talent” than understanding the deeper dynamics of team synergy and individual motivations. After some years, I realized that building a successful team was not just about assembling a group of skilled professionals but more about fostering a culture where each member could thrive. This realization marked a turning point in my leadership style.

For a long time, I wanted to have “the best” team members – no matter what baggage might come with their talent or ego.  I rationalized that if someone was difficult to work with, they were passionate about their work.  I made allowances, gave excuses, and defended people that, put simply, were assholes.  I will admit that my shift in hiring practices was probably more due to getting grief from my superiors about my team members than it was out of altruistic or moral enlightenment.  At the same time, I often had really nice people on my teams that I enjoyed being around and considered friends, but were ultimately not to the level the position required. I’m unsure which of these was more detrimental to the team’s success.

I shifted my strategy over the years to prioritize personal passions, creative interests, character, the potential for growth, passion for the work, and alignment with the team’s ethos. This nuanced approach to recruitment allowed me to bring together individuals who were not only talented but also genuinely invested in what they were doing. I transitioned from individual hiring to curating a powerhouse team of motivated individuals.

The Only Interview Question I Ever Need

During my interview process (at least in an agency or marketing team environment), there’s only one question that I need to ask.  It’s very simple, but it tells me everything I need to know about the person. I have used a variation of this question in every interview I have conducted over the past 20 years.  The question is profound in its simplicity and depth, especially in the context of hiring for a marketing or agency team.

If you could work on any brand, who would it be, and what would you like to do for them?

The Question Decoded

This question serves several crucial purposes:

  1. Uncovering Creative Passion: This question delves into the interviewee’s genuine interests. Their choice of brand and the actions they wish to take reveal much about their creative inclinations and areas of passion. A candidate passionate about a specific brand or industry is more likely to bring enthusiasm and innovative ideas to the table.
  2. Assessing Genuine Desire and Vision: The response gives insight into the candidate’s vision for a brand. It’s not just about choosing a brand but articulating what they would like to do for it. This aspect of the question tests their strategic thinking and ability to envision transformative ideas for brand enhancement.
  3. Identifying True Creators: The essence of this question is to distinguish genuine creators from those who are merely followers. Candidates who choose well-established brands like Apple or Coca-Cola and suggest extending their existing success may lack the creative drive to build or transform a brand. In contrast, candidates who pick less prominent or challenging brands and propose innovative strategies demonstrate a creator’s mindset. They show an inclination towards identifying and realizing potential rather than riding on existing successes.
  4. Evaluating Problem-Solving and Opportunity Recognition: Candidates who identify a brand with untapped potential or existing challenges and propose solutions or creative strategies exhibit strong problem-solving skills and an ability to recognize opportunities.
  5. Aligning with the Company’s Culture and Goals: In a marketing or agency setting, finding skilled individuals who align with the company’s culture of innovation and creativity is crucial. This question helps in assessing whether the candidate’s approach and mindset align with the company’s ethos.

Learning to Let Go

Empowering team members is the most difficult aspect of my leadership style I had to work on. I learned to trust their expertise and judgment, allowing them to approach tasks in the most effective ways they found. This led to a more dynamic and innovative work environment where creativity was not just welcomed but encouraged. I’m not always great at letting go. I still enjoy being hands-on with the work (that even holds true when I’m in the workshop or studio doing physical labor).

I learned to focus on aligning individual aspirations with team goals. Understanding what each team member was passionate about and facilitating their pursuit of these interests within the scope of our projects can be the difference between success and failure. It not only increased job satisfaction but also brought a level of enthusiasm and commitment that transformed the quality of our work.

Uncovering Employee Passions (or Dis-Passions)

I’ve learned that effective team building is as much about letting go as it is about steering. It’s about creating an environment where team members feel valued, understood, and motivated to bring their best selves to work. It’s about recognizing that sometimes, the best way to lead is to step back and let the team shine. It’s also important to judge team members’ performance not based on the jobs and tasks they are asked to do but on the potential for other areas in which they haven’t yet been involved.

Once a year, I ask my team members to think about the following simple questions.  It can be as formal or informal as they wish to be:

  1. What do you enjoy doing?
  2. What do you not enjoy doing?
  3. What do you wish you could do more of?
  4. What would you like to learn?

I’ve found that these simple questions, which I answer myself, are much better than, “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” or “Tell me x number of things about yourself, etc.”  In my mind, self-evaluations that force team members to score themselves make it feel like a transactional relationship. Some will artificially rank themselves higher, while some will be more conservative with their evaluation – not wanting to be viewed as arrogant. The truth is, most people think they’re doing a good job. That being the case, I’ve always wanted to figure out what parts of their job they enjoy doing, what they aren’t motivated by, and what skills I could be teaching or training them on.

On more than one occasion, I have lost an employee due to this simple series of questions.  Not because they were offended by the process but because they realized they weren’t doing what they were passionate about. I ultimately gave them the vision to chase their ultimate dreams. In a few cases, I trained them out of their current job.  To which I don’t have any regrets.



All stories by: kraabel