There’s No “I” in Team: What Makes an Ideal Team Player (And How to Recruit Them)

Esteban Gomez | January 11, 2022

The first step is to move away from just assessing skills and experience, and dig deeper into the candidate's personality.

“If someone were to ask me to make a list of the most valuable qualities a person should develop in order to thrive in the world of work – and for that matter, life – I would put being a team player at the top.” – Patrick Lencioni

We hear it and say it all the time, “We need a team player.” When we interview, or conduct reviews, the importance of teamwork is at the top of the list.  It is an important attribute, but great team players are pretty rare.

Great teams are the cornerstone of success in any organization. And great teams are built with great team players.  97% of employees and executives believe lack of alignment within a team impacts the outcome of a task or project. So what constitutes a team player? In his book, “The Ideal Team Player,” Patrick Lencioni lays out the three virtues that one must possess to be an ideal team player – humble, hungry and smart.

The Ideal Team Player

  • Humble. A humble person is not ruled by ego. They treat everyone on the team consistently and success is collective. Lencioni states, “Humility isn’t thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.” Which makes it understandable why humility is the number one virtue of a team player.  And it is important to note that insecurity can be just as detrimental to a team as arrogance.
  • Hungry. “Always more” is a familiar term.  Hungry people always want more… to learn more, to do more, to become more. They go above and beyond and are forward-thinking. So it is easy to understand why hungry people are a great part of a team. But it is also important to realize the right kind of hunger is needed. Some hungry people let it rule their lives and become so consumed that they have no work-life balance. You need the perfect amount of healthy hunger.
  • Smart. In this context, smart is not regarding intellect but rather emotional intelligence.  It is merely common sense about people. Smart is the ability to understand the people around you, to listen, to ask questions and to have good judgement. Smart people deal with others in the most effective way. However, ‘smart’ people do not always have good intentions so leaders need to pay close attention.

These three virtues seem fairly obvious, but the power lies when a person possesses all three. Humble, hungry and smart together create the ideal team player, but lacking even just one virtue, disrupts the balance and hinders teamwork.

Personas Who Don’t Fit the Ideal Team Player

When a person lacks one or more of the virtues, the imbalance creates personas that we have all encountered. I am sure you can relate and think of a few people you have worked with that fall into one of the following categories:

  • The accidental mess-maker. You know Sarah… She is wicked smart, on top of everything and makes awesome contributions to the team, yet she often rubs the other team members the wrong way. Sarah is humble and hungry, but not smart!
  • The loveable slacker. Dave is super cool. He cares about his colleagues, always is positive and friendly. He is a capable, solid team member but he does the bare minimum. Dave is humble and smart, but not hungry!
  • The skillful politician. Kevin is your best bud, actually everyone’s best bud. He compliments your new haircut,  and is totally on board with your innovative idea. But only because he can piggy back off that idea to create a win for himself. Kevin is hungry and smart, but not humble!
  • The bulldozer. Nancy just nailed the presentation, but literally took it over without any regard for the rest of her team’s input. She gets things done, but it is all about her. Nancy is hungry, but not humble or smart!
  • The pawn. Ellen seems pretty nice, but you never see her around at the team happy hour. You rarely go to her for input or include her on important projects. Ellen is humble only!

How to Recruit and Hire the Ideal Team Player

In a perfect world, we would only hire people that are ideal team players. We would create the perfect team every time. However, #realitycheck.  Leaders can do a few things when recruiting and hiring to find humble, hungry, and smart people. And the first step is to move away from just assessing skills and experience, and dig deeper into the candidate’s personality.

Here are some ideas:

  • Spice up the interview. Move out of the traditional interview setting to get a real world feel. Assess how a candidate behaves when at a soccer practice or out to lunch. Their reactions and interactions will give you a deeper look as to who they are as a person.
  • Interrogate your applicants! Don’t be afraid to keep pushing for answers. You will eventually get the answer, and the manner in which they deliver it will be quite the tell.
  • Ditch the conventional questions. You need questions that will tell you if the candidate is hungry, humble and smart. Some great suggestions from Lencioni are, “Tell me about someone who is better than you in an area that really matters to you,”  “What do you do that others in your personal life might find annoying?” and “Did you work hard when you were a teenager?”

At the end of the day, you don’t want to settle for a candidate who is not an ideal team player.  You want to recruit for the strongest team you can assemble to ensure success. Being aware of Lencioni’s three key virtues – humble, hungry and smart – and understanding how to look for them while incorporating your company’s culture and goals, is key.

Just a few small adjustments in your recruitment process can send you on your way to producing your ideal team. As they say, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

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About The Author

Esteban Gomez is a marketing consultant with interviewstream. He loves learning and has a passion for traveling, having visited many countries including China, Colombia, Italy, and Peru.


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