Building your team of rivals

Do you get along with your co-founders really well? Do you feel like you always see eye-to-eye on everything? Then you would probably benefit from adding some “rivals” to your team.

I’ve started reading Team of Rivals a number of times and although something always prevents me from finishing it (the book is excellent, life just always seems to get in the way whenever I pick it up) one of the lessons I’ve drawn from it is that it’s beneficial to surround yourself with people who will challenge you with different perspectives. (This book is really about far more that just that, but cut me some slack here.)

I’ve certainly seen this in practice with founding teams, including some I work very closely with, and have witnessed the benefits of constructive and respectful disagreements that push the team to find the best answers to the problems they are trying to solve for their customers.

Am I saying you should fight with each other constantly?

Well, no. Fighting generally isn’t productive and often means you need to have a discussion about mutual respect and probably a more general discussion about someone needing anger counseling. Or, as I and a co-founder have recently discovered, we just needed to have a discussion about when we should talk to each other — one of us is a morning person and the other is decidedly not.

Startups can certainly get stressful and tempers can flair when one person thinks another person’s baby is ugly. But what I’m really saying here is that you need to make sure you have diversity of thought on your team, and that you respect each other enough to listen to that diversity and separate your own ego from the discussion. Yes, it’s certainly easier said than done, but if you wanted easy you wouldn’t be an entrepreneur or an employee in an early-stage company, right? You would be working for a large company and wouldn’t be worried about making a dent in the market.

How about teams in China?

When discussing founding teams in China I often get asked if foreigners can successfully target Chinese consumers without the help of locals. Some even make a stronger point: they don’t think foreigners add value to teams targeting China.

I guess I understand where people are coming from when they ask this question — they are usually just asking whether foreigners can really understand Chinese consumers well enough to sell to them. While China does have unique needs, I think every market and set of target consumers have unique needs. Just because I’m American it doesn’t mean I understand everything (or anything, really) about American consumers’ needs. Wherever you are selling it’s important to understand your customers’ needs and do your best to solve a pressing problem they have and are willing to pay to have solved for them.

This is why I think it’s beneficial for founding teams targeting China to include at least one “local” and one foreigner. This makes it more likely the team will be willing to listen to their target customers, and they’ll understand that they have to ask their target customers questions to better understand them. The team then also benefits from a diversity of approaches and backgrounds — always a good thing.

Is everything copacetic?

If you find that, as a team, you agree too often; or if you look around during your team meetings and realize that everyone comes from a similar background, it is probably time to add some rivals to the mix.

If you aren’t ready to hire more people, you can still seed some rivalry. Consider adding new advisers who are likely to have strongly differing viewpoints. Or you could even reach out within your network to find mentors who have a different background from your own, that way you’ll at least get a variety of viewpoints.

Even if you can’t find people with differing opinions, you can have different members of your team play the devil’s advocate during meetings, even taking specific viewpoints you think should be represented during the discussion.

Do anything you can to increase the likelihood of different opinions being included in the discussion. The more you push each other, the more you’ll achieve together.

How have you increased the diversity of opinions on your team? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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  • Anna

    Great article! There is so much benefit to constructive debate, but such a fine line between “creative conflict” and “eye rolling, door slamming discord.” Any tips on balancing the two, Sameer? You are, as I recall, incredibly talented in matters of tact and diplomacy – and in moving the conversation forward away from a stalemate.

  • Greg

    Solid read, Sameer! Thanks for sharing your insights as a rival :-) No doubt that foreigners will struggle big time without the expertise and help of a local team in China. Look forward to discussing more on this soon!

  • Sameer Karim

    Thanks for your comment, Anna! I think I’ve probably gotten much worse at this, or maybe I just haven’t been managing my caffeine intake well enough recently.

    The line between “creative conflict” and tantrums is indeed a fine one, and it’s so hard to see when you’re stepping over the line at the time. Something I’ve found myself doing a lot recently is going back to the person I stepped over the line with to talk about it (to apologize for being an ass, really). The sooner the better so you can figure out what triggered it and work through it together. That has been quite helpful, even if it is an apology rather than a prophylactic.

    But when I’m in the middle of it I find it helpful to take a deep breath and remind myself that my goal is to find the best solution — not to find the best solution that I came up with. It’s hard to remind others of this during heated debates because it sounds like a tactic, but I think just reminding yourself of it can bring the focus of the discussion back towards problem solving and pull it away from the tantrums.

    I’m not sure if that’s terribly useful advice. But hopefully it helps a bit!

  • Sameer Karim

    Thanks for your comment, Greg! As you know well from your experience building great teams, it’s important to strike a critical balance. And that includes the foreigner/local balance in China. We’ll definitely talk more about it soon so I can get your insights on it!

  • Alex Duina

    Nice article Sameer! I truly believes that leaving the Egos (and emotions that come with it!) outside of any discussion is critical for a team to be a strong and successful one, esp. when it comes to co-founders. It is OK, and even a good thing, to disagree sometimes or even often; what is key is to have a way to find solutions and move forward together. Then the solution, is not my solution, or your solution; it is our solution. Not always easy to find that balance, but it is the way to go. Thank you for sharing Sameer!

  • Sameer Karim

    Thanks for your comment, Alessandro! Well said, and I couldn’t agree more — it is all about the solution, and that solution coming from the team, not one individual. I’ve certainly seen that in action on team Prodygia!

  • yufaye

    Hi, I’m the “local” and the morning person :) I definitely agree with seeking disapproval outside the startup. When I talk to friends about my startup ideas, some of them will say “that’s so cool!” while others will point out how it might not work or what i can improve. I find the latter more helpful most of the times.

  • Alex Duina

    Forza Prodygia!!! -:)))

  • Sameer Karim

    Seeking those contrary opinions is what makes you a good entrepreneur! And, understanding each other’s caffeine needs is what makes us a good team. 😉

  • Anna

    Be the change you want to see! I hang onto this, but it can indeed be tough in the middle of a discussion/argument :) Thanks for the feedback!

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