Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
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Today I’d like to address a topic I’ve discussed before—teamwork. I’ve recently had an experience that has expanded my view of what makes a healthy team, and I’d like to share it with you. As is typically the case with this column, it all starts with a story.
On December 25th of last year, my daughter Rebecca hugged her two-year-old son Timmy, kissed her husband Bruce, boarded a jumbo jet, and started a journey that forever altered her life. A few months earlier she and her husband had become aware of two orphan girls in Russia (Nika and Tanya—ages seven and five respectively), who, if not soon adopted, would be separated into different orphanages and very likely lost to each other forever.
Rebecca and Bruce decided that they would adopt the girls—just like that. With one quick, selfless decision they chose to triple the size of their brood. Of course, before they could do anything, Rebecca would have to meet the two girls and see if the adoption was even possible—thus the arduous Christmas-day flight to a rather bleak industrial town carved into the harsh plains of southwestern Russia.
Nika and Tanya practically jumped out of their skin when they first met Rebecca—such was their excitement after living in an orphanage for over a year without so much as a single visitor or prospective parent ever stopping to see them. Nika had learned three English words—”I love you”—while Tanya, the shyer of the two, primarily communicated by staring at Rebecca through large, twinkly brown eyes. Both showed off their ability to perform summersaults, sing Russian folk songs, and daringly leap off chairs as they desperately auditioned for the role of daughter.
At one point, anxious to “become part of a loving family,” Nika suggested (through her interpreter): “If you become our mommy, we’ll wash the dishes every day.”
With these sweet words, Rebecca’s heart nearly broke. Right then and there she started the mountain of paperwork that would eventually culminate in two frightened little Russian girls flying to America to start a new life—forever grafted onto the Patterson and Westenscow family trees.
I met Nika and Tanya four months later when the two rail-thin waifs finally arrived in America. They had been playing with their new cousins in our backyard when Nika rushed up to me and gestured that she was thirsty. I had bought cans of apple juice for just such an occasion and offered her one. Nika punched in the flip-top and darted her tongue into the oval opening to test the suspicious liquid. Approving of the juice with a quick smile she then asked for a second can for her little sister. Tanya was playing nearby with a doll and didn’t appear thirsty, but Nika asked anyway.
Seven months have passed since that day we first met and this pattern hasn’t changed a bit. By now Nika can speak English, so with each gift I give to her or with each item of food or drink I offer her, she firmly states in heavily accented English, “And one for Tanya.” I’m pretty sure that after the expression “I love you,” these were the first English words Nika learned.
When my daughter Rebecca initially talked with the girls’ caseworker, the Russian social servant explained that the two girls had been raised by a single mother who eventually turned them over to her parents. Two years later, the aging grandparents turned the girls in to an orphanage. That was about all we knew of their childhood.
And then we learned more.
Last week as Rebecca showed Nika how their new ten-speed blender works, she casually asked Nika if her grandparents had owned a similar appliance. Nika stared at her mother, blinked slowly as she thought about what to say, and then answered, “No, we didn’t have a blender. We didn’t have electric lights. We didn’t have running water. The toilet was outside and in the winter when it was cold—and since we didn’t own pajamas—we would wet the bed rather than risk freezing to death.”
Along with this frank explanation Nika offered the following heart-breaking addendum. “We were also hungry all the time. Babushka didn’t have enough food so she didn’t feed us very much or very often. I went door to door and begged from the neighbors who also didn’t have enough food. Sometimes they would give me a bit of cabbage or a piece of carrot and I would run home and share it with Tanya.”
Eventually the neighbors could stand it no longer. Watching the two little girls slowly starve was more than they could bear so they turned the children in to the authorities who immediately placed them in a hospital where nutritionists stuffed them full of calories for two weeks before they were finally allowed to be placed in an orphanage.
So there it was. At age five Nika had become the breadwinner. At age five she had become the adult in her tragic little community. Now, three years later, when surrounded by a greater number of caring adults than she had probably ever imagined, she still played the role of caretaker. Whenever she’s given anything, she sets her jaw and firmly states, “And one for Tanya.”
After seven months of living the high life in America, Nika has learned to embrace the carefree lifestyle of most pampered American children. She gleefully plays “kick the can” with the neighborhood kids and seems to have given herself to the adoring care of her new parents. But there’s still a part of her that shows that she’s a tough-as-nails survivor. Sometimes Nika plays a little rougher than her new friends would like. As the former oldest child in a three- to eight-year-old orphanage, she can also be a bit bossy. And to nobody’s surprise, Nika is not always interested in the fairy wings, princess shoes, and other frivolities her new friends gush over. But that’s understandable. Once you’ve begged door to door only to rush home with a scrap of food for your baby sister, it’s hard to get excited over Barbie’s latest fashion accessory. Once you’ve been thirty, it’s hard to be eight again.
I’ve learned a great deal from Nika.
Twenty years ago I worked on several consulting projects where I helped senior leaders as they tried to transform their existing organizations—typically filled with competing turfs and self-serving silos—into more collaborative team environments. As I interviewed hundreds of employees who had been placed in newly formed teams, I would always begin with the same question: “What do you look for in a teammate?” Most explained, “Someone to watch my back.”
These words transformed into action in several different ways. “I don’t always have good days,” barked a seasoned dock worker, “And I’d like to know that my teammates would pitch in once in a while—you know, give me a hand. Of course, I’d do the same for them.” “I want someone who carries his or her fair share of the work—including the crummy jobs,” explained a machine operator.
Healthy families and personal relationships are built of such stuff—people caring for each other—thinking of others, watching out for loved ones and coworkers, and even taking lumps for each other.
I’ve experienced this type of treatment firsthand. For instance, I once designed and tested a training course under the most pressure-filled circumstances imaginable. Nobody was the least bit interested in attending the training I had been commissioned to design. Each new group I trained would grudgingly file into a training room, sit stoically in their seats, and hardly move a muscle. A federal judge had mandated the training, and now I (an outsider) was delivering it to hostile audiences while internal training specialists sat in the back row and ridiculed everything I did. And all of this took place while I fought a flu virus that had so weakened my system that I frequently had to lean against the wall for support in order to continue with the training.
One evening as I lay on the floor working at a computer keyboard to produce the next day’s version of the training (I was too nauseated to sit up), I heard a knock on my hotel room door. I literally crawled over to the door to open it, and in burst David, my business partner. He had heard of my plight and instead of calling to ask if I needed help, had boarded a plane and flown to California, and now he was ready to take over the training assignment. I was to go home and get better while he stood before the angry audiences and took a beating. And that’s exactly what he did. For the next three days David took my beating and he never once asked for anything in return.
So what do these experiences teach us about teamwork? What should you look for in a teammate, or business partner—maybe even a life partner? One thing’s for certain, you should definitely seek someone like David—a person who stands beside you through thick and thin. And now that I’ve met Nika, I have an additional recommendation. Find someone like Nika. When others are carping about their workload or bickering over a bigger piece of the pie, seek a teammate who steps up and demands, “And one for Tanya.”