Building an Agile Team: How to Balance Your Team (And Look Beyond the Gold Unicorns)

Golden Unicorn

Balancing your team is never an easy task.

But as Jillian Haffner, Director of Cloud Solutions & Integrations at Turbine/Warner Brothers Games, and Jennifer Davis, Software Engineer at Chef explain, finding the right balance is critical if you want to get the most out of your entire team.

In the fourth video of our Building an Agile Team series, Jillian and Jennifer discuss why you need to look beyond your team’s gold unicorns, and find the balance you need.

Jillian

When I came to my company about a year ago, we had what we would call a unicorn — this guy was a solid gold unicorn. He had been with the company for seven years, knew everything, knew every skeleton in every closet, and knew everything about the code off the top of his head.

I was very excited to work with this guy and 10 weeks later he gave his notice.

I realized it was really bad to have one solid gold unicorn. I had this team of 10 and the rest of the people had skills and talents well beyond what they were allowed to use because the unicorn always stepped up. Everybody went to him. Anytime they had a question, they went to him.

He may have been the subject matter expert in 10 verticals, but if there are five verticals where he’s just getting by and there’s someone else on the team that’s better than him, those people never got the opportunity.

I had to prop up the rest of the team and say, “You know what? You’re going to do better now. You’re going to be able to stand up and do more.” And there were people who became shining stars on that team. And they were always in the back seat and were invisible for the longest time.

You need to take your people who are subject matter experts in everything and get them out of the comfort zone. Move them across the building; make them do something else for four months because the bus factor is a horrible thing. If this person gets hit by a bus, what are you going to do?

Jennifer

I was actually the gold unicorn at my company two jobs ago.

I didn’t even realize it because I was so absorbed by the expectations and people always coming to me. And when people would say “Oh, you’re a blocker, you’re a blocker,” I thought I needed to do more and work harder and faster to unblock things.

But when I switched to a different role, I was on a team with a bunch of awesome women and experienced the same thing and realized that this was actually a bad thing.  And then I switched again and realized that this was really a bad thing and decided there needed to be an exit strategy to get out.

If you discover you’re the golden unicorn or, if you’ve read the Phoenix Project, you discover you’re the Brent, you have to make the decision that you’re not going to be the Brent anymore. You’re not doing your company a favor; you’re not doing your job.

I started to extricate myself and when something would happen I’d say, “Okay everybody we’re going to have a real live fire drill right now.” And people would say “You need to fix it!” But I decided that we all needed to get on the same page so we all knew how to fix it. It frustrated management but in the end, I was able to lead that team successfully without anybody feeling like the world was going to end when I left.

But for many months, I had to deal with the pressure of people asking me what I was doing and saying that I wasn’t doing my job. I was doing my job, removing the unicorn factor from the team.

Jillian

Coming from the military — I was in the National Guard for 10 years — and part of that was full time. And I had to get used to drill, drill, drill, drill…practice, practice, practice, practice. We don’t do that. We stand up environments. We put nice little cabinets with servers in the racks but then we don’t do anything. We just walk away from them and hope that they’re going to go.

We make the joke that the environment doesn’t need any maintenance. It’s a solid state environment; nothing is moving, why would you need to oil it? But you do! And you need to oil your people as well. You need to practice — make sure the fire hose is going to come out of the truck in the right direction and things are going to hook up correctly.

Management is not something you can learn in the class room.

I’m not knocking people with MBAs because if I’m going to hire a CEO or CFO, I want the head of the company to have a MBA and understand that. But I want my managers to understand people.

More specifically, I want them to understand their people and I want them to under their peers. That’s what management is. Management is about people. It’s about keeping people on task. It’s about keeping the company going. It’s about getting the company going and redirecting things on the right path.

The captain of the ship doesn’t know how to build a ship — he doesn’t need to. He needs to know how to drive it. Managers need to know when to drive their people and when not to drive their people. That whole “work life balance” thing we all strive for, that comes from your managers; it’s not just about company culture.

Looking for more advice for building an agile team? Watch the entire series here. 

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