“Together, we are brilliant”: Leadership and the art of team-building

Dr. Mary A. Papazian

This post was originally published for the CSU and its Women in Leadership series

As I consider the many aspects of leadership that I find important in my position as president of San Jose State, I am reminded of a simple phrase by educator and author Steven W. Anderson that sums up a vital element of my overall leadership approach: “Alone we are smart. Together we are brilliant.” Truer words may never have been spoken about the importance of team-building.

When I hire senior leaders, I look to hire colleagues who understand that their individual success is not as vital as the success of the enterprise as a whole. I also try to look ahead to see how they will fit in with the broader team.

Deep knowledge and expertise in a new staff member’s field is obviously paramount when building a team, but there are plenty of smart people with strong experience and expertise who are not always able to see beyond their own ambitions to the needs of the enterprise as a whole.

Just as important as knowledge—perhaps even more important—is the prospective candidate’s interest in seeing how her or his area of expertise and responsibility fits into and adds value to the larger whole. Building an effective team means offering people an opportunity to feel fulfilled in the work that they do, rather than feeling the need to compete with their peers.

Here at San Jose State, for example, we have strong institutional values around our social justice mission and a shared commitment to creating opportunities for our aspiring students. It has been refreshing for me to see just how many senior leaders I have hired who understand and support that bigger picture and find fulfillment in being a part of that mission, professionals who measure their success by the impact they have on others rather than the personal accolades they might achieve. In fact, I have found that those people tend to come and find us, rather than us having to go out and find them.

University presidents—and indeed all leaders—are only as good as the people around us. When I look to hire senior leaders and build a leadership team, I try to send the right signals up front so that it is understood that we are not competing with or playing off of one another, but rather that we collaborating in a very real sense.  When we model this behavior in our own relationships, we provide important examples for our students.

It is a certain orientation I hope to identify in potential members of my team, a way of seeing the world and a way of measuring success. Do they seek individual glory and bask in their own successes, or do they find gratification when the team moves forward collectively, not caring who gets the recognition? It is the leader in that latter category who I want to hire.

Finally, I find it important to build teams that allow people to create balance and perspective in their personal and often very complex lives. It also helps when you have team members who do not take themselves too seriously, who have a true blending of confidence and humility. We want people who are serious about their work, but who also can laugh at themselves while enjoying the fun and even the absurdities of life.

Here at San Jose State, we are striving to create a healthy culture, establishing and adhering to our values, transforming lives and bringing people together. It has been so refreshing to see just how many people on campus and in the community share those values and are eager to be part of a greater good. That is the tone we set as leaders, and the kind of individuals I look for when building a team.