Thoughts on Building a Great Team

This is an article I originally wrote for my good friends over at Panache Cyclewear, Co.  I hope you enjoy it!

A little over two years ago I went on a bike ride with Colby Pearce and Don Powell and we agreed to start a bike team together. Now, just two years later, we are the number one ranked team in Colorado, with a roster that has proven capable of competing in international level professional competition. How did we get here? In both my sporting and professional career I have led teams that have succeeded and some that have failed. What is the difference between an average team and one that is truly great? I am definitely still learning (usually by making plenty of mistakes!) but there are a couple key pieces that always seem to contribute the most to the success of programs I have led. They are leadership, resources, and the individuals themselves.

Team MeetingLet’s start with leadership. I believe leadership is the ability to develop a strategic vision, communicate it, and guide your team down a path to achieve it. There are many different styles and approaches to this and rather than get off on a tangent I will simply advise the curious to browse the bookstore next time you are stuck in the airport! Colby, Don, and I came up with the vision for our team on that first bike ride: to build a program for collegiate aged riders that helps them learn to represent themselves on the bike and compete as professionals (regardless if that is their ultimate goal).

The founders of our program all contribute different traits that make us successful. Don is a great visionary and likes to look at the big picture. He is nicely complimented by Colby who is more into the nuts and bolts (and millimeters!) and has great industry connections. It helps that both of them had professional cycling careers, and can speak with deep experience to all that our up and coming riders face. I pull it all together and deal mostly with communications and the financial aspect of the program. I am also able to reference many years of balancing both my sporting and professional career ambitions to help our riders balance work, school, and life with their cycling aspirations. Together we make a strong leadership team and the few internal disagreements we have are quickly settled with a couple town line sprints.

Communication is key, and it starts at the top. Having riders stressed about their place within the program or support for the year helps no one. Be open, direct, and honest. When talking to riders, I make it a rule to under promise and over deliver – something that I feel should be emulated more often! I am not going to promise a free bike if I don’t have one in my hand, nor a spot at Redlands if the team hasn’t been accepted yet. Our long term reputation is only as good as your ability to live up to our word. We may lose the occasional rider to some upstart team promising the moon, but in the end people remember who came through for them and who didn’t. In our case, every single rider on the squad asked to come back for 2013, so we must be doing something right!

Next comes resources. Even the most talented athlete will struggle without adequate equipment and money to get them to races. We are blessed with some great long term sponsors like Horizon Organic Dairy and Panache Cyclewear (you can see the rest of our great sponsors here: http://horizonpanachecycling.com/sponsors), and our program wouldn’t exist without them. There are a couple straightforward things to keep in mind when it comes to working with sponsors:

  1. The first is that existing relationships are gold. You should do whatever you can to keep your current sponsors happy, as it will always be harder to find new ones. On our team we always give current sponsors first opportunity to renew and sometimes even turn down a slightly better offer from someone new to maintain the existing relationship.
  2. The next is to only ask for what you really need and can use. I have seen some great programs come into the sport with 6-figure budgets and flashy team cars only to disappear after a year. We run a very lean program that focuses all our cash flow on entry fees and travel to races and pretty much nothing else. We purposely keep the team at a size and scope that keeps things manageable and makes us more sustainable over the long term. When done properly, this also results in a better return on investment for our sponsors.
  3. Finally, prioritize how to spend your budget and stick to it. Cash is king, and the number one cause of a program shutting down is running out of money. On our program we make use of great industry product sponsors to help ensure that all of our cash can be spent on race entries and getting our riders to races. We strategically pick our travel to races where our riders have the best chance of a result and focus on only select parts of the calendar to keep cash flow even. Really think hard before you buy those custom team issue water bottles or new vinyl wrap for the team car!

Once a strong foundation of leadership and resources is in place, the last piece of the puzzle is the riders themselves. While being fast is important, it really isn’t the most important aspect of picking a rider. Attitude and maturity always trumps raw talent, and I have never actually looked at someone’s power file or Strava results when making a roster decision (seriously, stop sending them to me!).

Our team is a great mix of older mentors and younger, up-and-coming riders. I have found the right balance is pretty close to 50/50. Too many old guys and the team can be stale. However, if the percentage of younger riders is too great you may end up with some being a bit lost in bigger races. I have raced on squads at both extremes and would say that you know you have it right when the younger riders are providing that extra bit of infectious motivation to the group, while the more experienced riders are providing the necessary leadership on the road.

The mentors on our team have all demonstrated an ability to win races, but more importantly they demonstrate a willingness to be good teammates. Whether that is pulling back the break, or simply leading out a younger teammate in a local training race, the more experienced riders are all expected to lead by example. If you set aStazio Leadout good example and pick your team right, everyone else will quickly follow. One of my favorite memories from this team is moving to the front to chase down a dangerous break with 5 laps to go in a local crit. Local pro Chris Baldwin looked over at me and remarked, “Dude, where are your teammates?” I put my arm up, and the next lap there were eight of us chasing down the move and setting up a perfect leadout for the sprint.

We don’t always get it right, but I am excited to see what we learn next and how to continue to evolve and improve our program. In the meantime, I will see you on the road!

Site Launch!

I am excited toStart-Line be typing this as it means the site is up and running.  I am privileged to have had the opportunity to build and lead teams in both sport and business for the last 15 years, and will be using this blog as a way to communicate some of the thoughts and observations I have gathered along the way.  Hopefully you find some of them interesting and I look forward to your feedback!