Who’s On Your Team?: Building Your Supportive Community

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There is a small circle of individuals I lean on for all kinds of support, expertise and perspective. With their help, I feel like I can do almost anything. I call them “Team Caroline.”

Team You
Suitable for personalization and
printing on your team t-shirt.

Some of the people on my team may not even know that they are on it. There’s no branded t-shirt that they receive upon joining—but perhaps I should get one made! What they do know, however, is that I trust and depend on them for gut checks, practical advice, emotional support, thought partnership and paid or unpaid, skilled or unskilled, labor. They have advocated for me, connected me to important people, opened doors for me, babysat my kids or worked my events—and enabled me to live and work better. They’ve helped through the most challenging and the most celebratory times of my career and life, including becoming an executive director in my 20s, having kids and dealing with the health issues of family members, starting a whole new line of work in my 40s and other important phases. And I try my best to be helpful to them whenever I can. I would hope that most of them would consider me a valuable member of their own team if they put one together for their personal success.

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In this post, I want to share how I’ve come to build and rely on this group so that you may also consider putting together a group of folks who care about you and who are invested in your success.

The idea of “building a team” first came to me during my time on staff at iMentor. As part of a prompt called “Team Mentee” (written by my then-colleague Unique Fraser Brathwaite), the students, or mentees, had to build a list of people who were invested in their success. That list of people would cheer them through triumphs and encourage them through challenges, share contacts and tips, and open doors for the students.

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Upon reading this prompt, I started thinking about the people in my life whom I wanted to invite to be part of Team Caroline. I already had a large network of friends, family and colleagues I depended on, but I really liked the idea of a smaller group of go-to people whose help I could ask for without feeling embarrassed or as though I was imposing. I’ve heard other people call this “You, Inc.” and others call it their “tribe.” This Fast Company article from 2000 calls it a “personal board of directors.”

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For me, the name “Team (insert your name here)” is most compelling. It doesn’t make me feel like I should be bossing these people around; rather, it gives me the sense that we are all working together and benefiting from that collaboration, some pulling more weight than others at different times. Team, to me, sounds fun and fluid. I think of members coming in and out, high fiving each other, welcoming an old member back, or leaving to work on something else until the next project comes along.

Team Caroline: Founding and Sustaining Members

My first team was assembled when I was working full time and my kids were babies. It has since evolved to include members who helped me think through parenting primary school kids, and launch and build my coaching practice. All of them have known me for a long time now, and they know my strengths and weaknesses inside and out—and not just theoretically, but also how they play out in real life and work.

Even with this complete knowledge of who I am, these are the people who advocate for me when I’m not in the room. They are the people who help me prepare for a job interview, or buy me a drink when I am having a tough time for any reason at all. They are the people who tell me adamantly not to undersell myself and to believe in myself. They make me feel that maybe I can do anything I really want to. Some provide the real practical skills and at times the manpower I need to achieve my goals. I even pay few of these people. Team Caroline falls into several rough categories:

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Former colleagues: I have spent a lot of time at work in my life. So, work is where I’ve made a lot of my friends post college. The iMentor startup team, and the senior leadership team I helped to build many years later, are still my go-to advisors when I have a professional decision to make. Only one person still works at iMentor and several have even moved beyond the nonprofit sector, but we try hard to keep up with each other’s lives, both as a group and individually. We are one another’s sounding boards and thought partners. Professionally, nobody knows me better than this group—especially when it comes to my weaknesses—so when these people tell me I am good enough to do something, I feel especially encouraged. They are also my go-to references for new professional opportunities.

Mentors: I have several mentors, and one person in particular, Barbara Chang, has been there for me through so many ups and downs. Chang formerly ran NPower and recently founded CodeToWork, an employer led initiative that aims to transform the hiring process. She sat down with me to help me prepare for my very first board meeting as an executive director, and she is someone I called daily for emotional support when my father was dying. She also sent me a beautiful cashmere blanket the week my son was born, and sent me to meet a famous coach when I told her I was considering becoming a coach.

Paid members who can do things I can’t or need: When I had my first baby and went back to my big executive director job after ten weeks, my nanny was the most important member of Team Caroline. If she had been late or didn’t show up, I literally could not have gone to work at all. I am still grateful for her professionalism during that first year of my son’s life, and for keeping him safe and healthy. Now that my kids are both in school, I depend on a bigger team that consists of my mother and neighborhood high school students to supplement my childcare.

My own coach Jan Brown is also at the top of this list. Twice a month, she is completely dedicated to my well-being and success as I define it. Brown helped me proceed with my goal of coaching professionally even when I had doubts. Another important member of my team in this category is a former colleague Diana Castaldini, now a writer and content producer. When I started taking on more writing and consulting projects, I reached out to Castaldini to be my second pair of eyes. Now I reserve two hours of her time each month for all my editing needs. This has been a game changer in helping me sign up for projects that push me out of my comfort zone without feeling guilty about inconveniencing my friends.

Therapists, cleaning services, personal trainers, contractors, web developers, tutors and personal assistants are some other examples of team members you may want to recruit to help meet your goals. If you can’t afford paid support, consider bartering your skills for services.

Moms in my neighborhood: I can hardly believe how important to me many of my so-called “mom friends” have become since I took my sabbatical in 2013. Our kids are friends, so we share our thoughts on everything from teachers and curriculum to the dangers of letting kids watch YouTube videos unsupervised and the shocking (but important) questions our kids ask. Some are working moms too and some aren’t—and each of these smart, kind and fun women makes me feel assured that we are really in this together. On a practical level, it is priceless to have people you can count on to pick up your kids at 3pm with moments’ notice when you have train troubles. This rarely happens, but just knowing that these women are there to back me up makes me feel secure, and allows me to be fully present in my work life.

Family and old friends: My husband makes me laugh (and cry!), and forces me to stop working when I know I should but cannot seem to. As you can imagine, there are countless other reasons why he’s a key member of my team, and your spouse or partner likely is, too. My mother is a super important team member, taking care of my kids two full days a week, and on those days, I know that they are eating better than any other days in the week. She gave me a childhood I loved, so I feel blessed that my kids get to be with her in this way. My brother is my go-to technology and web expert, as well as my original go-to-person for editing needs.

There is no one like my girlfriends, especially a few old (as in long-lasting) friends. They know who they are, and no explanation needed here! I need them to feel loved, inspired and sane. It’s been challenging for us to see each other as much as we would like, and this is something I really want to work on.

Justice League Team
Your team can be this good.
Team Portrait (artist’s conception)
(Click to enlarge.)

Who else should be on my team?

As I write this post, I am realizing that I have a gap on my current team, or that I am not utilizing the members fully for some of the things I want to do. Being more organized, exercising more and eating healthier are just some of those things. I hope to change this next year. I can also really see the value of having a very capable assistant, and hope to explore this in the future.

Who should be on YOUR team?

Think of the people who can help you get where you want to go because they are already there or on their way there. Or people who inspire you. People who can teach you the skills you lack. People who can motivate you to meet your goals. People who can open doors and connect you to people and opportunities. People whose company you enjoy and whom you’d be proud to have on your team.

I would start by answering these questions, and thinking broadly about your network, in order to find the right folks for your team:

  • What are your professional and personal goals for the next year? For the next 10 years?
  • What kind of skills and work will be required to get there?
  • Who are the people whose experiences you can learn from?
  • Whose opinions and perspectives do you respect?
  • Who inspires you?
  • Whom do you like? Don’t recruit people whose personalities you don’t like to be on your team. You need to want to be around them.

You may find that some of the same people may pop up in your head more than once as you answer these questions. Those people should be on your team!

You’ve selected your members. Now what?

So many people make the mistake of reaching out to their contacts only when they need something. That is not how you build a team. Invest in your team to keep the members engaged and invested in your success. Always ask yourself what you could do for your team members, not just what they can do for you. Strive to be someone they would want on their team.

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Make it easy for your team to help you. Keep them informed of your goals, even if they are preliminary. If you are thinking about leaving your job in one year, start to talk about it early on with your team members so that they can help you think through your options and keep their eyes and ears peeled for opportunities for you. Have whatever job-seeking materials you create ready for them so that when they are out advocating for you, they have your bio, resume or business card in hand.

Assess every year or two whether you have right people on your team. In that time frame, you will have new goals and new needs, and you’ll probably have expanded your network, giving you new people who would make excellent team members. Some on your current team may move away, start demanding new jobs or become parents, and they will have less time to help you at various points. Some of them will return to the team as active members, and some will not be able to. Continue to invest time into finding great new members who can support you. A little turnover is healthy and keeps the team dynamic.

Do you have a team? I would love to learn what has worked for you. Please share your thoughts in the comments or by email.

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