A number of years ago, when Clemson University’s football team was in the College Football National Championship game, I caught a pregame story about head coach Dabo Swinney. As I recall, the report highlighted how Swinney had visited a Caribbean nation during the offseason and was presented with a handcrafted chair as a gift by a local community. Not sure what to do with the gift, he left it in his office for a period of time until one day, he decided to put the unique chair in the center of the team’s locker room and invite his players to sit in the chair and tell the rest of the team their stories.
The players took turns describing their upbringing, the moments that created who they were, the failures they most cherished, and the people who made a difference in their lives. They also described their individual struggles, their adversities, what was important to them, and why they do what they do – in this case, play college football. The result was transformational for the team. As one player said, “I spend 10 hours a day with my teammates and didn’t know anything about their story, and now that I know it, I will never see them the same way.” It created an even more powerful commitment to each other and the team.
We were working with another NCAA Division I football team to help create a high-performing team and provided the same opportunity for each player to tell their story. I will never forget the first player who spoke. He started by telling everyone the city he came from, then continued by sharing that when he was young, his dad had tried to kill his mom by setting their house on fire.
“Somehow my mom made it out alive, but she had third-degree burns over 80% of her body, and most people don’t survive that type of injury,” he said. “My mom has had twenty-three painful surgeries and never did she complain. Never once. She inspires me to accept the adversity I experience and to endure, to persist, to be gritty, to be resilient, and to not whine or complain no matter what comes my way. It may also be why I have little tolerance for people that make excuses, whine, or complain to be the victim.”
His teammates were stunned. They saw and appreciated a very different teammate after hearing his story. Eventually, each player was given time to share their stories of struggle and inspiration, stories of hope and purpose. Just by one player telling his individual story, the team changed forever – and, by the way, won the conference championship!
Recently, we invited the very seasoned senior team of a large construction company to do the same thing. Team members, who in some cases had worked side by side for more than 20 years, knew very little about each other. We had allotted three minutes per person for the 10 executives, or 30 minutes in total for the storytelling. Two and a half hours later, we broke for lunch! Spontaneous hugs took place between executives who just don’t hug.
Three of the 10 executives became very emotional in telling their stories – sharing what made them who they were, their major inflection points, the importance of their families, the failures they most cherished, why they chose this industry, and even what mentoring from other team members had meant to them. Many, without being prompted, shared their personal purpose behind the work they do and how it inspires them every day. They shared jobs that they had as teenagers, the military experience of their families, and the leadership legacy that they would like to leave.
I can tell you without a doubt that this team will never be the same, and the elevation to high performance took a major leap by understanding and appreciating each other’s stories. It’s transformational! High performing teams play for each other with a deep feeling of not wanting to let a teammate down – you can’t fully have that feeling and make the needed sacrifices for the team if you don’t know and appreciate each other.