Why We Need Smart People Who Are Team Players

How should teams be organized for companies to successfully develop innovative products? Which skills and leadership principles will become important in the future, especially for tech and data driven companies? Norbert Wirth, Global VP Data at PAYBACK, addresses popular misconceptions and new recruitment strategies

by Norbert Wirth | 15 Dec, 2022
Norbert Wirth, Global VP Data at PAYBACK

When it comes to innovation, there is still a widespread misconception that it's all about finding that one big thing; that one ground-breaking idea that will amaze the world, and that it is thought up by one smart genius in a quiet room.

The truth is, hardly any important innovation has come about in this way. Of course, you need ingenious components and an initial, perhaps even crazy, impulse. And of course, a data organization like Payback needs smart people. But, and this is the crucial point, we need smart people who are team players.

Behind every successful business model there are almost always well-functioning, coordinated teams that see and understand the product, carry it forward, and scale it. They share a common sense of ownership and develop more sustainable business solutions. When you look at the applications landscape, especially large enterprises like Payback that are heavily based on software and data throughout, it's important that their teams think modernly, network well, coordinate, and organize their skills intelligently.

Brilliant, but socially dysfunctional

"Do we have a genius problem?" The answer is yes, especially when it comes to perception. People are looking for one single – and often male – genius. They are looking for a visionary leader. They accept that he will isolate himself and, to put it politely, behave in a socially dysfunctional way, but hey, isn’t he so brilliant (!)

I think this is outdated. The future belongs to cooperative structures and those who thrive in them. We need people who are happy to share their knowledge openly, who can inspire others and take them along with them.

The other question is how to find them.

I recently had an interesting experience. I was drafting a job advert for a leadership position that involved both technical leadership and relatively large personnel responsibilities. It was important to me to word it in such a way that it would appeal equally to men and women or even people without a clear gender identity. And if I'm completely honest, I would have found a woman or non-binary person particularly awesome. Of course, we also have gender statistics in mind, not in the sense of over-engineering or pure box-ticking exercise, but out of genuine conviction that diverse teams deliver better results.

From visionary to humble thought leader

In the first draft, we were looking for a "visionary thought leader." I had deliberately given the text to a few female colleagues to read. Their reactions were clear: Not only did they not feel addressed. They even found the title downright repulsive. It was loaded, pompous, masculine, and “so Elon Musk".

To cut a long story short, we changed the title to "humble thought leader." I am convinced that humble leadership is more successful in the long run. People prefer to work with people they trust and like, despite their professional brilliance. Why put up with a visionary but insufferable boss? This is even more true in our industry where data engineers, data scientists, analysts, and developers can pick and choose between jobs.

People prefer to work with people they trust and like, despite their professional brilliance.

These are not trivial jobs. It's not about banging out the same program repeatedly with projects that have been planned for a long time and are always of the same quality. On the contrary. With every line of code, with every analysis, with every transformation of data, you challenge the intellect of the employees. They have to want to think about solutions and have the desire to do it well. They must be – sorry, buzzword incoming – intrinsically motivated and identify with the team and product. This can only be achieved in a setting in which they enjoy working, and where personal stress peaks can also be absorbed from time to time. Since Corona, we have become even more aware that people also have private challenges. That’s life.

People need recognition, feedback, and connection. The pandemic has taught us that, too. And that’s without even mentioning efficiency. Things that used to be solved in three minutes with a quick and often spontaneous conversation at the coffee machine now take many times longer with Teams and Zoom. Five days of working from home per week may work for some – I claim few – people. We're seeing American companies entering the market and attracting talent with remote-only packages and monetarily attractive offers. We see people being lured out of inherently healthy environments. For very few people, this is satisfying in the long run. This can be seen very clearly in Lisbon, which has become a hotspot for digital nomads in recent years. This has not been good for the city. You destroy the special thing that you were actually looking for by your mere presence. Ecosystems react sensitively to change.

Using power privileges for change

I believe in hybrid work models. Co-location is a factor that helps employees become a team and feel at home. This is even more true in our time, which is characterized by uncertainty. At the same time, ours is the time of true transformers and bridge-builders who are aware of their privileges and have a desire to shape things. Change is much easier to achieve from a position of power, which – coincidentally – should serve the cause and not one's own ego. This is what distinguishes the humble thought leader from the visionary thought leader. It is about the willingness to learn every day and to initiate change in the respective area of influence. These can be large, highly visible lighthouse projects, or even seemingly small details, such as not filling assistant positions with a woman by default. In my opinion, recruitment plays a central role. It needs a radical rethink. That means, for example, no longer clinging to PhD and doctoral titles and formal degrees when filling certain positions but recognizing the potential of the applicants.

Our humble thought leader position has not yet been filled, but the applications are interesting. Our initial findings: More women than usual are applying, and men who don't fit the usual mold of frothing-at-the-mouth and beating their chest. In the end, it's not about gender at all. We are looking for people with the right mindset. That's the key to everything.

This article is part of a content collaboration between Fe:maleOneZero and PAYBACK. The marketing & loyalty platform enables consumers to collect points with hundreds of relevant companies offline, online and on the move – with just a single card or the PAYBACK app. 



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