Episode 1: Tim McDonald | On Having the Right People on the Team


00:00:17 Thomas: Alright, hey welcome to The High Performing Team with Thomas Mangum here. I’ve got Tim McDonald, the amazing Tim McDonald. I’ve known him for many years now through all of his history as Community Manager at the Huffington Post when he ran a podcast. I think we kind of hit it off when we were introduced. He was running a podcast that had Coffee in the title, and I was running the Virtual Coffee. It’s been so long Tim, I was running something called The Virtual Coffee.

00:00:52 Tim: I know. Mine was Coffee Time Chat right before I started working at the Huff Post.

00:01:02 Thomas: That’s right. I think it’s cool that he was working at the Huffington Post and as you know, the High Performing Team Podcast focuses in on “What are High Performing Teams doing?” You got to understand the Huffington Post is not a normal news organization. Like other companies out there, certain companies we see that most people would say are extraordinary, they’re doing something unusual. Just one of the reasons I wanted to invite Tim in to really elaborate on what’s working, what did he see that’s actually working.

00:01:42 Thomas: So Tim if there’s something you want to add about what you got going on  today so that the audience understands where you’re coming from?

00:01:50 Tim: Sure, I would love to Thomas and thank you for having me. Really simply put today, I just work with organizations on how they can build communities to help deliver purpose or impact. And most of them don’t understand what communities are so the first step is to get them understand what that is then we can go into details of how they can build something out to help align with their goals and really use community to really empower them for long term impact.

00:02:21 Thomas: So listen, let’s jump into the team part of it. I will start off with this chat with someone. We go around terms high performing team, elite team, amazing team, extraordinary team, team building and all of that. What’s a team mean to you when you hear that word “team or high performing team”? What’s your definition?

00:02:42 Tim: Well I think simply put it’s a group of people that come together around a shared purpose and that’s about as simple as it gets.

00:02:52 Thomas: Ok, so how about the difference between a high performing team, amazing team, extraordinary team. What’s your preferred definition of that?

00:03:01 Tim: Well I think anybody that comes together over a shared purpose can be considered like a team. But the ones who really excel, the ones who have the right players in the right place are the ones who really excel. And I don’t have a preferred term for how you call it because regionally, culturally we all have different adjectives that we use and how we describe things, in the same things so I don’t get hung up on the words used to describe them. I think if you look just generally in higher performing team vs. a team, it is really having the right people together with the right skill sets for the right projects to be able to work together at the highest levels.

00:03:44 Thomas: There you go right there. That landed perfectly. Now, I got a better clue, a better idea what your definition is. I’m always curious about that because you know me for a long time. I’m curious, I dig in and you do too. You want to know what makes someone tick, what is behind your definition because it helps, as I understand, to what context are you speaking.

00:04:10 Tim: I love that you said that because listening is the first key, right? And building a team is listening to what their skills are, not trying to tell them what skills you need them.

00:04:26 Thomas: That’s a conversation we have a lot of times. I always use myself as an example. Facilitating these corporate events, like guys, listen, I’m learning right along with you and facilitating is.. Yeah, listening is a big part of it. And sometimes, I’m human, things go right past me and I’m not paying attention myself. Good reminder man, good reminder.

00:04:48 Thomas: When you think back to your corporate experiences and even with some of the amazing teams you are on right now, what did you see that was working or you can even tell the story of a time when you just got dysfunctional when it wasn’t working and then something shifted?

00:05:12 Tim: I look at when I first started when we were launching Huffpost Live and we all came together with an understanding because Huffpost Live was built with the concept of, we saw 70% of our commenters were in response to other comments. And we really saw conversations happening within our Comments section of the Huffington Post and that gave us with the idea of why can’t we take that and put that in a video format where we actually have the conversations in real time. And so the theory behind all these was we are just going to get our commenters to come over to Huffpost Live, get on here and start having the same conversations they were having in text on air, in person. And we tried that for the first 3, 4 months we were launching and all of our teams were all working together trying to make this happen and obviously as a Community Manager for Huffpost Live I was in-charge for that. But really we celebrated that for 3 months getting one person do it and it took so much effort and so much time that really understanding that maybe we need to re-evaluate  what we’re trying to achieve. And is it really about getting our commenters to be on air or is it just about getting the right people to be on air? And I think when we started looking at that and we got together, have conversations with each other, really changed the dynamic of our team where we were really empowered to go out and not just follow the thing that we were misguided by, which was getting our commenters to be on air but really looking at what was working, what wasn’t working, and then what can each of us do to reach out to the non-commenters to bring them out on air guest. And who are those types of people and then how do we come back together, share our successes to be able to actually share what was working for individuals so that everybody on that team could go out and do that. And to me that was one thing that wasn’t working, how we changed it and how we turned it into something that accelerate our growth at Huffpost Live.

00:07:20 Thomas: The results that you got from going through that process, did that resonate with your peers, the others around the organization or is it something that just worked for your team?

00:07:38 Tim: Oh no, it was within the entire organization because what we were doing just for instance. I have seen that our commenters wanted to remain anonymous or more anonymous than people that were on air. And so who were the people that wanted to have their faces shown? Who were the people who wanted to be out in front of the public? And I started looking at what the blogging network was doing in Huffington Post and these are the people who wanted to get their name and their voice out in front of people. And so I started doing at the same time that our blogging team then realized that wow, our bloggers now wanted to become on air guest. They see this as added value which means we’re going to start writing more content for HuffPost. Everybody was starting to see this when we started working with the production staff on Huffpost Live, they started seeing instead of reaching out to individuals now I can start looking for people that have blogs and people that have other content that are putting out there instead of just seeing the comment on Twitter. And all of a sudden that started changing how they operated. Everybody saw this success and how this was working and that spread throughout the entire organization not just on Huffpost Live but on the Huffington Post to how we can actually implement this to really impact and get better results for the entire organization. So it’s definitely more than just my team. It is something that started within my team and if we didn’t share that with others it never could have been taken up by them and them started to see their own results in the way that they used.

00:09:13 Thomas: You know as long as I’ve known you Tim, one of the things that always comes to mind with you is this contrarian approach. You’re a lover of people. It’s something that I’ve always known no matter your entrepreneurial parts and you’re corporate. It’s funny that you even went through a big corporation and I think it’s so awesome… you’re willing to do something different. My perspective obviously, this is my experience of you, is watching what you did as Community Manager there. It’s kind of pioneering, it’s edgy. A lot of organizations are like ..that’s my dream, I don’t want to get fired. I need to toe the corporate line, that kind of thing. It sounds like you had all the positive benefits. Does anyone push back, or was anyone mad?

00:10:04 Tim: Those times when things don’t go the way you expect them to. One of the things I love working there was that especially in Huffpost Live is that our President, and our Executives that were in charge of Huffpost Live, all had the things that we need to iterate every single day. If we were the same tomorrow as we were today, we’re not doing our job.

00:10:35 Thomas: Could you please share that one more time? And loudly? Because you know that is a huge quote and soundbite right there.


00:10:44 Tim: (laughs) I will say it again. We need to iterate every single day, if we were the same tomorrow as we were today, we’re not doing our job. And what that allowed everybody to do was it gave them permission to fail. It gave them permission to take risks. And it gave them the opportunity to come up with their own ideas instead of just copying what somebody else has done. And that was the beautiful thing about this. So when you ask me, were there ever the things that went wrong and it didn’t happen the way that we thought that I felt like I was getting in trouble, well sure there were. But it wasn’t getting in trouble like, Oh you were punished. It was, what did you learn from this? And how would you handle it next time if it came up? And those are the situations where we started looking, If I make another mistake, I don’t care because I’m learning, my bosses are learning from it, and we’re all growing together. And that’s what I love about working there. It’s a really difficult question when you phrased it the way you did, for me to give you a particular instance or a couple of particular instances because I never truly felt like I was being punished.


00:11:57 Thomas. Right. Permission to fail, permission to learn. That’s a massive take-away. So thanks very much Tim. Let’s take a quick little break here for a moment. Tim and I will be back for Part 2.


Break —


00:13:05 Thomas: Back with Tim McDonald. We’re talking about some of his experiences and things that he pioneered as Community Manager at Huffington Post, learned working with teams. So Tim, if you had to start over today knowing what you know upto this point, what would you change? Now I understand you created amazing results at Huffpost before. If you could change things and go back what would you improve more on or tweak even more?


00:13:38 Tim: This is an easy one. I would go in not thinking I have the answers. Because when I started I went in thinking I knew I had the answers and what I learned through the process was the answers I had weren’t necessarily the right ones. And so if I started over again I would go in not knowing the answers and just trying to absorb as much as  I could in order to learn what the right answers were.


00:14:09 Thomas: Is there ever a right answer?


00:14:11 Tim: Well there is at a time. And it always changes, it always evolves. So if you look at it in a big picture, maybe there isn’t always a right answer. But if we look at it in a moment, I think there is a right answer.


00:14:38 Thomas: What’s something that you will be willing to share with our audience that you haven’t shared before?


00:14:45 Tim: Oh wow!


00:14:47 Thomas: When it comes to teams, and creating high performing teams.


00:15:04 Tim: Really about building teams, I think the biggest thing that I was always brought up with, it came from my parents, it came from school, it came from my early work experience was that I always believed that the answers came from the top down. And when I first started working as a team, I tried to institute that with my team and it didn’t go over well. And as soon as I started asking my team what their desires were, what their purpose was, what they wanted to achieve, all of a sudden it started to help me understand how we could work together. And an amazing thing happened was they started sharing ideas with me. And when I helped them grow those ideas into action for the organization, I didn’t sit there and take credit for it. I gave them credit for it. And to me that was the biggest thing that I never shared with anybody is just how humbling that experience was. From going from something that I thought that I knew because it was how I was brought up and how I’ve always been told how things work, to really looking within myself to what would I want if I was in their position. And has anybody ever asked me that? And if not, why am I not asking that question to other people?


00:16:25 Thomas: Yeah, beautiful. If you had a corporate team in front of you right now, based upon your experience and the results that you created, what couple of things would you say to them in just a few seconds, like, do this with your team, be this with your team, to have such and such results. What would you love to share because you know it would make them so much more effective as a leader and in creating a high performing team?


00:17:02 Tim: Yeah, I think one big thing Thomas is if you’re only looking at the people in the room, you’re missing a huge opportunity. So never forget to look outside of the people in the room. The people that you interact with, the people that are supplying you with the supply and services. Even your biggest fans who aren’t necessarily your customers, what are they saying? What are their ideas? And if you look outside of your team, all of a sudden you’re going to start seeing amazing things happen inside of your team. I think the other thing to really remember is that everybody on the team is a leader. And if you’re not instilling that in everybody, they’re going to be just a follower. And so really empower them to become a leader. And they don’t have to lead the whole team, they just need to be a leader of themselves. And naturally they will start leading other people. But that starts with you leading your team because you need to instill that in every member of your team, that all of you are leaders. Those to me are two of the quickest, I’m not going to say they are easy, but they are very simple, right? Very simple concepts that any team can institute. It’s going to take work, it’s not necessarily going to be easy, but you can make it happen.


00:18:24 Thomas: Beautiful! We’re moving to a quick fire round and we’re going to put Tim under a little pressure here and see what comes up, what kind of diamonds we get here.


00:19:00 Thomas: Tim, do you have any sort of a special morning routine that you could share which I think keeps you on your best game? Anything special that you do?


00:19:11 Tim: Yeah, No, I change it up every morning. (laughs)


00:19:19 Thomas: That’s a routine!


00:19:20 Tim: I tried all these things because you read all these articles about who does what about what the best leaders do every morning and all of them do different things. I’m like, why am I following what everybody else is doing? Why don’t I just try to experience my own morning and see how it works. I won’t say I’d never done the same thing every morning but it really is not one thing that I do. It kind of changes up every single morning depending on how I feel when I get up out of bed.


00:19:51 Thomas: Would you say variety then? Always changing it up is your morning routine?


00:19:56 Tim: That variety is my routine, yes.


00:19:59 Thomas: Beautiful! That’s great, that’s a big deal.


00:20:12 Thomas: Name your favorite piece of equipment, app or something else that you can’t live without?


00:20:21 Tim: I can not live without my android phone. I have it wherever I go that keeps me connected.


00:20:29 Thomas: What is your favorite resource or book that you would love to recommend?


00:20:34 Tim: This is an easy one right now because it comes from  a partner of mine, Ayelet Baron. It’s called Our Journey to Corporate Sanity and it just came out last fall. And it really talks about 21st century leaderships and gives journeys from about 35 people that have from around the world in different types of industries, different types of companies, both entrepreneurs and big business and really explores how they are living 21st century leadership.


00:21:14 Thomas: Great. And who is someone that you look up to? Or is influential to you?


00:21:21 Tim: Influential to me, there are so many people. I think almost everybody influences me but I think the one person that influenced me the most is a woman who lived in the streets in New York when I was working in New York. And I don’t stay in touch with her because I don’t know where she is now but I think she had more of an influence over me than just about any other single person in this planet.


00:21:46 Thomas: Beautiful. I just want to thank you. I want to honor the time that you just committed today and it’s always great having a conversation with you whether we’re recording it, whether we’re not. There’s always gold that comes out of that. So I want to thank you publicly. And if there’s some of those that interest and get in touch with you, find out more about you, what’s the best way that you can be reached?


00:22:16 Tim: The easiest way for me is if you get me on Twitter which is @TAMcDonald. You can also visit me online on my website TAMcDonald.com and if you want to call me because I still use my phone a lot it’s 312 – 970 – 0846.


00:22:43 Thomas: Thanks so much Tim. I appreciate the time you put in. We’ll hear you next time on The High Performing Team.