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Lessons from my friend Kermit the frog

"It’s just you and me against the world, Kermit.”

Many moons ago, at the age of 17 I drove away from home and Kelowna in my ’74 VW bug. I had a few things with me, including a giant, stuffed Kermit the Frog, and a murky idea about what it would take to be a part of something successful. Fast forward a lot of years, and in a weird life twist, I found myself on set with the Muppets, learning lessons from my green friend. 

Working as part of the team at Walt Disney Company, I became aware of how essential teamwork is. Our crews worked with some of the best people and brands on the planet, but I had never given much thought to the vast difference between being part of a high-performing team and a high-functioning team. In my mind, success equals high performance—with getting things done.

Then came my day with Kermit, my old road trip pal. I was excited and confident we’d see great, creative results from a well-planned day. But the Muppet crew did things differently than I’d ever seen. From the lighting crew to the director, to Miss Piggy’s stylist (yup, that’s a thing), the focus was to support the people (and puppets!)—every action contributed to a highly-collaborative process. What could have been a day filled with big egos was precisely the opposite. Even though there were grand personalities, nobody vied for the spotlight—unless, of course, they were actually in the spotlight—and in that case, everyone else got to work trying to help that particular puppet shine. Of course, there were healthy, robust discussions about how to get certain shots—but all day, despite tight timelines and high-production costs, there were overt displays of appreciation for craft, and efforts to elevate one another. Watching how that creative, collaborative crew worked together forever changed the way I look at teams and behave inside of them.

In our homes, schools and companies, we tend to emphasize high performing vs. high functioning—and when we do, the results can get ugly. Check out a game at a local school. Some coaches can work themselves into rages over their team’s performance or ignore snide or disparaging remarks of players who blast their teammates. Sit at a restaurant and take in how servers talk to one another when it’s busy. Stand in a store and watch how a manager begins speaking to staff when the pressure sets in and the lines get long. When the focus is on performance before people, it gives everyone an excuse to misbehave in the name of getting results. 

Research shows that this kind of behaviour hurts the end product. No matter what kind of team you’re a part of, there are proven ways to get stellar performances out of people. I heard author and former judge Jim Tamm speak about cultivating collaboration at TEDxSantaCruz. He referenced a study where researchers split chickens into two groups: red zone chickens, who were prone to sabotaging one another, and green zone chickens, those who tended to get along. After studying their egg production for a year, the geneticist who ran the study found egg production from the green zone chickens was up 260 percent, while the red zone chicken egg production drastically fell—they’d been pecking each other to death. 

This research could be relevant for families, organizations, and teams—to anyone who has to work together to get something done. Focus on high-functioning, collaborative, supportive environments, and you’re more likely to get high performance and success. This is especially in the Okanagan, where there is a growth mindset, and where we want to cultivate and create memorable experiences with tech, tourism, and everything in between. It is critical we start practicing, teaching, and learning how to be part of high-functioning teams. Teamwork really can make our dreams work.