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My mother often said that before I marry someone, I should embark on an extensive, non-luxurious trip into a developing country with my potential spouse. Her reasoning is that within the challenging moments we would encounter, they will reveal their true nature.

I haven’t found my future wife yet, but I do believe challenging situations allow you to observe a meaningful relationship — especially people you are working with.

I have had a lot of talented teammates on my projects, and I have found that character trumps talent.

Talents are hard to acquire if the person doesn’t have the right values and discipline. You can have a “crazy talented” designer or engineer that can produce a product in record time, but if they don’t embrace empathy, they are unlikely to create something people want to buy. 🙁

I want to highlight what good character is by sharing my appreciations for a former teammate named Douglas Ferguson. I sincerely enjoyed working alongside him and it is because of his character. Hopefully, you can look for these same characteristics in your next business relationship.

Douglas is creative, humble, and curious!
Douglas is creative, humble, and curious!

Douglas and I have worked on a few technology projects, and we both are deeply obsessed with the early stages of a venture. We have led design sprints, conducted innovation workshops, and released a lot of product features together. The start of any venture is challenging and they can fail quickly, so having a foundational team built on good character is vital to successful traction. Douglas and I leaned on each others strengths to best collaborate, and from his strengths he has a few essential traits that I now look for when recruiting teammates.

Douglas discussing customer research with teammates
Douglas discussing customer research with teammates

Douglas embraces continuous improvement.

On a frequent basis, Douglas would ask me what I believed he could do better. After I had given feedback, he took it a step further by involving me in the ideation of methods of approaching those improvements.

Douglas is able to continuously improve because he is aware of his ego and not afraid to admit when it gets in the way.

Self-awareness is a high form of intelligence, and he is not afraid to admit when his ego is getting in the way. We are all guilty of thinking we are perfect, and it is admirable when someone can acknowledge when they need to shut the ego off to make progress.

Douglas in a Design Sprint
Douglas in a Design Sprint

Douglas thinks more about the system than his role.

Douglas has a high enough IQ to regularly be the strongest contributor in the room, and instead of exploiting this to get a lot of credit or dominate the discussion, he spends his mental energy thinking about the entire system and how everyone in the project can be optimized to reach the best product/service. Having a wholistic thinker like Douglas on your team is important to prevent an unhealthy collection of separate agendas.

Douglas and I recording user research with a team
Douglas and I recording user research with a team

Douglas puts in the work and discipline powers his approach.

I trained boxing at 6:30am with Douglas for over a year. He was consistently the first person at the gym and had the highest attendance out of anyone. Many in the class were sore and tired when their alarms sounded, and they would skip a few sessions for more time with their pillow. I am guilty of it myself, but Douglas was always there. Discipline is key because there are many moments in a project that are less enjoyable, and you need teammates you can power through the moments that aren’t so fun.

Sure, Douglas is a talented engineer who can lead a company into rapid feature development, but that isn’t what makes him a great teammate. Coding, running project management software, and rapidly solving problems are hard, technical skills. The excellent characteristics I reference above are what I consider “real skills.” While getting my altMBA, we learned that culture will always defeat strategy, and the characters on your team is what makes up your culture.

I hope in your search for future teammates you spend more time looking at their character rather than the list of technical skills they have. With a teammate like Douglas who has excellent values, any journey you take with them will lead to greatness.