Say “team-building” and most people immediately think of the annual golf outing or groan and roll their eyes, thinking, “Here we go again, they are going to blindfold me and have my colleagues catch me as I fall backwards.”

The premise is that team-building events drive camaraderie (for example, those golf outings where you essentially talk with the same person in your golf cart the majority of the time) or build trust (because you have to trust your team will catch you when you fall). Sure, you may learn to “trust” someone you work with when they catch you as you fall into their arms, but I believe, more often than not, you aren’t thinking about how much you trust them, but rather about where they are grabbing you during the course of that fall! Awkward!

What is the real essence of teamwork? What is at the core of successful teams? Is it that they “bonded” with one another at the golf course, or “trusted” one another on the free fall? The answer is no. In reality, it is much simpler than that. Having worked with leadership teams all over the world for the past 20 years, I can tell you the answer lies in what we affectionately term, “My Life Story.”

A perfect example happened just last week. I was working with a C-level leader and his team. The organization is undergoing tremendous change, and the team is comprised of both new hires to the company and existing leaders who have been around for a few years. It’s a culture of speed focused on execution. They have some big expectations being asked of them, and all eyes watching. I could be describing so many of your companies with that description, right?

We designed a day to work with this leadership team to get them to better understand how to operate most effectively. We started with “My Life Story.” Sure, there were a few skeptics at first. There were a few nervous giggles as I described what we were going to do. But, as I assured them, everyone has a story.

And everyone did share their story! Our work with leaders proves time and time again that we all have a story to tell, and that certain parts of our life history impact who we are today. It sounds simple enough, but when was the last time your boss or colleague took the time to really get to know you. Allowing other people to gain insight into the reasons why you “are who you are,” goes further towards developing teamwork than any other activity we have ever seen. Ever. Understanding people is at the core of working together more effectively. It’s having that personal connection that builds trust and builds teams.

Here’s another example: Earlier this year the SVP of a $10B services company wanted a team-building event that truly made his team connect on a personal level. Most of them had worked together for years, but tended to operate in silos. There were not obvious problems, but it was clear that the team wasn’t functioning at full capacity. He asked if we could help. Absolutely. We designed a one-day program and incorporated “My Life Story.” It was a roaring success. Most members of this team initially claimed they knew all about one another. They they learned more about each other than they previously thought imaginable and the resulting increase in collaboration was tremendous. Months later, that SVP still claims that day as “pivotal,” saying, “It was an absolute game-changer in terms of how we operate as a team.” The skeptics in the group who initially thought this entire day would be “too touchy-feely” came out as the strongest proponents.

What is “My Life Story” all about? The process goes something like this: each person is given about 5 minutes to talk to the group. The conversation is open. It’s not a question and answer format. Instead, the person is given free rein to tell his or her story. The framework is specifically vague although thought-starters are provided. The reality is that once people start sharing their story, it’s easy to tell and it flows quite easily. People begin to see the patterns of how individuals are shaped by life’s milestones and the decisions they make. It’s always best to start with someone who is going to set the stage for being open and honest, and who has no trouble telling their story. This person will set the tone for all who follow. Guaranteed: no matter how well each person thinks they may know someone else on the team, everyone will learn something new.

Here are some thought-starters for “My Life Story.”

  • Take us chronologically through your life highlighting the key points.
  • Who has made the biggest impact on your life? Why?
  • What are you most proud of?
  • What makes you happy?
  • What aggravates you?
  • What was the most challenging thing you have ever done?

The skeptics are thinking, “OK, now we know a little more about someone, so what?” Actually, the “so what” is huge and has tremendous implications. Colleagues better understand the underlying reasons that often explain the perspectives that shape where their leader and teammates are coming from. In The 17 Essential Qualities of a Team Player, John C. Maxwell said, “To collaborative team members, completing one another is more important than competing with one another.” If you want to build a solid team that works well together, I challenge you to forgo the field trip. Instead, carve out a couple of hours to share life stories so that each member learns how to better “complete” one another.